La Rinconada: a human-centered adventure

MXP 2018

Millet Expedition Project, the program via which Millet and its partners have been backing ambitious sporting and human adventures for the past 10 years, provided support to “Expedition 5300”, led by a group of adventurers with an unusual profile: men and women with scientific backgrounds, who devote their energy to exploring little-known places and studying their human and scientific aspects.

Departure

January 28

Arrival

March 5th

Duration

1 months and a half

On January 28, 2019, a group of roughly 20 physicians and scientists headed to Peru to set up an analytics lab – first in Lima, then in Puno, and lastly in the world’s highest town, La Rinconada, at 5,300 meters altitude. Besides its scientific utility, the project proved to be a tough test for the participants: as well as dealing with extreme altitude, they had to transport the lab equipment on impracticable trails, and then install it. For the researchers, this was an adventure within the adventure.

The purpose of the project, which the group had organized and planned throughout the previous year, was to collect data on the genetic, biological, hematological and cardiovascular characteristics of the 50,000 inhabitants of this town perched in the Andes.

The men and women who live in this mining area are exposed to very harsh living conditions: they breathe air that is heavily oxygen depleted, with 50% less than at sea level.

The purpose of the project, which the group had organized and planned throughout the previous year, was to collect data on the genetic, biological, hematological and cardiovascular characteristics of the 50,000 inhabitants of this town perched in the Andes

Another expedition objective was to study this population’s living conditions (no tap water or sewerage system) and try to provide some solutions for the quarter of the residents who are affected by “chronic mountain sickness”. During the fortnight the research team spent there, they met and examined nearly 1,000 inhabitants for physiological tests and analyses. Expedition leader Samuel Vergès, a researcher at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in Grenoble, looks back on the expedition.

As team leader, are you satisfied with the results you obtained?  Tell us how the expedition went…

Arranging such a research program in these conditions was a big challenge with many unforeseen events – of a human, material, logistical and even political nature. “Expedition 5300” ran almost perfectly. The team of scientists operated particularly well despite very intense and difficult working conditions. We received a highly positive welcome from the Peruvians – be it the miners, medical students or institutions. The inhabitants of La Rinconada had very high expectations because, at such an altitude, they worry a lot about their health. The team came back with a large quantity of unique scientific and medical data – which, in the coming months, will provide particularly original insights to help us understand the effects of altitude on the human body.

The team came back with a large quantity of unique scientific and medical data – which, in the coming months, will provide particularly original insights to help us understand the effects of altitude on the human body.

What was the highlight of the expedition ?

Arriving in La Rinconada with all the team and equipment was a memorable moment. Dozens of miners were already waiting for us outside our lab premises to help us set everything up and apply for the assessments we were offering. Some miners had troublesome and even serious health issues, but practically no access to medical treatment. It was also very emotional when we departed again, leaving the population without medical support – we promised to go back soon and arrange a cooperative scheme with, among other things, a health clinic to help the population.

Given the conditions you had to deal with, how important was the gear you took with you ?

We received material support from Millet Expedition Project, and were able to test the products provided by all the partners in real high-altitude conditions over several weeks. The comfort that the gear provided was especially welcome in locations where we worked while stationary, in fairly cold temperatures (around 10°C) for quite long periods – nearly 12 hours every day.

Arriving in La Rinconada with all the team and equipment was a memorable moment. Dozens of miners were already waiting for us outside our lab premises to help us set everything up and apply for the assessments we were offering.

In what respect was this scientific project like an adventure for the protagonists?

Above all, it was a human adventure – you’re working, eating, living and being ill 24/7 for a period of seven weeks with work colleagues. Living permanently with 50% less oxygen is a strain for any human, and especially for us plain-dwellers. You feel yourself struggle, react and then get tired, become weak and sometimes fall ill, without really having any solution. It’s a real ordeal for the body. Living and working for weeks on end in a town without any running water, regular toilets or heating at 5,300 meters altitude was also a far-out experience for us. Meeting the inhabitants of La Rinconada, sharing their everyday lives, and trying to tolerate their living conditions for several weeks meant that they became colleagues, and even friends, rather than research subjects. To my mind, the biggest exploration of all is exploring human beings: engaging deeply and honestly with other people, and mutually sharing our lives, our experiences, our riches and fragilities.

You spent time in a place where people live very differently than here in France. What can you tell us on this subject ?

La Rinconada is a gold mining town that clings to the mountainside. To us, it looked more like a shanty town, with no infrastructure or institutional framework. Discovering the people there – listening to them explain why they’ve chosen to live here, their plans, their desires, and their difficulties – was an exceptional encounter. Really living and working with them in the local conditions ensured we had an authentic experience.

Above all, it was a human adventure. Living permanently with 50% less oxygen is a strain for any human, and especially for us plain-dwellers

This trip left the participants with many memories. Over and above the study itself, they were able to test their limits in a challenging environment, as well as engaging and interacting with local people. Indeed, the leader of “Expedition 3500” does not view the adventure as an isolated event, but rather as the pilot of a more ambitious program, designed to evolve over time towards a more regular presence of physicians and a lab – serving research but also, primarily, the inhabitants of the unique town of La Rinconada.

For full details of this project : http://expedition5300.com/

The Team

Axel Pitter
Head of communication
Samuel Vergès
Expedition leader