Critters:

Excerpts from Mark Siddall's diary of the AMNH/CBF expedition in October and November 1999. The photos on this page are links to bigger versions.


Date: October 13
Location: Hostal Republica, La Paz
Altitude: 3400 meters
8:00 am

Wow! Altitude really sucks. The plane landed in La Paz yesterday morning which itself is a feat. You can't just fly straight down to the runway from over the mountain hump. In the thin air the plane would drop like a stone. So, instead, the pilot has to corkscrew down to one of the longest runways in the world. From the window seat I could see the Altiplano laid out below. It's a barren place. Dotted with mudbrick dwellings amidst rocky terrain carved into parcels for growing tubers. When the plane landed and depressurized I was instantly dizzy and remained lightheaded for the next 3 hours or so. A heavy drunken feeling.
La Paz is a study in opposites. In most cities the rich and powerful live in the heights overlooking (and overlording) the plebes below. Here, the very poor live on the Alto and the city extends downslope through a sprawling and fairly steep valley. The commercial district, where our hotel is, rests about one third the way down. Cota cota, where the rich live and the museum is situated is right at the bottom, about 1000 m from the Alto where there is considerably more oxygen and where it is many degrees warmer.
We hit the market in the evening and put in our order for the expedition with Doña Sylvia. A portly woman who seems to be able to pack just about anything and everything (including herself) into a vending cubicle in the market that is no more than 6 feet deep, 5 feet wide and 12 feet high. One of the staples around here is chuños. Potatoes that are manually dehydrated (well pedially really) by the Aymara women as winter approaches by stomping on them to drive the water out. They do this barefoot for a few days until the dry Altiplano air has extracted all of the moisture. They end up being about one third of a potato's original size, purple to black. Tunto's, also dehydrated potatoes, are white. Today we are off to a breakfast of Salteñas. Among our rations for the coming expedition are quinua, api, mate, vainita, locotos, and papaliza.


Date: October 14th, 1999
Location: Hostal Republica
Altitude: Still about 3500 m


Today Susan, Marie, Mauricio (from Santa Cruz) and I wandered around la Paz, this time in the Mercado Uruguay. No one seems to know why this huge sprawling market (about the size of Manhattan's Upper West Side) is named after a different country. The streets are lined mostly with Aymara hawking everything from empanadas to hubcaps. You can buy anything there which is why we did our last-minute supply gathering in the market. I personally needed a few things like a pound of coca, and a replacement toothbrush. Had a hell of a time finding something to waterproof my boots with. No one had silicone or a good hard wax. I settled on crassa de caballo (horse fat). Should work as good as anything else and maybe better. The last items of note were fetishes made from terra cotta. There are five of them, a frog for good health, a turtle for long life, a sun for good luck, a snake to ward off the evil mountain spirits and a human couple entwined... for, ah... well, I guess to prevent cold nights. We'll see. The woman who sold them to me made them extra powerful by wrapping each in brilliantly dyed multicolored llama wool. I am in the hostal cafe writing this in full anticipation of the morning 8.00 am departure for Pelechuco.

Date: October 16, 1999
Location: Pelechuco
Altitude: 3430 m

The road along the Alto from La Paz was mostly paved or at least graded as it took us basically westward around the top edge of Lake Titicaca, the huge lake way up here in the Andes that indigenous peoples have been plying with reed boats for a thousand years. As we turned north though, things changed considerably and most of the road became kidney-challenging. We stopped for lunch in a hailstorm. Bread, cheese, tomatoes, locotos (very very hot red peppers) and beer. We arrived at the edge of Park Ulla Ulla in the snow and stopped to watch the once rare Vacuñas off in the distance. This park was created in order to protect this camelid which had dwindled in number to about 900 animals. Its skin and fur have been highly prized since pre-Columbian times. Taking of a Vacuña by other than the Incan nobility was punishible by death. Since the creation of the protection zone in the park, this punishment has been turned on its head. Less than a month ago a park guard was shot dead while trying to stop poachers.
7.00 pm
Today was a nice lazy Latin-American day sitting by the Plaza. The kids here are totally fascinated with my long blond hair. Several times I was surrounded in ever growing numbers. "Que es tu nombre?" I was invariably asked, to which I managed to Spanishize a "Marco" in return. One boy, formerly known as Pasquale, opted to take my name as his own. A few of us walked around the town and down over the bridge. It's clear that this town was quite beautiful before plastic was invented. Tossing waste in the Rio Pelechuco when it was just bones and vegetable matter wouldn't have mattered but it certainly does now.
The place is built on top of pre-Columbian ruins and is nestled between mountains, all of which show terracing either from current or past agriculture (or, as Chris insists, from drunken llamas). We hiked up one of these hill sides thick with Polylepis. This is a tree that looks faintly like a cedar but is actually a kind of rose, and which used to densely populate the Altiplano before the locals hacked them all down for fire wood.



