The Freedom of the Hills

What are you thinking about when your body is straining to go uphill, while struggling to breathe in the thin air?  You may think about how much your muscles hurt.  You may concentrate on your breathing: in and out.  You are fully immersed in the now, in the moment.  Your life depends on your presence in the now.  Your mind is free of the shackles of society – problems from back home temporarily disappear.  They don’t matter.  Imagine what freedom!  To be fully present and living in the moment.   That’s why I climb – it’s simple.  It brings me to life.  Nature is my therapy.  The key, though, is to retain this state of mind in the everyday.  That remains a struggle. 

Being able to couple this passion for the high places with my scientific interests has been challenging.  Recently, it has resulted in carrying packs more than half my body weight; a diet of soup, potatoes, and candy bars while in the field; long hours; sore legs; and sometimes utter despair, when data collection fails or malfunctions.  There simply isn’t much money out there for such a career track.  You’re either a climber or a scientist.  Not both.  Hence, an identity crisis of sorts emerges.  But both can (and should!) be done.  After all, the early expeditions in the Himalaya were driven by scientific objectives, as much as climbing ones.Image

A good friend recently told me, getting to do what you love is a ferocious battle.  I agree.  This path has not been easy.  It takes physical toughness to work in the mountains, for sure.  But it also takes mental toughness, to face failures and disappointments with grace and humility.  It is very easy to give in.  I reflect on this in particular, after nearly drowning on my last trip.  In that moment, when I went in the water in a strong current, and when I could have let go of the safety rope, I didn’t.  Despite recent hardships and challenges, I chose life.  I fought for it.  Lessons from nature apply to our everyday lives; we need to choose to listen, though.

James: The Albedo Effect

Before leaving on the expedition, our intrepid student explorer, James, met with students from Milton Academy. Together they reviewed projects that aligned with the expedition’s scientific goals and selected one that studied the albedo (or reflectivity) of various materials found in a sample area of the Ngozumpa glacier. Below, James describes his experience of collecting this data.

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One day on the trip, we used the field spectrometer, which is a tool that measures albedo. Albedo is the scientific term used to describe the reflectivity of a surface. The field spectrometer is a backpack that you wear and it has a pistol grip fiber optic lens that you point at the ground to measure the albedo. The backpack itself weighs about 20 pounds but the way it is built it is pretty uncomfortable to wear.

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The way we use the machine is pretty simple: we walked transects of about 100 feet and every ten paces we would stop and initialize the machine. When we took a reading I would press a button on the laptop strapped to my chest and then the fiber optic lens would take ten readings and average them. When the machine finished collecting data I would move on another ten paces and repeat the process. The transect went over various types materials including ice, snow and loose rubble.

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After about an hour we completed the transect and headed inside. It was such cool experience using such advanced scientific tools, not only because the device looked like one of the Ghostbuster backpacks. The data I collected is being sent back to Milton Academy so the students I collaborated with can use it in their studies.

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James: Reflection

Recently, a student at the British School of Boston asked a what it’s like to be on the glacier and how our team was able to navigate the terrain. We sent the question along to James Harvard, who used it to reflect on his experience thus far.

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When I was seven or eight, I would often visit an abandoned gravel pit down the road from my house. When I scrambled up and down the steep slopes of the pit, I imagined that I was scrambling up and down giant mountains. Little did I know that I was gaining the skills needed to travel on debris-covered glaciers.

When I picture a glacier in my mind, I see giant crevasses and snow covered ice fields.  What I am currently experiencing in the Himalaya is far from the pure ice I see in my mind! The glacial terrain that I have come to know here in is more like the moon than the glacier I imagined. The glacial surface is covered with mounds of rock and debris stacked and strewn about like two-ton Lego bricks. Blades of ice pierce the chaotic rocks. Beneath the debris mounds there could be a massive ice structure, a tunnel, or maybe even a subterranean river.

In some places massive ice walls can be seen slowly retreating under the sun’s rays. Each exposure of ice has its own character, some are black while others, only 200 paces away, are a pale shade of blue. From a photograph one might mistakenly assume that the glacier is quiet and still. The sounds of falling rocks and cracking ice are always present, reminding me that the glacier is indeed alive and active, even though it’s actually dying. As the sun beats down on the bare ice water drips and freezes forming icicles. But even these icicles are fleeting and soon after they fall and shatter.

All of the liquid water on the debris-covered glacier pools to form lakes of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Ice covers the majority of the lakes as winter sets in, but some are the most beautiful shade of pale blue-green. On some lakes the ice is only as thick as tracing paper. Hidden a few meters beneath the murky lake water one finds the bottom composed of rock, mud, and ice. These bodies of water are by no means fixed or stable; they seem to rise and drain constantly. Rushing water runs between lakes in tunnels that form a river system within the ice. You might come across a basin left dry and bare because the water escaped through a tunnel leaving behind plates of shattered ice that once formed the ice surface.

There is a heavily beaten trail to cross the glacier. The path is so tame that yaks can cross it with no trouble at all. If you venture off this standard route, the terrain becomes noticeably more treacherous. Each step must be carefully made to avoid dangerously loose rocks, plates of slippery ice or piles of what I call “sinking sand.” Though there are no crevasses it is easy to cause a rockslide that could carry you off a 100-foot ice cliff. No matter where you are or what direction you look you see the unique features of this moon-like environment. Whether it’s the vegetation struggling to reclaim the barren moraine walls or the massive peaks framing skyline I am inspired and sometimes awestruck by the beauty
of this place.

I just described is a small portion of the debris-covered Ngozumpa that I have been exploring for the last two weeks. I know little of the highest reaches of the glacier, the accumulation zone. By all accounts, this portion of the glacier should reflect what most assume to be a typical glacier. Perhaps high on the slopes of Chu Oyu, the 6th highest
mountain on Earth, you would find the crevasses or rolling ice fields that fit my mind’s image of a glacier. What I have seen and experienced here will stay with me for my entire life. The beauty and danger of this strange, otherworldly rock-covered glacier has changed me with its complexity and mystery.