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Expeditions

1. South America
Licancabur

WORLD RECORD IN HIGH ALTITUDE DIVING

After 5 weeks in Chile and Bolivia we returned to Poland as world record holders, and here’s the story…

We set off for Chile on the 8th of February 2009 with the objective to beat the world record in high-altitude diving. Diving in the crater of Licancabur had been my dream for years; the crater holds the highest situated lake on our planet (5916 meters above sea level).

Both the lake and the volcano are enshrouded in mystery and appear in various Indian legends. One tells the story of two young men, Licancabur and Juriques, who fell in love with the same woman, princess Quimal. The princess gave her heart to Juriques, but her father, prince Lascar, arranged for her marriage with Licancabur. On their wedding night, Quimal confessed to Licancabur that she was pregnant. The heartbroken young man told her father, who was so angered that he beheaded Juriques. The tragic story has a happy ending. Each morning, Juriques envelopes Quimal with his shadow. Licancabur’s tears, cried in secret, with time filled up the crater and became a lake. Indians believed that vengeance would come to those who disturb Licancabur. We decided to take the risk… Before braving the crater of Licancabur, we acclimatized by climbing Toco, a volcano situated 5600 meters above sea level, and Licancabur’s legendary rival – the Juriques volcano – 5700 meters above sea level. Juriques’ huge crater really made an impression. From a few miles, the crater’s summit does resemble a beheaded youth, just like in the legend.

We mainly explored the Atacama Desert in Chile and Bolivia, thought to be the world’s driest region. No rain has fallen in certain areas of the desert for over 400 years. This is due to thermal inversion, due to which no rainclouds form over the central region of the Atacama. As there is no humidity, visibility is possible up to 300 km, and the views are breathtaking…

During our expedition we also visited the infamous Valley of the Moon and Death Valley, as well as the highest situated geyser on the planet - El Tatio (4300 meters above sea level).

After a few days of exploring the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, we took off for Bolivia.

We began our excursion to the summit of Licancabur on the 20th of January at 3 AM. As the weather forecast for that day was ideal, we decided to complete our expedition, including the dive, within 24 hours. We packed only the bare necessities, not exceeding 20 kilograms per person. We took our diving and climbing equipment, some water and food. For safety reasons (there are land mines on the Chilean side of the volcano) we set off with a guide. We climbed to the summit in the company of 3 Chileans and a French alpinist. Despite the weight of our gear, we stopped to take a rest only once every two hours. Around noon the Chileans tell us that they’ve had enough and we say goodbye over the radio.

Despite the breathtaking views we seldom have the chance to stop and admire the landscape. We concentrate on the ascent, with eyes on the route. After a grueling effort to maintain the weight of our backpacks on our shoulders, we reach the summit at 2:30 PM, and decide to take the dive right away – which was a challenge in itself. We climb into the crater. A few minutes later we reach the shore of the lake; the view is otherworldly. The lake is approx. 90 by 70 meters long. The volcano’s crater resembles the Coliseum or a football stadium with gigantic seats, where our team members take a breather. Due to the low air pressure (460 hPa), I need a 30 kg ballast to sink a waterproof neoprene wetsuit and composite cylinders. After a few minutes underwater my diving regulator malfunctions, and I have to get out of the water. I quickly grab my spare and submerge once more. The lake in the crater is unlike the reservoirs I’ve seen so far. Its structure is extraordinary. The golden-lemon “sand” is organic – the remains of tiny crustaceans which inhabit the lake. The entire reservoir is littered with rocks – ranging from small fragments to huge rocks weighing over ten tons, with strange shapes. The rocks have been falling from the walls of the crater and plummeting impetuously into the water for millions of years. The very same occurred the day my team members were sitting inside the crater. A rock weighing a few tons rolled into the lake where our guide was resting. Łukasz miraculously managed to pull him out of the way. But it wasn’t the rocks that made the biggest impression on me. The bottom of the lake was swarming with millions of live organisms, about 5 millimeters long. How could these tiny creatures survive and colonize such an inaccessible reservoir, where the radiation was comparable with the radiation on Mars? Comparing the Licancabur volcano with Mars is not coincidental. NASA had conducted research on Licancabur a few years back, testing equipment in the crater and lake which would be later use to explore the Red Planet. NASA scientists had collected and tested water samples, discovering a few previously unknown native life forms. Lake Licancabur is full of life, with thousands of tiny crustaceans swimming in its waters. The bottom of the lake is full of cocoons – a red gelatinous substance stuck to the rocks – perhaps incubators for a new generation of crustaceans. I collected samples of water containing the cocoons, deposits from the bottom of the lake, and live organisms. During the first 40-minute dive I managed to swim around the entire lake a few times, simultaneously establishing a new world record, which up to now belonged to the famous diver and Himalayan mountain climber – who reached two of the highest peaks in the world –  Ricardo Torres Nava. Nava himself broke the world record in 2005 (before held by Bolivians) by diving twice in the lake for 7 and 11 minutes. His remarkable feat was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records – a total of 18 minutes of diving time.

