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Apr 11, 2017

ACSP: How ‘Badass’ Scientists Climb Mountains to Fight Climate Change

Inspired by the "badass for science" label given to the American Climber Science Program after Dr.

WRITTEN BY

Steve Byrne

John All’s viral crevasse fall video, adventure photographer Steve Byrne heads to Peru to find out the true meaning of citizen science.


Bloodied and broken, Dr. John All looks into a camera, “I’m pretty well fucked.”

Dr. All, wedged deep in a crevasse between two icy walls, describes his lonely predicament. Some 70 feet above him light beams through the hole in the glacier that his body just punched through. Below, the blue and white hues of the glacier’s entrails fade into a deep blue, then black oblivion.

Exasperated and in constant pain, Dr. All assesses his situation, collects himself and plots a course back to the world. Despite a broken arm, cracked ribs and internal bleeding, he inches upward, groaning in pain as he swings his ice tools into the frozen walls. As he wiggles upward, softening snow near the top halts his progress. He adjusts course, shuffling over and up a few meters, connecting the layers of denser snow able to support his weight. The last few feet of sun-softened snow slow him briefly, but soon he hauls himself out of the crevasse that nearly consumed him.

From that high Himalayan glacier, Dr. All beamed an SOS via satellite to the Facebook page of the American Climber Science Program. A rescue scrambled and later plucked him from the glacier to a hospital in Kathmandu. Not long after, video of the crevasse climb soon spread around the web and media outlets labeled Dr. All a “badass for science”.

This painful, first-hand video was my first real impression of the American Climber Science Program. A month or two earlier, I had decided to join the ACSP as an expedition photographer to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. I was interested in glacial watersheds and the program looked like a unique way to climb in a beautiful part of the world and photograph one of my favourite subjects: glaciers. Dr. All’s incident added a little extra spice to my curiosity and anticipation of the expedition.

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Climbers with the ACSP on the final summit ridge of Cerro Pisco. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo by Steve Byrne.

What sort of research was taking these scientists into such high, extreme environments where most climbers are content to just climb? What can be learned from doing science so high up? What exactly is this media label, “badass for science”?

One evening in August 2014, I rolled into Huaraz, Peru on a bus from Lima. With an address and vague directions in hand, I wandered through town until I found the expedition’s guesthouse. The owner and his wife welcomed me warmly and informed that the team was still in the field. I had a few days to acclimatise and rest before heading into the mountains.

While I waited, I explored the city and surrounding valley, photographing landscapes and people. Huaraz is nestled in a high, arid valley between the Cordillera Blanca, whose tropical glaciers hang like permanent clouds over the patchwork of terraced fields and villages, and the Cordillera Negra, a less impressive, drier range, devoid of the vegetation and glaciers that attract one’s gaze skyward in awe at the Cordillera Blanca.

Just as I was beginning to grow restless, the expedition team returned to Huaraz. Dirty, wet and tired, they had just spent much of the past week hunkered in tents waiting out the weather. I met the crew and spent the following days feeling out the dynamic of the team spending warm afternoons relaxing on the guesthouse rooftop, cooking food, drying and sorting gear and throwing back a few watery Peruvian beers.

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Dr. Rebecca Cole ascends the north ridge of Cerro Pisco at dawn amidst the backdrop of the Huandoy peaks, bathed in golden light. Photo by Steve Byrne.

Undergrad and grad students comprised the majority of the team, led by two older scientists, Dr. Carl Schmitt, Dr. Rebecca Cole and seasoned climber David Byrne. Everyone came to further research in a variety of specialties: freshwater micro invertebrates, water quality, grazing practices, alpine ecology and black carbon accumulation on glaciers. The variety and scope of the research projects blew me away. Most researchers had been in the region for the entire summer, studying each valley of the range one week at a time. I had arrived just in time for the final week of the expedition.

