Published: July 11, 2022

In December 2021, a trio of CU scientists in a convoy of 4WD trucks sought to discover how life persists on Argentina and Chile’s Ojos del Salado, the world’s highest volcano and home to some of the planet’s driest areas. The team — Brian Hynek, geological sciences professor and LASP research associate, and graduate students Adam Solon (EBio’16; PhD’23) and Amanda Steckel (MAeroEngr’15; PhDGeol’24) — were the first researchers to explore and study some of the highest points on the Argentinian side of the mountain. Their work may inform future research into life beyond Earth, such as on Mars or on one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. 

Ojos del Salado

22,615 feet: height of Ojos del Salado 

3 CU researchers

3 CU team members in the field collecting 40 microbial and 15 mineral samples, plus light measurements

backpackers on a mountainside

The team’s backpacks weighed about 50 pounds


Team’s base camp was at 19,000 feet and research was conducted at 21,000 feet. Other camps were located at approximately 13,000 feet, 17,000 feet and 18,200 feet

field near Ojos del Salado

Highest recorded trip temperature 127.67 degrees F at  ~1 p.m. on Dec. 6 

area near Ojos del Salado

Lowest recorded trip temperature 1.7 degrees F at ~1 a.m. on Dec. 12


Animals spotted on the trip: vicuñas (pictured), flamingos and condors 


The spiky snow formations called penitentes the team studied are typically 5-7 feet tall and are commonly found in dry environments above 13,000 feet

researchers in penitentes

3-week-long study during the southern hemisphere’s summer 

research truck in Ojos del Salado

4 trucks used for transportation, including a former African safari truck

Photos by Brain Hynek, Amanda Steckel and Christian Vitry