After 40 minutes under water I swim towards the surface and grab my camera. I feel fine and decide to dive to the bottom of the lake for another 25 minutes. Decompression charts do not foresee dives above 3000 meters. My dive – due to an altitude of almost 6000 meters and the time spent under water (over an hour) – can be classified as experimental. I feel very tired after reemerging from the water, but I do not show symptoms of decompression sickness. It is now very late, and if we want to get back to our camp before nightfall we must hurry. It is not easy with our equipment weighing us down. I am the last to climb down the mountain. Łukasz waits for me around an hour 5300 meters above sea level. Lack of movement caused my fingers to freeze to my trekking poles. We change into warmer clothes and continue our descent. It is getting dark and very windy. I am the last to reach our pickup truck, way past 9 PM Bolivian time. We’re all very exhausted and cold; the thermometer is showing -20 degrees Celsius. After 15 hours of a deep sleep in a hostel near Licancabur we leave Bolivia. An unpleasant surprise is waiting for us at the Bolivian-Chilean border. The border police confiscate the rock and deposit samples I collected in the lake. We knew that it was forbidden to bring organic substances into Chile. My explanation that the samples will be used for research purposes fall on deaf ears. News about our success spreads like wildfire in San Pedro. The local people had prepared a feat for us to celebrate the occasion. The next day a group of reporters visits our hotel. Newspapers, radio and TV stations all convey the news that a group of Poles has secured a new world record.

PS. After an online search for the highest situated reservoirs in the world, our initial objective was a reservoir located in Argentina, on the slope of a massive volcano called Ojos del Salado (6390 meters above sea level). Unfortunately, the guides who lead trekking excursions to Ojos del Salado could not tell us where this reservoir is located (or even give us an approximation). According to the author of www.highestlake.com, the lake has a diameter of approx. 100 meters, and so is 25 meters long. We gained access to information that during the summer, puddles form on Ojos del Salado (and shortly disperse), at an altitude of even 6700 meters, but are only 1 meter deep. It would thus be a lie to call submerging in these waters a “dive”.

 

2. Europe
Matscherjochsee

After returning from the Licancabur Expedition, we couldn’t wait to go on another mountain diving excursion, one we planned while still in Chile.

The second of 7 planned events took place in August of 2009, and its goal was to explore the highest situated Alpine lake. Our plans were to dive in 2 of the highest situated lakes in Europe (Matscherjochsee, 3185 meters above sea level, and Schwarzsee, 2800 meters above sea level), as well as in the Verzasca River in Switzerland.

From our trip's journal...

After an all-night drive we arrived in Austria and headed to Solden, a city very popular with skiers and snowboarders during the winter. Our first goal was Lake Schwarzsee (the second highest situated lake in Europe). We set aside two days for the dive in Lake Schwarzsee, during which we explored the entire reservoir. We used a probe to measure the maximum depth (30 meters), and dove down. Visibility wasn’t too great, but the underwater rock walls made an impression on us. We reached the bottom, the view resembled a desert. Were it not for the rock fragments, it would have been just like diving in the lakes in the Mazury region in Poland. After a while we were pleasantly surprised by tout, which were introduced to these waters a few years ago. Most people believe that the water in mountain lakes and streams is clean. Unfortunately, the crystal clear color of the water tells us nothing about its chemical composition. The trout in Lake Schwarzsee have extremely high levels of DDT in their organisms (an insecticide), which hasn’t been used in Europe for at least 25 years. How is it possible that this substance was found in the fish? DDT is still used in Sudan and Egypt to kill locusts. It evaporates from plans and the wind carries it over the Mediterranean all the way to the Alps. It then seeps into streams and mountain lakes along with the rain...

