I (Try To) Measure Mountains

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

This is the “who am I, what am I doing, and where am I doing it” post. I’ll attack it sequentially. Firstly, I’m a rising junior in Branford who enjoys studying public policy. But that doesn’t mean I’m without “avocational academic interests.” In fact, this summer is all about avocational academic interests — specifically, a field of geophysics called geodesy (study of measurement of the earth), and more specifically, a field of geodesy called hypsometry (study of altitude).

In general, hypsometry is an antiquated field of study, if one can even call it a field of study in the first place. Remote sensing has done to altitude-measuring mountaineering expeditions what video did to the radio star. But there are exceptions here and there. Mountains that indicate tectonic change, for instance, are of particular interest to geologists, and mountains that represent superlatives, such as Everest, capture the public’s attention. Both require a degree of precision that remote sensing cannot offer.

The summer project that brings me to South America falls more into the latter category; I am working with a mountain of superlatives. Ojos del Salado is the second highest mountain in the world outside the Central Asia cordillera and the highest volcano in the world. It is also in an extremely remote region of the world — the northern Argentine-Chilean border — and has been climbed by very few people and been measured by even fewer. I am in South America to try to measure it.

There is a primary and secondary goal. Primary: Ojos del Salado has two summits of approximately equal altitude and no one knows which is taller. So, using rather precise GPS units (precision<1 cm) that are worth about as much as I am, myself and my climbing partner will try to get to the top of both of Ojos’ summits and record data that can definitively determine the “true”summit.

Secondary: Using altitude data from Ojos’ “true” summit, we’ll compare and corroborate it with data from Aconcagua and Monte Pissis, ostensibly the highest and third highest mountains on the continent, respectively. Through the twentieth century and up until the advent of the GPS, there was a protracted kerfuffle among mountaineers and geodesists concerning the order of the three highest peaks of South America. While that debate has effectively been settled (the accepted order, from first to third, is Aconcagua, Ojos del Salado, and Monte Pissis) it doesn’t hurt to throw additional data of nearly incontrovertible quality at the matter.

Obviously, though, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with this whole endeavor (for one, the weather’s awful — it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere). And in fact, something already has gone quite wrong: a major bureaucratic obstacle from the Argentine Federal Police that has set everything back four weeks. So if you see my posts from locations that are not northwestern Argentina, it’s because I’m piddling around, killing time, and visiting friends before getting back to work. Fortunately, there are worse parts of the world to be “stuck” in!


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Filed under environment, geography, Latin America, Overseas Bureau

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