Date: October 17th, 1999
Location: Valle Llamaca
Altitude: 4470 m
3.30 pm

Just crossed Paso Sachez (4760 m). The altitude really was gruelling. Ten steps forward, ten deep breaths and a rest. Over and over. I couldn't fill my lungs enough. I climbed out of a grassy terrain into a moon scape of black and grey slate made only the more bleak by the snow flying in our faces as we struggled to press every step forward. I had to reorganize my gear from the bandoleer, over-the-shoulder-and-chest arrangement, to just hanging off the shoulders. Any pressure on my rib cage, however slight, even from a camera strap, was enough to cause a measurable limitation on intake-volume and a not too distant sense of suffocation. Soon it didn't matter for the sense of suffocation was close enough at hand. I plowed another wad of coca in my mouth... would the ascent never end? The gasping and heaving was expending more energy than the walking. Intercostal and diaphragm muscles crying in agony. Forcing myself to breathe more than my body was telling me to. But finally we did crest the top that day and out onto a remarkably flat pass that opened into a slate stone plain... magical as the snow drifted gently down around us. Two absolutely still and turquoise lakes came into view through the filtering snow. Two little gems atop that stark rock we were cresting. We were spending too long up there marveling at the view and the occasional alpaca wondering what these strange bipeds were. The signs were showing. My fingers started tingling even though they were not cold. Then I started noticing brief but sharp daggers ripping into various parts of my right leg.
On the way up to the summit we placed stones upright on the cliff face for good luck. At the very top we constructed a totem from flat rocks. We are sitting under a mountain wall waiting for the others to catch up. It's snowing. It's beautiful too. Not much time to write. Might not make it to the camp.
They've all just arrived and we have to move out soon.


Date: October 18th, 1999
Location: Quearra
Altitude: 3460 m
8.18 am

We all fell asleep en masse in the old hacienda school house in Quearra. With bats flitting in and out through the pane-less windows all night - slept fitfully but comfortably.


6:30 pm
Location: Uyuni ruins.
Altitude: 3840 m

Just finished dinner - soup - which was appropriate given our afternoon hike through the dense clouds and rain. We arrived here at about 3.45 pm. The ridge we followed from lunch until our tardy arrival here was beautifully mystic. I could only see about five or ten meters, and though I rationally knew that I was somehow connected to the world below by slopes and cliffs and river gullies, I only had to close my eyes and open them again in the enveloping cloud to believe that, in fact, I was walking on a mossy platform suspended high in the air. It was spectacular. Reality set in only when a herd of cattle followed us for about a half an hour (surprising enough to find cattle at the top of a mountain). We arrived here in a cold, hard rain and had to sit it out in an stone enclosure on this mountainside. Mauricio's 'camba' prejudices towards the 'kolla' must be softening considerably. He's opted to crash on the hay with our Quechua guides and cooks rather than set up his tent.


Date: October 20
Location: Tojoloque
Altitude: 3600 m
8:42 pm

It seems that there are many ways to get from Pelechuco to Tojoloque (toe-hoe-loe-kay). The one we took typically is a two day hike. We took two and half. Another way would be to go down the Rio Pelechuco valley and then come straight up this one to Tojoloque. That route apparently would take only six or seven hours. Well, sure, if you don't mind scaling a cliff or two. The third is to basically go as the condor flies: eight hours straight up and over, up and over, through Pusu Punku, Pasto Grande and Sieta Lagunas. Impossible for pack animals and probably damned treacherous for hominids.

