Blood, sweat, tears. That pretty much sums up my PhD experience over the past few years. As I reflect back on the fieldwork and time abroad in Nepal, there are times I can’t stop laughing – like when looking at the Glacier Olympics footage and remembering the great fun we had, despite being in whiteout conditions. I smile thinking back on when Tendi, Kaji and I climbed a 20,000 ft. peak and then descended into the mist, following just our headlamps in the darkness to get to a village, 12 hours after having left base camp. Sleep came easy that night. And there are times when I can’t stop from getting emotional, thinking back on the Everest avalanche and the aftermath. The tragedy shattered lives in the span of a few minutes. It leaves one with a feeling of vulnerability.
Even though I’ve been back for a month now since the last expedition, sleep does not come easy. Often times, I find myself back in the Himalaya, with scenes playing out in my head that I can witness, yet not prevent from happening. Perhaps it’s a way of processing what happened out there. Sometimes the dreams are thought-provoking: watching the whole glacier “time-lapse” in front of my eyes, changing shape from 10,000 years ago to the present, prompting new ideas for how things work out there. And sometimes the dreams are warnings to be careful. About a week before attempting recovery in some glacial lakes, I dreamt that I was swimming underwater and could see two buoys, the ones we had installed over the summer. One was in very clear water and an easy pull. The other wouldn’t budge – it was caught on something. In the waking world, it turned out to be true. Despite my best attempts on the latter, it wouldn’t give, while the ice I was standing on, at only a few inches thick, was starting to crack.
Over the course of multiple expeditions, there have been shouts of joy when getting 100% data recovery, and cries of frustration when something fails and data are lost forever. When recovering instruments or cameras in this kind of environment, you’re initially relieved when you see them again, either floating in the water or on a rock cliff, after months of being out there. Anything can happen – icebergs can cut buoy lines, while floods can submerge the instruments, never to be found again. Landslides can bring down a whole set-up. Birds can crap on lenses. There’s difficulty in predicting what will happen, months down the line. But say you manage to find your gear. You still have to make sure that data were recorded. On land, given how dusty it is, solar panels can get covered. The dust finds a way into everything. So sometimes, connectors for data transfer can short out and the data corrupt. Now, if you manage to download, you are then left with the task of figuring out what it means. Does the data even make sense? Add in the long journey to get there, working in thin air, and the threat of collapsing ice and boulders around you, and you’re dealing with a pretty stressful situation. Hence, the shouts of joy or cries of frustration.
It takes grit to work in these kinds of conditions, as your decisions can mean the difference between life and death, not only for you but for your teammates as well. Accidents do happen and sometimes there’s just plain bad luck. But if there is one thing I have learned from my year-abroad, it’s to never let my guard down, no matter my experience level. It is important to remain vigilant and to make the hard, mature decisions when the time comes. Sometimes, ambitions can be so blinding: but I NEED this data. But, the summit is SO close. But…the mountain will still be there. It is important to be proactive and not reactive in the mountains. Know how to read patterns in the weather. Understand what stable and unstable snow slopes feel like. Listen to the wind. Listen to your body. Trust your instincts and know when to keep pushing but also recognize when you need to stand down. Display true grit. Every step and every breath count.