The following morning we drove deep into the mountains, establishing base camp in a high meadow of the Llanganuco Valley, surrounded by peaks rising sharply over 20,000ft. From camp, the team would spend the week fanning out across the entire valley in smaller research groups of both Peruvians and Americans. The groups collected samples and studied alpine water, macroinvertebrates, snow and plant samples. As we assembled base camp and I spoke with many of the scientists, I learned that the Program served as an incubator and logistical platform from which a whole range of focused, alpine research became possible.

As late afternoon shadows began filling the high alpine valley, the team gathered in base camp over a warm meal and never ending cups of tea. During dinner, Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez, a student at Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo National University in Huaraz, recounted that each year since childhood, he’d witnessed glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca retreat at an accelerating rate. The omnipresent view from town is slowly morphing, day by day, to show more rock and less snow. Wilmer continued recounting how some villages are now unable to use their streams for farming and livestock: naturally occurring compounds in rocks previously covered by glaciers are leeching out into streams now that the rock is exposed to runoff.

Evening light breaks through clouds illuminating the summit of Husacaran Norte. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo by Steve Byrne
Evening light breaks through clouds illuminating the summit of Husacaran Norte. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo by Steve Byrne.

I had no idea that things were happening so quickly, nor that changes in climate could affect water quality in addition to availability. Very quickly, I understood that a changing climate and human impacts on alpine environments have far more lasting effects than just water availability. And as the conversations over tea continued, Dr. Schmitt and Wilmer filled me in on the effects of local air pollution on the mountains.

Black carbon: fine, airborne particulate matter, is a bi-product of combustion that mixes with weather systems and precipitates out in rain and snow. In alpine environments, precipitation typically falls as snow, and as it accumulates on the upper slopes of a mountain, the snow compresses into ice and begins to move downhill: a glacier is born. As storms dump layer upon layer of snow on glaciers, black carbon in the snow can concentrate, darkening the surface of glaciers, causing them to absorb more solar radiation, increasing melt rates.

Measuring and mapping black carbon on glaciers both in the Himalaya and Cordillera Blanca has become a centerpiece of the ACSP’s annual research. Here in the Cordillera, Dr. Schmitt and his teams have criss-crossed the entire range sampling glaciers, returning to base camp to filter the meltwater and map black carbon concentrations throughout the range. Over the past few years, Dr. Schmitt has been gathering data to prove the hypothesis that glaciers nearest urban and industrial centers tend to have the greatest concentration of black carbon, and thus could be at greater risk of melting faster—and disrupting water supplies—faster than would happen otherwise.

Dr. Carl Schmitt collects surface sample snow from just beneath the summit of Cerro Pisco. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo by Steve Byrne
Dr. Carl Schmitt collects surface sample snow from just beneath the summit of Cerro Pisco. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo by Steve Byrne.

Itching to climb and curious to better understand the research, I joined Dr. Schmitt and company up Cerro Pisco, a beautifully glaciated 18,000ft peak at the center of the Llanganuco Valley. To complete the climb, with the help of our porters, we establish a higher base camp, putting us within striking distance of the summit.

As we haul our camp up valley towards Pisco, grey clouds envelop the surrounding peaks and it begins to snow. We reach a high, flat bench and break for a quick lunch inside a small hut, sipping tea and chewing coca to mellow the affects of altitude. We discuss the weather and how it might affect a summit attempt, then decide to push onto high camp.

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Cerro Pisco is a beautifully glaciated 18,000ft peak at the center of the Llanganuco Valley. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo by Steve Byrne.

Slowly plodding into the increasingly thin air, we haul our heavy packs up and over unstable moraines of talus and scree, occasionally shifting beneath our feet, evidence of previous glacial periods. As we gingerly scramble over the moraine, thundering avalanches of rock and ice cascade down the flanks of the Huandoy group, three peaks stretching nearly 20,000ft high, standing guard at the head of the valley we cross.