We stopped just shy of the pass to Tojoloque. I was itching to tackle the climb even with the strain on my lungs and the burning, tearing sensations in my calves. But Don Renaldo insisted we get some food in us before going any further. Only [sic] 4,300 meters, not 4,800. After waiting for all to catch up, and a few cookies, up we went. Though not as high, the climb was considerably steeper. I took the last two switchbacks in one, nearly blowing my aorta with the pounding of my heart, reached the crest, danced and little dance and collapsed, heaving, to the ground. I felt terrific! We stood at the crest of the pass looking down into the steep valley below for a while. It was a fantastic thing to finally be on the last downhill stretch to the base camp.
As we collectively contemplated how small we were relative to the peaks around us, the valley below began to breathe. A cloud rolled towards us from around a bend in the valley far below. It steadily filled the crevices and molded around outcroppings as it flowed like milk up the chasm before us. Hypnotically, this grey shroud came to a halt where we stood, and as if disliking what it tasted in us, withdrew a little just as gracefully as it had arrived. But in moments the cloud was pulsing back toward the growing numbers standing on top of this pass. Clearly where we were headed was the realm of these mountain spirits masquerading as clouds and mist, and we merely infidel who dared to penetrate its depths. I felt for the snake fetish on my camera bag.


Date: October 20, 1999
Location: Tojoloque
Altitude: 3600 m
8:42 pm

We arrived in camp amidst a herd of cattle happily grazing over our intended tent sites. The presence of the cows was not unwelcome. It just makes clearing space messy work. As we busied ourselves unpacking and setting up, our guides dug that hole which would service us all for the coming six days. An impressive little rest room with a hell of a view facing down the valley and out over the distant mountains. May as well have good perspective on the world as things pass. They enclosed the three other sides with bamboo poles woven together with grasses until it looked worthy of Gilligan himself.
Temperature and weather fluctuate wildly up here. Mornings are chilled but clear, as the sun, rising up from the low end of the valley burns off any residual cloud that did not dissipate in the night. By 7:00 am the sun is warm and intense enough through the thin atmosphere to scorch exposed skin. Many of us already are peeling in spite of SPF 25, waterproof, sweatproof sunblock. My nose is falling off for example.
As everyone turned over and tossed away rocks in order to clear a place to pitch a tent, I was provided with my first collections from this place. So much so that I simply wandered around with my coffee mug substituting for still-packed field gear and came away with a few dozen. The Quechua guides and cooks grinned with a little suspicion and a fair bit of laughter at the thought of this gringo being so taken with a bunch of worms. I thanked them for their contributions and tried to get set up before the afternoon rains.
The nights are too cold and damp from the afternoon rains to permit much leisure. Generally we are too consumed either with eating or with preparing our day's catch. Rows of young scientists, each with headlamps fixed and pointing a yellow beam down at trays precariously balanced on laps. For me this time is filled with relaxing and fixing worms (no leeches yet). Others are deftly working flesh and feathers away from viscera and bone, replacing these with packed cotton to yield a life-like well-preserved 'skin'. The flows of blood that ooze from a dead bird must be sopped up to prevent matting of the downy under-feathers and to prevent rotting later on. Way up North the trick is accomplished with cornmeal. Here they use chuño flour and Chris says it's finer and better suited to the task.