After getting “acclimatized” we drove off to Italy in search of our primary goal – Lake Matscherjochsee. We arrived in Vinschgau in South Tyroll late in the evening, aided by a GPS device. We find out that a route through the Matschertal Valley will be the best course to the lake, and we reach the valley at night and set off for the mountains in the morning.

Equipped with a simple map and a GPS device, and our backs straining under the weight of diving and mountain climbing equipment, we reach the base of the peak we want to climb after a four hour walk through the valley. Here our first problems began. GPS devices showed a different route than our maps, and changed their minds every few minutes, making us seriously disoriented. We formed two groups and climbed the vertical walls, searching for our lake. Late in the evening Łukasz and I reached the summit of Mount Freibrunner (3355 meters above sea level), on the lookout for our lake. According to maps, it was situated between Mount Freibrunner and Mount Rabenkopf  (3393 meters above sea level). That was, in fact, the case – but the lake was on the other side of the mountain. Resigned, we descended, our diving gear weighing us down.

On the second day we left Glieshof early in the morning and hurried to our valley. Like the day before, we divided into two groups, thus increasing our chances of finding the lake. We did not go along the tourist routes. Yeti and Magda select a route towards Mount Rabenkopf (3393 meters above sea level), while Łukasz and I approach Freibruner Spitze. Around 2 PM Yeti informed us over the radio that he has ascended the right peak but cannot see the lake. This could only mean that the reservoir was straight ahead of us, approx. 200 meters above our current location. Exhausted after our grueling ascent, we regain our strength and start climbing once more.

After climbing down the iceberg at about 4 PM, Yeti says goodbye and enters the valley. We agree to finish before 7 PM, in order to safely climb back down. Weighed down like camels we managed to get through the stone blocks and mountain debris. At 7 PM we reached a flat area, and crossed the glacier. We could see the outline of the lake 100 meters away, hidden behind a stone wall. It is late. The sun is nearing the horizon. Dreadfully tired we reach the shore of Lake Matscherjochsee. It’s beautiful. The hutch from the side of the valley is supported by a great geological formation, about 100 meters long. The lake is filled with water from the melting glaciers, which floats into the valley in a few streams. We quickly put on our diving equipment and go under. The water seemed clearer from the surface. We can see only 2 meters ahead of us, and the bottom of the lake is very sludgy. I search for signs of life. The lake resembles a desert.I see grains of sand, gravel and larger rocks, as well as big rock fragments, which I crash into while trying to swim forward. Visibility gets worse as I swim along, I see only 1 meter ahead. I am probably in the lake’s deepest spot. After swimming around the entire croissant-shaped lake (approx. 100 x 40 meters), I swim towards the surface. In the meantime, Łukasz takes pictures of the lake and the region, laughing that he doesn’t mind working in these conditions. No dizziness from the altitude, breathing is normal and no nausea. We quickly pack our equipment and begin walking down, taking a different route than during our climb. In the light of our flashlights we see two red points every now and again as our light reflects in the eyes of mountain goats, sternly observing our descent. It takes us 2 hours to reach the valley, where we meet Yeti, who was about to organize a search party to go looking for us. Cold and hungry we reach Glieshofu. The next day we arrive in Switzerland and the Verzasci Valley, home of a great dam where James Bond took a leap in Golden Eye! There is a bungee jumping platform on the dam, one of the highest in the world (220 meters). We reach Lavertezzo around noon. We dive in the depths of the quaint Verzasca River. While there we come up with a new sport: underwater climbing. We put on our climbing equipment and try to ascend the underwater rocks. It is loads of fun and laughs as the current is pulling us down. The Germans who followed us into the water watch the spectacle with disbelief. We dive in the Verzasca River twice (maximum depth is 12 meters), marveling at the underwater view. Unfortunately, time flows faster than the water and we have to return to Poland.