An hour before dusk, we arrive at a small, protected flat where a trickle of water flows out of the glacier above with a few tent footprints marked out by small rocks. Thick, cake-like glaciers are pasted onto the impossibly steep walls of the mountains above, adorned with flutings in strange shapes on each ridge and subridge. The low rumble of distant avalanches across the valley interrupts the soft chatter of the team. Just before dark, the air begins to radiate: a soft, red glow bathes us all and streams of magenta clouds accent the frosted ridgeline above. When the final light fades, we quietly retire to our tents.

Around 3am, we awake to a cold, clear, night sky. Only my breath interrupts the still predawn. The team ascends from camp through the darkness with headlights dancing upward. At the glacier, we take a quick break, put on our crampons, rope up and begin the meditative rhythm of climbing: Step, step, breathe.

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W A full moon illuminates Chacraraju high above ACSP base camp in the Llanganuco Valley. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. Photo by Steve Byrne.

Beneath, the snow glistens, appearing to reflect the crisp, collective glow of the stars above. Reaching the summit ridge, ribbons of pink, red and orange paint the horizon over the Amazon to the East.

From the col, the summit ridge wanders around crevasses and precariously suspended blocks of ice. Tethered together, we wind our way through the maze up steadily steepening slopes until a final pitch ends in a small, round, flat area. The summit. We hug, tap ice axes and take in the view. The excitement and satisfaction of climbing an 18,000ft peak in the Andes had nearly overtaken me when Dr. Schmitt shouted, “hey, now the real fun begins. Time to sample snow!”

On the broad summit, he found an area of undisturbed snow, scraped at it with his axe and collected it into a labeled ziploc. He repeated the process after scraping down a few inches for a subsurface sample as I stand watch, photographing and thinking, 

“this has to be the most beautiful office in the world.”

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W Early dawn light paints the horizon over the Amazon as climbers negotiate crevasses and darkness up the glacier-covered west face of Pisco. Photo by Steve Byrne.

As we descend through the maze of crevasses, seracs and exposed ridgeline, Dr. Schmitt stops at predetermined locations repeating the sampling process, each time adding kilos of snow to his pack to be melted, filtered and analysed in camp. The high, tropical sun rises directly overhead, and the snow surface softens. Avalanches of rock and ice occasionally thunder down nearby peaks. As the light grows harsh, I stop photographing and turn my attention to the immense scenery that surrounds me. Looking out towards terraced hillsides and towns far below, I spot the transition where glaciers end and rivers begin. My eyes follow the water courses down and out to the horizon into the green, terraced hillsides far below: the connection between people and the alpine glacier I stand on could not be more obvious.

By late morning, the team reached the toe of the glacier announced by the scratches of our steel crampon spikes meeting granite once again. Hours later with muscles weary and a salty, dusty face, I returned to high camp, dropped my pack and finally indulged in sitting, legs outstretched on soft meadow grass. Before dinner, I joined the team in the mess tent and at the end of a quick recap of the day, Dr. Schmitt pulled out an unmarked bag of snow, some empty Nalgene bottles, and one of our porters presented a bottle of pisco.

You can’t successfully climb Pisco without having a pisco sour made fresh with the snow directly from the summit,”

We mix and shake the snow, pisco, lime and sugar and toast to a successful climb. The remainder of the evening is spent melting snow samples from Pisco, filtering the water and recording the levels of black carbon present in the snow.

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X Chris San and George Livingston Burgess of Western Washington University collect macroinvertibrates from the Upper Demanda River in the Cordillera Blanca. Changes in the populations of macroinvertibrates in glacial watersheds help scientists measure the health of river.s and streams fed by alpine snow and ice. Photo by Steve Byrne

During the summer of 2014, ACSP climbers and scientists collected dozens of snow samples from peaks along the entire length of the Cordillera Blanca and on each expedition, local students learned the basic technique for monitoring their glaciers and the most precious resource they provide, water. Each year, the body of black carbon data across the tropical Andes grows, and with the cross cultural exchange of ideas and scientific research methods, so too does the Peruvian knowledge of how to climb, sample and understand human impacts on glaciers and the water supply for local communities.

