Mountain Majesty

So many among our faculty are such excellent storytellers. If not for their pesky day jobs, they could make a fine living as writers. I like to think this blog helps fulfill a dual purpose, enabling them to dabble in trivial pursuits if not possible second careers while bringing what I consider to be valuable behind-the-scenes perspective on any number of interesting subjects.

When it comes to astronomy, particularly anything happening in Chile, I’ve learned from pleasant experience to go straight to Nick Suntzeff. Nine times out of 10, he was either involved and/or present and, true to 3-sigma-level result verification form, he always has a good story.

The following is one that recaps his professional and personal history with Cerro Pachón, previously seen on this blog in his photographs taken on location in Chile. He originally posted said story on his Facebook page on Monday (April 13) and has agreed to let me cross-promote it here for the benefit of a broader audience.

Such a rich culture treasure! The mountain and its backstory’s not half bad, either.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

“Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Cerro Pachón was the mountain I studied for future observatories as part of my job as staff astronomer at CTIO [Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile]. We had to haul the equipment up by mule and establish a small observatory to measure the site quality — seeing, laminar layers, wind speeds, temperature measurements. It now hosts the Gemini 8-meter telescope, the SOAR 4-meter telescope, and starting tomorrow [April 14] with the inauguration ceremonies, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will be a revolutionary 6-meter telescope that will digitize the sky every three nights.

Artist's rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).

Artist’s rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).


“The mountain is spectacular, as you can see in the video. We could camp on top of the mountain easily because for some reason, there is a year-round spring that runs about 100 feet below the summit.


“The spring is there, I was told by the geologists who did the boring, because of the tremendous hydrostatic pressure from the Andes and the South American trench. They were very surprised, though, that the spring was year-round. Someone was going to do a careful chemical analysis of the water to see where it was coming from, but I don’t know if they ever did this.

“John Irwin did the detailed site surveys in the 1960s and early ’70s, and he helped me understand the mountains there. You can still see the cement pad he put on Pachón between Gemini and LSST, partially buried in rock. It is just on the other side of the road from the spring. … He hated Pachón because he did the survey there during a cold part of the year, and the wind is horrendous on Pachón (which also makes the seeing better than on Tololo). He couldn’t wait to finish the work on Pachón and go someplace more hospitable.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.


“The broader site is called Cerro Peñon, which means ‘rocky peak’ in Spanish. Pachón means something like ‘skirt,’ according to an Aymará woman from the north of Chile. It also means ‘hairy’ or ‘lazy’ in Chilean slang. I was told that many peaks are called Pachón because the rockfall from the cliffs forms a base and the cliffs, made of columnar andesite, look like the pleated skirts worn by the women of the high Andes.

“Being on a mountain, alone at the telescope, is a magical experience. The sky is like nowhere else. So many stars! If you hold your hand close to the ground, you can see a shadow — the sky is so bright with stars. And maybe that night, you will find something in the sky no one has ever seen or understood before.”

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

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