Date: October 22
Location: Tojoloque
Altitude: 3620 m
6.30 am

Yes, I know that two days ago this place was 20 meters lower. It's not my fault. Altimeters are not based on bouncing signals from satellites or on Loran positioning systems, but rather on air pressure. If a low pressure system moves over the area (amply evident by last night's torrential rains) my instrument is tricked into believing that the altitude has changed.
Things have been pretty busy here since our arrival. Everyone is pulling their weight well and the camaraderie is great. James is a riot too, and we're getting along just fine.
This valley system can basically be subdivided into four sections. The base camp, Tojoloque, is in the third, or second-lowest which spans the altitudes of 3500 m to about 3650 m above sea level (at least according to my altimeter, and we know how accurate that is; what was 3620 m this morning became 3590 m at lunch and is now up to 3630 m). The whole of the right bank of the river, which provides a continuous roar just below my tent, is a steep pasture land laying upwards to the south. On the North side is a cloud forest. Incredibly lush with mosses and fungi, ferns and orchids, this place is sopping wet even on the driest mornings. The lauracea and other trees that form a sort of skeleton upon which all of this hangs itself do loosely do not extend all of the way up the valley. Higher up above the camp the next plateau (3700m to 3750 m) has a gentle incline from the base of a stunning cataract down to the ridge just above our heads. This plateau has a single pond fed by mountain run-off that is separate from the main river. The rest of the plateau consists of bofedales, a kind of bog except that the vegetation grows in closely packed knobs rising out of the black mud. The knobs are topped with a mixture of a low-lying star-shaped plant, minuscule flowers of white, pale blue or pink, and tufts of grass.
The upper plateau has as its lowest point, the top of the cataract which itself rises an impressive 100 meters above the bofedales. Other than now familiar burned out pasture, there are two unusual ponds. Unusual in the sense that they are no bigger than small swimming pools and not too much deeper than my knees and yet seem to be permanent bodies despite having no inlets or outlets for water flow. No doubt these tiny oases are maintained by the daily clouds and rains. No doubt too, the well known effects of global warming and climate changes caused by our thirst for fossil fuels and sport utility vehicles has numbered their days. If the rains lose their frequency, these pools will slowly dry out and all that is in them will perish.
Surely, I thought, these two little ponds would only harbor vegetation and the larvae of flying insects lucky enough to find a place so high to leave their eggs. I began my habit as a leech biologist of turning over rocks. To my amazement I saw scattered over these previously private surfaces dozens of tiny iridescent garnet colored globes. These sphereid clams, each about the size of a mustard seed, caught the last rays of the sun before the mists completely enshrouded us. Amphipods, which under a microscope look like invaders from another planet , were plentiful but soon I was seeing pretty much the same thing under each rock. Mostly too many lumbering black flatworms.
Every systematist has one or more group of organisms that they specialize on. It might be lions, or it might be wasps, but whatever it is there develops over time a gestalt to finding that lion resting in the grass or to seeing that wasp nest from a quarter mile away high up in a tree. It is a reflex born of a thousand hours trying to find our critters of interest amidst a symphony of life. We call this a search image, and in a flash, mine kicked in. A rush came over me after a fruitless two days and my brain joyfully yelled "Leech!" My first leech of the expedition! This leech, this beautiful worm at once surprised me for being at the highest point of the transect, not at the low altitude where I expected it, and also calmed me. It was a validation of all of the preparation, the hard hike here, the suffocating altitudes, the rain, the cold, the burning sun as well as my aching joints and muscles. This was what I had come here for. Of course, this also made it an incredibly expensive leech.
9:05 pm
Just finished dinner and am lying in my tent, just me and my thoughts. It rained all day after having been a torrent all night. Not the regular afternoon mist and showers but bona fide rain. The whole day I was working in the middle of a cloud that didn't seem to want to move. So, I figured, a perfect day to hit the cloud forest where it's wet all the time anyway. Besides, yesterday had turned out well. The pond below the cataract had a few leeches too. Might be a Haementeria but it's hard to tell. The eyes look funny.
At about 9:00 am this morning I tagged along with the Bird Boyz (Chris, Mauricio and Manuel), Havier, two park guards and two of our guides armed with machetes for hacking through the bamboo. At the confluence of the two rivers below base camp we had to cross over. However, the heavy rains had so swollen its depth that the stepping rocks laid down to get across now were a good foot below the running water. Havier and I lifted a heavy log over to the other bank, and then a second to brace ourselves. It was pretty clear that this was not the best of plans after Havier slipped and fell in trying to get over. Of course, none of us thought to look a mere 5 meters upstream where it was actually pretty easy to hop from shore to boulder to far shore. Poor Havier had soaked himself for nothing. Soon enough we were deep into the forest. The sweet musty scent of peat filled the water-soaked air. There was no sound save that of the occasional branch brought under foot, or the ring of a machete blade on a stalk of bamboo up ahead of us. About a hundred and fifty meters up through this lush growth it became obvious why the forest had been left alone and allowed to grow wild. The next fifty meters held a near vertical climb straight up through the overhanging mosses. Vertical climbs are tough enough with rocks to hang on to. In the cloud forest we had to pull ourselves up, burdened with gear, grasping only water-soaked plants, peat and the odd root. But the climb was beautiful nonetheless.