The excursion was a complete success and the entire team is very happy. We say farewell to Switzerland and South Tyrol. We know that we’ll be back, but we don’t know how soon. There are still so many beautiful places to visit. Our current plans are to continue with the Crown of the Lakes of the World project. Our next designation is the Mexican Lake of the Sun, the highest situated lake in North America.

 

3. North America
Lake of the Sun

Lots of clamor, a heavy and sleepy atmosphere, and smog – these are Mexico’s capital’s distinguishing traits. One must have lots of time and patience while driving through this large metropolitan area. We ran out of both quite quickly, stuck for hours in traffic, on our way to… the only diving center in the entire city, inhabited by 25 million people.

The vastness of the place, its history and architecture are very impressive, but we decided to put off these attractions for later, and concentrated on finding the right street where we ordered our ballasts and cylinders. “Concentrating on finding the right street” would not have deserved mentioning if not for the fact that many streets in the city have the same name (there are over 100 Pancho Villa streets in the town).

Many streets, many people, few divers – those are the words of Alejandro Carrera, a diving instructor and marine biologist, the owner of the Cetus Diving Center, who has monopolized the diving market in the town.

In Mexico, the favorite word is maniana, and we like the word too, but needing to complete our mountain diving expedition in the limited time we had, we couldn’t just put everything off for the next day.

Lack of DIN valves set us back a while, but Alejandro made our wait worthwhile by telling us interesting stories about our main goal – North America’s highest situated lake, the Aztec’s holy Lake of the Sun.

We had heard the legend about the gold Aztec treasure buried on the bottom of the lake and the stories about the archeological research in the Xinantecatl volcano (Nevado de Toluca) and in the Lake of the Sun, located in a crater of a volcano, while still in Poland, but “Alex’s” stories set our imagination into overdrive.

We spent our next day on a visit and reconnaissance of the national park located at the base of the Nevado de Toluca volcano, called Xinantecatl by the Indians.

This gigantic stratovolcano majestically rises 4680 meters above sea level, and its snow-covered slopes contrasted amazingly with the flat green rural fields and the desert-like landscapes of the region, whose Spanish name originates from Toluca, a town located a few kilometers from the volcano.

The scent of pine and the lower temperature put us in high spirits. The views were almost like in the Alps. Despite the high altitude, breathing was not difficult, and the fresh and reviving air gave us strength to carry our heavy equipment.

The crater of Xinantecatl is 1.5 km in diameter. The volcano erupted for the last time approx. 3 thousand years ago, which is why the volcano is considered inactive, and not dormant. This doesn’t change the fact that earthquakes are common in the region. We were informed of this fact by Jerzy Suchocki, a Polish anthropologist and journalist residing in Mexico.

Getting to the lake with our diving equipment required a few-hour walk beneath the volcano’s caldera. The route wasn’t too difficult. We commenced out trek at 4000 meters above sea level. After passing a small glacier we reached the crater’s edge, at last. Below us we could see a majestic view of the Aztec’s holy lake, where the Indians once brought offerings of incense, wicker decorations, ceramics, obsidian tools, and people…

These offerings were given to one of the most powerful deities of Mesoamerica – Tlaloc, the god of rain and lightning.

Today, Tlaloc could have been the patron of divers; he had power over all types of water (rain, rivers, lakes). He was also associated with water-related natural phenomena: water whirls, water depths, lightning storms, as well as sea shells, coral and fish. He is usually depicted wearing a mask with large rings around the eyes, and holding a lightning bolt. We thought he looked like a hunting diver with a tri-arrowed crossbow. His helpers were called Tlalocs, the gods of the rain, his sons and brothers. It was believed that they used four types of pottery – water from one brought rain, from the second brought drought, etc. Thunder was heard whenever the potters cracked.

We heard thunder during the first day of our stay in Tlaloc’s kingdom; we were soon soaked by heavy rain and hail, which dimmed our excitement to go diving. We said farewell to Tlaloc for a few hours and returned in the pouring rain. As we now knew the route and the time it would take to reach the lake, we decided to return the next day at dawn.