W Dr. Carl Schmitt examines black carbon data collected from various peaks of the Cordillera Blanca over the course of the ACSP Expedition. Photo by Steve Byrne.
W Dr. Carl Schmitt examines black carbon data collected from various peaks of the Cordillera Blanca over the course of the ACSP Expedition. Photo by Steve Byrne.

While the impact and value of the “badass for science” label might have turned heads and garnered fleeting interest after Dr. All’s fall, my time with the team in Peru taught me what the label really means: conducting and inspiring citizen science. The ACSP and its members put themselves in risky situations not for themselves, but to teach communities dependent upon alpine resources how to monitor and understand the effects of a rapidly changing world on their home.

Feature image: Ranrapalca looms over camp at dusk on the eastern flanks of Vallunaraju. Cordillera Blanca, Peru. By Steve Byrne.

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2018

Become the Bear! Tackling Middle Aged Life the Bear Grylls Way.

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Jamie East

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Bear Grylls is probably one of the most famous adventure celebrities in the world. Aside from all his adventures, Bear also shares his survival skills with anyone ready to pay for it. One such chap was our middle-aged writer Jamie East, who usually preferred watching other people take risks from the safe distance of his television. Until he decided to go out there himself and get dirty.

Well, there’s something liberating about jumping into a freezing, fast-flowing river with all your clothes on. It’s the kind of thing that, as a child, you told yourself you’d do all the time once you were big enough and your parents couldn’t tell you off. Yet staying on the precipice at age 39, all I can think of is, “Is this jumper dry-clean only?”

This is what life does to you. It sucks the adventure from you quicker than a Dyson in a bag of sawdust. Before you know it, you’d rather sleep than live, drive than hike, sink into the sofa than swim.

I suppose this could be classified as bare survival. You exist but don’t live, and I’ve decided enough is enough. What would the 12-year-old Jamie, who got sent home from school for falling down a ravine he thought he could clear in one leap, say to me if he could see the 39-year-old me? “Man up!” probably. “Your clothes are stupid?” most definitely.

Bear Grylls is the man we all aspire to be. Hard as nails on a mountain ledge, soft as grease at home with his kids. The fire in his heart burns brighter than Krypton being destroyed, and he’s harder than a 60-foot working model of optimus Prime made from diamonds. He also embraces the outlook on life we all wish we had time for had those damned IsAs, smart phones and creamy pasta sauces not gotten in the way. Thankfully for those of us with a terminal case of lazy-itis, we can see how the other half live over at the Bear Grylls survival Academy from the bleak Scottish Highlands or the luscious surrey forests in England. Run by Grylls and his team of ex-paratroopers, the survival Academy is an ideal introduction into a world of skills and endurance we think we’ll never need. Be honest; how many of us truly believe that there will come a time when we will be skewering a rat for dinner or navigating a 23,000-acre highland with only the stars to help? But these are skills that used to be second nature to us humans. If there weren’t people like Grylls to show us the way, there are a lot of people around the world who wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of the time their car broke down in the Australian outback, or when they had to make a snow cave that provided those few vital hours of warmth on a mountaintop. Whether we like it or not, the knowledge could prove life-saving.

A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.
A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.

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The Academy offers several options tailored to your needs. You can opt for a 24-hour experience in Surrey either alone or with a family member older than 10. Although only 10 minutes from the motorway, such is the Surrey countryside that you could be in Montana for all you’d know. The dense forest makes for a real wilderness experience. The deep rivers you’ll be crossing, the rabbits you’ll be gutting, the trees you’ll be stripping to make shelter, and the ravines you’ll be shimmying across really do give you a feeling of being alive. A 20-minute run is considered a “big thing” in my house, so spending days in the real outdoors felt invigorating. I felt alive!

I’m not an all-rounder though. I found some of the requisite skills completely beyond me, navigating by starlight was one. My brain is just not wired to untangle that kind of data.

I used to think I could point out the north star in a heartbeat. Nope. The north star isn’t the brightest one. Nuts.

