Meet the People Risking Their Lives to Study Our Dying Mountain Glaciers

Extreme Field WorkA series about how science gets done in Earth’s weirdest, wildest environments, from the bottom of the ocean to erupting volcanoes.  

When geoscientist and mountaineer John All started studying the impacts of climate change on world’s highest mountain glaciers over a decade ago, he said it was like monitoring a sick patient. Now, it’s more like doing an autopsy.

“We’re just watching the glaciers decay, effectively,” All told Earther.

And yet All, who directs Western Washington University’s Mountain Environments Research Institute, continues scaling Earth’s sky-high glaciers for science, despite the ever-present and growing risks of doing so, because the mountains are still, in many ways, a frontier. His most recent field expedition to the Himalayas was testament to that. After close to two months hiking through valleys and up snow-covered mountains breathing progressively thinner air, All and his colleagues managed to collect snow and ice samples from 26,000 feet up Mount Everest and 28,000 feet up neighboring Mount Lhotse.

Those samples are now set to be analyzed for black carbon, tiny specks of sooty material emitted by gas engines and fossil fuel plants that can darken the surface of glaciers. The highest-altitude samples ever collected for this kind of research by mountaineers, the hope is they’ll provide critical insight how pollution can accelerate glacial melt.

Approaching the summit of Mount Lhotse, the world’s fourth-tallest mountain.
Photo: Courtesy John All

“We’ve done [sampling] in Peru up to 6,800 meters,” or 22,000 feet, All said. “But never any higher. Every time we sampled higher we were setting a new world record.”

The expedition, which marked All’s seventh research trip to Himalayas, began in late March in the valleys surrounding Everest, where the team—a mix of American and Nepalese scientists and grad students, plus a few hard-core mountaineers who volunteered as field assistants—started getting acclimated to the elevation. For three weeks they were on the move every day, wending their way through the Hinku, Gokyo, and Khumbu valleys at elevations above 13,000 feet, climbing Mera peak (21,000 feet) and crossing the famous Cho La pass (18,000 feet). All the while, they were collecting samples of vegetation to understand how rising temperatures are causing the region’s flora to shift, and interviewing local Sherpa people about how climate change and tourism are impacting life. Those interviews occurred mainly in the evening when the team reached whatever “teahouse” (Nepalese mountaineering lodges which offer weary travelers a home-cooked meal) they were spending the night at.

Climbing the Khumba Icefall.
Photo: Courtesy John All

By mid-April, they’d arrived at Mount Everest’s Nepalese basecamp. From there, the team started doing warm-up rotations up the mountain: climbing to progressively higher camps (numbered 1-4) with rest periods in between, and collecting samples of snow and ice for black carbon analysis on the way down. Sampling on the descent is key, explained field assistant and volunteer mountaineer James Holmes, so that you’re not carrying unnecessary weight—he estimated the sample weight adding about 15 pounds—against gravity.

“At these higher altitudes it’s very much appreciated,” he said.

After the acclimatization trips came the main event. All, who had been up Everest before, split off with two of the team members for nearby Lhotse, a more technically-demanding climb that shares the same route up until around camp 4. While that group managed to reach the summit on May 23, Holmes and Western Washington University graduate student Morgan Scott, who had their sights set on Everest’s peak, chose to turn around early in the name of safety. Holmes had a very reasonable personal excuse—asthma, plus a case of bronchitis—but there was also the issue of the massive crowds at camps 2 and 3, which suggested the summit would be equally congested. (It was—and not collecting samples there feels like a wise decision when you consider the alarming spike in tourist deaths atop Everest this spring, something that’s been blamed in part on overcrowding at the mountaintop.)

The research team’s basecamp at Everest.
Photo: Courtesy John All

Still, the researchers managed to collect some damn high samples on both mountains, which are now being sent to various labs for analysis. In addition to shedding light on how air pollution can speed along the demise of glaciers by making their surfaces less reflective and more heat-absorptive, the samples could help scientists get a better handle on how air pollution gets fast-tracked around the world via currents high in the atmosphere. All explained that the height of the Himalayas, combined with their geographic setting between China and India, two major air polluters, makes mountains like Everest natural laboratories for addressing these types of questions.

“For long-range transport of contaminants, Everest is basically sticking up into the stratosphere and collecting that stuff for us,” All said.

It probably goes without saying, but climbing Earth’s tallest mountains for science is among most physically demanding types of work a person can do. All said that he only brings extremely experienced climbers along and that the job “self selects” for the best of the best. Holmes, for instance, hadn’t been to the Himalayas before, but has spent nearly a decade scaling some of Peru’s highest peaks as part of the American Climber Science Program. He said he “did the kind of training program I did for Peru and just took it up to 11.”

Even for the most physically fit and technically competent climbers, however, the work is also dangerous—and not just when you’re in the low-oxygen “death zone” above 8,000 meters. There’s plenty of risk further down the mountains, from getting buried by a sudden avalanche to punching one’s foot through unstable ice and breaking a bone or worse (five years ago, All broke more than a dozen after falling 70 feet down an icy crevasse). And things seem only to be getting riskier thanks to climate change, which is not only causing alpine glaciers to recede dramatically—worldwide, Earth’s mountain glaciers have lost a layer of ice about 70 feet thick over the past 40 years—but is making crevasses more exposed and upping the risk of bigger, faster avalanches.

The view from Camp 4.
Photo: Courtesy John All

Holmes personally witnessed two avalanches while on Everest this spring, one which he says didn’t hit anyone and another that hit (but thankfully did not injure) at least one climber. That’s better that can be said for All’s last trip to Everest, in 2014, which ended in tragedy after an avalanche struck the Khumbu Icefall and killed 16 sherpas, including a friend and member of his team, in what became the deadliest accident in Everest’s history to date.

All described coming back to Everest after the events of 2014 as “emotional,” but added that it was cathartic to have the opportunity to talk with his sherpa friends about what had happened and visit the site of the the disaster. “At the time we were really traumatized and hadn’t really talked about it,” he said.

Having returned from the Himalayas in early June, All is now off in Peru leading an expedition to collect similar data in the high Andes. The impacts of climate change are “far worse” there, he said, both because the mountains are lower and closer to the equator. “It’s a really sad thing,” he said.

But despite the grim nature of the work—and despite all the injuries and losses he’s endured—All finds the mountains beautiful, incredible places to work. And there’s a simple reason he’s committed to keeping that work alive.

“No one else does it,” he said. “Basically, everyone works at 4,000, maybe 5,000 meters. But most climate change is occurring above that. If you want to see the impacts, you’ve got to go to these impacts.”

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