The next day was sunny, not even a cloud in the sky – but this doesn’t count for much in this altitude. The weather could change in a matter of minutes. We decide that should hurry. We follow the same route to the peak of the volcano, and enter the crater. The lake looks much smaller from above. Its turquoise water seems navy-grey because of the clouds and wind. We contemplate this natural wonder for a few minutes, and I enter the water, assisted by Krzysiek and Łukasz. The air temperature is approx. 3 degrees Celsius, the water around 8. Dressed in a Waterproof wetsuit I dive into the Lake of the Sun. The water appeared to be clearer from above, I can see only 10 meters ahead of me at 5 meters below the lake’s surface, and about 2-3 meters when I reach 17 meters. I can barely see where I’m swimming. The underwater landscape resembles that of Masurian lakes, except for the small rock fragments. I see a trout every once in a while. It’s getting darker. The grey sludgy bottom of the lake is overwhelming; it’s not what I was expecting. But that’s what high altitude lakes are like.

My thoughts are on the Indian legends, and the human sacrifices to Tlaloc and the archeological information I read before the expedition. Tlaloc’s wooden scepter was discovered in these waters a few years ago, over 120 cm long, and many ceramic and obsidian artifacts, which I read about in a book published by the Department of Archeology of the National Underwater Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico. I try to examine everything that isn’t sludge, but all I find is some rocks. It seems that today is not the day I find the gold treasure hidden by the Aztecs. I head back, swimming “in neutral”. After a few meters I spot something brownish-orange. My heart starts to beat faster. I dig up my finding, which turns out to be pottery. I try to carefully clean it. Even in the dim light, I can see that there are drawings on it. The pot is 30 cm long, white and green dots decorate its center and its lid. Unfortunately, there is a crack in it. I turn it around, carefully not to flaw its fragile construction. I couldn’t have been happier if I found a pot full of Aztec gold, although it’s just a pot made of clay with a crack in it. My “Tlalocu dream” has just come true, I feel like I had found the mythical beaker the Aztec gods used to pour lifesaving rain over the parched desert. I take photos of my finding and mark its coordinates. Mexican archeologists will inspect it. Thieves have been trying to steal the pre-Columbus artifacts for years.

Getting out of the water, I feel like Indiana Jones who had found the Ark of the Covenant. Back then I did not know that my “treasure” would get me involved in some business at first glance not related with Tlaloc. Mexican experts who analyzed my photos of the pot estimated that my find was approx. 200 years old – based on the patterns on it. It turned out that my rare finding was used by voodoo practitioners…

Why did they need it and why did it end up in Tlaloc’s lake? Voodoo is a unique “melting pot” of religions, and incorporates African gods, Christian beliefs as well as Indian beliefs. Voodoo practitioners have been using the Xinatecatl volcano, home of Tlaloc, the god of rain and lighting, for their own purposes. Tlaloc has a voodoo counterpart – Ogun – the Nigerian god of lightning.

Most of us associate voodoo with American films and little dolls pierced with pins by shamans. But there is an older form of casting good or bad spells; casting a spell by sinking a pot filled with herbs, sulfur and honey in a water reservoir.

Our new Mexican friends assured me that voodoo is not only about curses; there are also healing spells, and the pot was probably used during a healing ritual. But even if that wasn’t the case, the person who found the pot is safe, as the curse is assigned to an individual person.

Calmer about our futures we decided to head south in the direction of another volcanic lake, home to an extremely rare species. It is estimated that the animal’s population does not exceed… 500.

 

4. Asia
Ridonglabo

In September of 2011 we planning to fly to the Himalayas. Our main goal is the highest situated lake in Asia – Lake Ridonglabo, located 5801 meters above sea level, and an attempt to break the world record in high altitude diving. The current world record for 5000 meters is held by a Polish team, which beat the Russian record in 2007 in Lake Tilicho (4930 m) by diving 30 meters, which was officially recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.

We are planning to beat this record by diving even deeper in an even higher reservoir, located right under Mount Everest. For dessert, we’re planning to climb Mount Lhagba Ri (7040 m). Keep your fingers crossed!

 

OUR
PLANS

Planned expeditions

Celem projektu jest wspinaczka i przeprowadzenie serii nurkowań w najwyżej położonych jeziorach na naszej planecie na każdym z siedmiu kontynentów.

 

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