“The North Star is, in fact, the one perpendicular to blah de blah de blah babble babble wibble waffle.” That’s how that sentence sounded coming from the instructor’s mouth: just a stream of nonsense about ploughs and bears. It doesn’t look like a plough. If it looked like a plough, I’m pretty sure even I could find it. But it doesn’t. It looks like a slightly wavy line of stars that is buried among 200 billion other stars. It makes finding a needle in a haystack look like finding an elephant in an eggcup, so if I’m stuck anywhere in the world (and I mean anywhere: La Rinconanda, the Kerguelen Islands or just past the BP garage near my house) without Google maps or a TomTom, you may as well kiss this writer’s sorry ass goodbye, because I’ll wither away in a puddle of my own dehydrated tears.

Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.
Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.

But there are things that must have been festering in my subconscious all these years, like a coiled snake ready to unleash, on an unsuspecting world. For instance, I could light a fire that is neither at the end of a cigarette nor underneath a pile of half-frozen burgers. I mean a real fire created by nothing but flint and dried bark. It’s a panic-inducing task, and I’m not ashamed to say it took me nearly 40 minutes. As my instructor, Scott, told me, it’s all in the timing. Put on too much too soon and you’re buggered. Too little too late and, yup, you’re buggered.

Instructions for making a fire without matches or anything a sane human would have within arm’s reach
You need the slightest feathers of bark piled up like Candyfoss. You need your spark. Mine was from the flint on my Rambo knife. The very second that spark takes hold of one of your bark feathers, blow very gently. If all goes well, that will turn into a largish smoldering lump of smoke. If it doesn’t, go back to the beginning. You now need to start throwing on more feathers of bark, a fraction larger than the one before, before moving onto dried-out twigs no thicker than a hair on a baby’s ear. Eight hours later, you have a fire that could singe your eyebrows from 183 m. Well done!
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse - a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse – a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.

So, if ever I do go missing near the BP garage by my house, just look for the massive fire right next to the petrol station. Well, I may need to think that through a bit more.

The Scottish Highlands course that is offered is similar to this, apart from a few key points. It goes on for five days and takes place in one of the most remote places in Britain. It’ll probably pour down with ice-cold rain for the entire trip, and you’ll have to eat rat and cross a river in your underpants. Apart from that, exactly the same.

Spending time with this team baked common sense into my brain. The lessons easily transform into mundane, everyday life. The buzz phrase of the trip is “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.” out in the highlands, this means, “If you don’t prepare well, you will likely starve and die.” At home, this translates to, “Use a tape measure, or your shelf won’t be even.” The sentiment is still the same. Don’t judge me.

You should know what you’re getting into, of course. This is a Bear Grylls branded experience, after all (and all the equipment says as much). You won’t be expected to drink your own body fluids, squeeze drops of moisture out of elephant dung, or decapitate a rattlesnake with the sole of your boot, but you will feel as though you could if you were the last man on Earth. I did eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river, set traps and eat rabbit I skinned with my own bare hands. And do you know what?

I’ve never felt more alive or more connected with the world I selfishly pillage on a daily basis. I’m not alone, either.

People the world over have sought out the Grylls way of life. Upon his return to the US, my fellow survivor Caleb said “my hands are shredded, my nose is stuffed, my throat is raspy and my body is tanked, but I am alive now more than ever. It was everything I hoped for: an empowering learning experience.

Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.
Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. After the aching had subsided, and the clothes were washed, the niggling feeling that I was approximately 3 percent more of a man than I was before I began, just wouldn’t leave me. It still hasn’t.

I didn’t imagine that sleeping rough, eating worms and swimming in rivers could possibly have this much of an effect on my psyche, but it really has. I’m not saying I could rescue someone hanging off a cliff, or survive in the jungle for more than a couple of hours. But if you get the chance, breathe in the air, sharpen that stick and venture out into the big, wide world. Just remember to take a compass with you. I swear those stars are out to get you.

Photos by Discovery Channel, Jamie East & The Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

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