When you think of all the bodies of water around the world, you tend to imagine they’re all low-lying, don’t you? Hence things being “at sea level”. But there are actually a number of lakes that sit high above the oceans, nestled in mountain ranges like the Himalayas. The following list is the generally accepted top ten highest lakes by altitude and, thanks to the problems in differentiating between lakes and ponds, some of them are actually ponds. Find out where you can see water at height in our Top 10 Highest Lakes.
10. Damavand Pool, Iran
The Damavand Pool can be found on Mount Damavand, a volcano that’s said to have magical powers in the “Shahnameh”, a significant work of literature by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. In Persian mythology, it symbolizes Persia (now Iran)’s independence and its rejection of any forces who would wish to conquer the land. The mountain frequently recurs in Persian literature, as in the eponymous poem by Mohammad-Taqí Bahār, where it’s described as “dome of the world”.
The pool itself sits 5,650m above sea level in the crater summit of the mountain. Most of the year it is frozen, but sometimes melts during the summer to form an icy pool. It’s a rare sight, due to its height and frozen nature most of the year round, but is worth the climb to see!
9. Poquentica Lake, Bolivia/Chile
A spectacularly beautiful lake on the border of Bolivia and Chile, Poquentica Lake sits 5,750m above sea level on the summit of an extinct volcano. It’s mostly frozen and the surrounding terrain is full of crystals – it was described by Nathalie Cabrol, who explored the lake with a team of scientists from the SETI Institute, as “a geologist’s wonderland”. The SETI team explored the lake in 2005 as part of an expedition to ascertain what conditions on Mars might be like and it certainly gives the impression of being somewhere otherwordly. As Cabrol concludes in her journal “Planet Earth has still a lot to teach us”. As with most of these lakes, it is a dangerous and largely uncharted climb but for the SETI team it seems that it was one which was astonishing and may have made a huge contribution to the field of science.
8. Ridonglabo Lake, Tibet
In the mysterious mountains of Tibet (pictured above), there is an equally mysterious lake known as Ridonglabo Lake. It’s 5,801m above sea level and is a moraine lake formed from a melted glacier -an increasingly common occurrence in the Himalayas as global warming heats the planet up. It’s close to Ridonglabo Peak and only 14km away from Mount Everest, but other than that little is known about it. There are no known first hand accounts of anyone visiting the lake or going anywhere near there, and given the secrecy of the Chinese government and the Tibetan unrest, it’s not likely that any expeditions from the western world will go there anytime soon. And as such, there are no confirmed photos of the lake itself – it would be a brave explorer that discovers this gem!
7. Aguas Calientes Pool, Chile
Another volcanic lake, this pool sits at the top of the Cerro Aguas Calientes in the Antofagasta region of Chile. It’s far from the only volcano in the region – its neighbors are Acamarachi, Lascar and Chiliques, the last of which has been dormant for thousands of years but threatening to erupt again. The Aguas Calientes Pool has a distinctive red tinge to it, thanks to the microorganisms that live in it. It’s 5,831m above sea level but unlike Ridonglabo, it has been well explored by climbers and, along with the neighboring volcanoes, it is a popular attraction for mountaineers. It is also sometimes known as Simbad.
6. Lake Licancabur, Bolivia/Chile
Back to the Bolivia/Chile border now, for another volcano which was explored by the SETI team. Lake Licancabur lies a few hundred miles south from Poquentica and its altitude is 5,916m. Its shape is very different to Poquentica, with the look of the mountain a classic volcano shape, rather than the messy shape an exploded volcano takes on. The mountain is divided between Bolivian and Chilean territory, but the lake is entirely in the Chilean side, around a kilometer from the border. It’s substantially bigger than some of the other lakes on the list, at 100m by 70m and with a depth of 8m. It’s also been thoroughly explored and even scuba dived, with Johan Reinhard first free-diving the lake (in 1981) and then returning with four other divers in 1982 to complete the world’s highest scuba dive, although the record has not been officially recognised. The lake is believed to have been a sacred spot for the Incas and so has some archaeological significance, but so far no major finds have been unearthed there.
5. Acamarachi Pool, Chile
One of the neighboring volcanoes to Cerro Aguas Calientes, this has its own crater pool, although it’s pretty small at just 10-15m diameter. The height is impressive though – 5,950m – as is the 45 degree angle of the volcano itself. It is thought to be extinct, with no known lava flows in recent times, but the sheerness of the sides would detract all but the most skilled climbers. It has been climbed many times, and the pool at the top photographed but not officially measured. Like Licancabur it’s a place of significance to archaeologists as it was an Inca sanctuary, and Inca artefacts have been found there. They are currently on display at the R. P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum in San Pedro de Atacama. Not the most exciting pool for swimmers, but definitely one for historians!
4. East Rongbuk Pool, Tibet
Another Tibetan lake, this is a seasonal pool that appears whenever the snow melts. It is named after the East Rongbuk Glacier, which is one of the glaciers that contribute to it (the other being the Changtse Glacier). It was explored by Graham Hoyland, among others, who found the lake as an obstacle on one of his many adventures in the Himalayas. On that occasion he was travelling with the Territorial Army, who had a practical if unromantic way of getting past it. As Hoyland later wrote for the BBC: “There was talk of getting explosives from the villages below to blow a gap in the ice retaining wall, but apparently Semtex is regarded as profane by the holy men in the monastery in the valley below, a problem we don’t have in our country.” It’s lucky that the holy men were able to intervene, otherwise the 4th highest lake in the world – at 6,100m – might have been damaged beyond repair.
3. Changtse Pool, Tibet
The Changtse Glacier also creates another high lake – the Changtse Pool at 6,216m above sea level. Little is known about it, but it appears on topological maps and is said to be 180m by 230m. The Changtse Peak is linked to Mount Everest and was explored by George Mallory’s ill-fated expedition in 1924 from which he did not return.The source of the water in the Changtse Pool is unclear, but some think it is the product of a sub-surface aquifer which has somehow saturated the glacier to create the lake. Another mysterious Tibetan lake which can just about be spotted on Google Maps, in among the threatening snowy peaks.
2. Lhagba Pool, Tibet
And now for the highest of the Himalayan lakes, at an altitude of 6,358m above sea level. It is located on the slopes of Everest, around 6km north of the summit and 3km east. Little is known about the pool, but it is said to be 180m by 50m at its widest and longest points. If you fancied a very secluded swim, this would probably be a great place to go. Just don’t count on having copious amounts of oxygen or nice warm water…
1. Nevado Ojos del Salado, Argentina
So, for the highest body of water anywhere in the world, you’d expect something impressive wouldn’t you? Well, the altitude is impressive – 6,390m above sea level. But the lake itself is another small crater lake, with a diameter of only 100m and a depth of 10m. It doesn’t even have its own name, just taking the name of the volcano it sits upon – Ojos del Salado, or “The Eyes of Salty Water” in English. It’s the highest volcano on Earth and is not entirely dormant, having had some recent volcanic activity such as sulfuric gases and vapors leaking out.
The peak is on the border of Argentina and Chile and can be climbed from either side – generally the Chilean side has a more touristy, luxurious feel, with huts and jeeps provided but you also have to pay hefty fees, which some would see as bribes. The Argentinian side has less red tape, but the police take no responsibility for your actions on the mountain…and that means they aren’t responsible for your safety either. But it’s good to know that the highest lake in the world is accessible to people who aren’t necessarily professional climbers – just be prepared to feel a little underwhelmed at the lake itself!