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Harvard in Peru III

J. Donald Fernie

Tackling El Misti

Bailey's greatest interest, though, was much nearer Arequipa itself. The most notable sight for a newcomer was beautiful snow-capped El Misti, a dormant 5,800-meter volcano only 19 kilometers beyond the town. Bailey must have realized that putting a manned observatory at that altitude was impractical, but the weather data would be useful, and there were always the lower slopes.

Figure 1. El Misti looms . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Just climbing El Misti was a major undertaking. It had been climbed at least as early as 1784, when a party of priests had succeeded in erecting an iron cross on the peak, but others had died in the effort. Conditions could be extreme. One party of climbers, Bailey reported, had "arrived at the summit during a frightful tempest, with terrific thunder and lightning.... The bodies of those present were electrified, so that when they lifted their hands, they could hear the discharge of the electricity from the tips of their fingers." Another pair had climbed at temperatures near –24 degrees Celsius, their hands lacerated and bloody from the ice and lava rock.

Bailey himself had set out to climb El Misti during his earlier stay in Arequipa, but mountain sickness had left him unconscious just below the 5,000-meter level, and it had been necessary for his companions to carry him down. He writes that

the forms in which this malady manifests itself are oppression of the lungs and difficulty in breathing, more or less violent headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and faintness, sometimes reaching entire unconsciousness, nervousness, sometimes tending to delirium, and rarely hemorrhage from the nose, eyes, and ears.

Pulse rates, he found, typically went from the normal 70 per minute to well over 100, even after a good rest.

However, Bailey had also made two significant observations: first that mountain sickness became much more pronounced when the victim was nearing exhaustion from the climb itself, and second that mules seemed less affected by altitude than humans. He thus concluded that if a rough path could be cleared to some point well up on the mountain, it might be possible to ride mules to that point and then set off in fresh condition to tackle the remaining portion on foot. The local people scoffed at the idea, but Bailey had such a path constructed and found he could take mules to the 5,600-meter level—the highest level to which mules had ever been taken, so far as he knew. Even so, the remaining 200 meters were not easy.

Panting for breath, stopping to rest at every three or four steps, often struggling on hands and knees, we kept on, hardly believing there could come an end, when, suddenly, we were there. There was no introduction; we did not come to the crater; the crater came to us. The whole view was spread out before us in an instant as if a curtain had been drawn. All things conspired to produce surroundings which few have seen and none described. The great altitude, the enormous craters, the sulphurous vapors, the drifting clouds, the deep shadows cast by the setting sun, the inexplicable but deep depression of spirits caused by exhaustion and illness, combined to produce the profoundest sense of awe.

It had taken the expedition eight days to get there.

So Bailey in due course had his meteorological station atop El Misti—the highest such station in the world, he noted with satisfaction. Even so, the weather records had to be collected and the instruments reset every week or so, and it turned out there was only one person on Bailey's staff who could do this regularly without suffering the dreaded mountain sickness. Still, writing to Pickering in October 1893, Bailey expressed satisfaction and looked forward "to the time when scientists will regularly ascend to great heights for meteorological study, by means of captive balloons or flying machines."

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