Date: October 25, 1999
Location: Tojoloque, in my tent awake 45 minutes earlier than necessary.
Altitude: A lot lower than it'll be in a few hours
4:48 am

Don Renaldo and I alone are off to Sieta Lagunas today. A four hike to the site, he says, a few hours of sampling, and another four hours back. It will be a long day and my last here. The next day we hike out. It was the two mugs of Tody before bed that got me up a few moments ago. There are few things less appealing than having to leave a nice warm sleeping bag and have to head out into the cold darkness because of some overwhelming bodily function. As I stood outside facing north at the edge of the small cliff next to my tent, high up on my left the full moon had already ducked behind a high peak and cast an incandescent glow like a magnesium fire burning beyond the mountain tops. Its light cast shadows distorting shapes more familiar by day and lit up the South ridge I will climb in an hour. I'm going to only take the bare minimum with me so as to not slow our pace. I'll wear a medium weight top as a compromise between too hot and too cold. Gore Tex jacket, lightweight rain pants, a pair of light gloves. That should do for me personally. As for gear, one tube per lake, or maybe wirl packs because they're lighter and less bulky, the other GPS which I'll try not to lose, altimeter and a note book. Better yet, just a few sheets from it.
5:13 pm
My legs are in incredible pain, especially my knees. But I am fantastically happy with the day. Don Renaldo and I returned from Konchas Cocha (Sieta Lagunas) with dozens of leeches.
We reached the high Incan Camino at about 3950 meters where Don Renaldo turned and seemed pleased that I was still with him. With some satisfaction I crumpled to the ground. "Dos minutos, por favor," I implored. "Talves cinqo," he laughed. Yes, I thought, five would be lovely.
Along the Incan trail, which has a more gradual incline, suddenly Don Renaldo stopped in his tracks, crouched and motioned for me to do the same. Ahead were about a dozen Viscacha. Small mammals that look a bit like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel. They'd heard us and bounded their way beyond the next ridge.
We were nearing the pass and my pace was slowing steadily. I checked my watch. Ahead of schedule - good. One last push, my heart pounding so fast I could feel it against my sternum. Having never before been terribly aware of my sternum this was quite something. Just as I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my skull or blood would spurt from my ears we arrived at the pass. What a fantastic sight. The pass itself was no more than a knife edge positioned between two rocky peaks. The summits of these too couldn't have been more than another 15 or 20 meters. Down the other side, maybe 300 meters below lay seven extraordinary blue and green lakes of varying sizes scattered across a plateau, each of them shining back at me, beckoning me in the still low morning light. We descended to the lakes below.
Scientists are a funny lot. We usually think practically and linearly. It's how we're trained. We also tend to think suspiciously and agnostically. But, if pressed, almost any biologist will tell you that every once in a while you play your hunches, your gut, and it usually comes out right. I have no idea why, but I decided to turn to my right as we passed the channel and picked up a rock in the middle of the stream. There was nothing notable about this rock. I couldn't even see it well below the surface. When I turned it over, there hunched over and mildly annoyed was a beautiful brown-speckled golden leech. I smiled and called for Don Renaldo. We must have turned over every rock in a five meter swath without finding another leech in the stream. Just the one, on that one rock. The first one I'd picked up.
On the shore of the big lake (do any of these lakes have names?) where the channel opened up the ground was mostly mud. Leeches don't usually like mud, preferring clear water and nice sandy bottoms. I wasn't going to waste any more time so I continued around the edge to a spot with plenty of large rocks and boulders of various sizes. After working this shore for about twenty minutes we must have had about twenty leeches, some with eggs attached and possibly two species. Finally. By the time the clouds began to roll in and thicken around us I had more than ten times as many leeches as had been collected in the previous 5 days. But the haze was threatening to cut off our escape. Don Renaldo was eyeing the greying air nervously. That made me nervous. I'm not sure if anyone treks through this area without a local guide. If so they get no sympathy from me. It was still before noon when we had to bug out of the valley - Don Renaldo was insistent and I wasn't going to argue. Fifteen minutes later, moving back up towards the pass, were it not for Don Renaldo's knowledge of what seemed like every boulder, ridge and gully I'd have just plopped myself down for want of any sense of direction. Visibility was about 5 feet at best, but we made it back to the pass and out of the clouds without incident.


Date: October 28, 1999
Location: Pelechuco
Altitude: don't know, don't care, lower than the pass yesterday
12:27

If I could remain in this state of being I would. I have fantasized about retiring to the Sea of Cortez, living out my life collecting critters on the sea shore in some bizarre Steinbeckian dreamscape. I've never been to the Sea of Cortez. Maybe I'll just come here and wander through these mountains finding critters with no names and none to give them any more. Maybe I'll come back and still be fascinated with how the huge stones supporting roads high up in the sky among emerald pastures and lush cloud forests were set down and held fast a millennium ago by nameless unknown persons as much flotsam on the waves of time as I am content to be now.