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Climber Scientist…or “Badass PhD Scientist-Mountaineer?”

Posted on: December 6th, 2011 by Luke Bauer

In June and July 2011, the Deep South Section of The American Alpine Club spearheaded an environmental mountaineering expedition to Peru’s highest mountain range. The Cordillera Blanca contains the highest concentration of mountains higher than 6,000 meters (19,685 ft.) in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the highest mountains in the Tropics. Section mountaineers and other AAC mountaineering scientists spent 2-4 weeks in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. The team collected valuable environmental samples from elevations too high and remote for most scientists to be able to visit.

The following post if from Carolyn Stwertka, CBEE2011 Climber-Scientist and generally awesome AAC Member. It was composed at the behest of—an organization dedicated to increasing female participation in outdoor activities. We’re lucky to be able to post it ourselves, before

My lifelong dream is to be a badass PhD Scientist-Mountaineer who understands complex environmental phenomenon from the framework of physics. Or I could just say I want to know why stuff happens, where it happens, and where I want to be when it happens. For example if it is a snowstorm, I want to know where the most snow will fall and where it will be the safest to ski. Or if it is a bad air quality day in Salt Lake City and people are being hospitalized due to toxic air, why the air quality is bad, which pollutant is causing the bad air, and how I can help solve the air pollution problem. Driven by these forces—the desire to be in the snow, and the desire to save the world—I embarked on my first dream trip, to Peru: The American Alpine Club’s 2011 Cordillera Blanca Environmental Expedition.

The American Alpine Club (AAC) wanted to get climbers involved in scientific field-programs to extend the capacity of scientists to study remote high altitude locations. Our goal was to build a baseline data set of how pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from urbanization, burning, combustion, and mining makes it into the mountains. Global CO2 concentrations have risen 36% since the pre-industrial times (NOAA, 2011) and almost all of this increase is due to human activities (IPCC, 2007)! As a greenhouse gas, increased CO2 concentrations are preventing the earth from proper ventilation—providing a threat to our largest freshwater sources left on this earth: Glaciers. To understand this story of a changing environment the science team needed equipment, atmospheric modeling, and field-assistants. I was the science team leader in charge of sampling for carbon dioxide (CO2). This was a great experience to design a field program using my knowledge from my master’s research. I learned a ton about communicating to my team members and how to plan for bad weather. The protocol was for each of eight climbing teams to measure CO2 twice a day in the high mountains while others took measurements in the valley base at 10,000ft. This way I got CO2 measurements on a horizontal gradient on different peaks in different valleys to test my hypothesis that CO2 concentrations depend on where the wind is coming from. 

I have 40 flask samples from my colleagues and I am just waiting for funding and I will be able to analyze my CO2 samples at the University of Utah’s Isotope research facility. I’ll be able to determine what the concentration of CO2 is, and whether the CO2 is from gasoline burning or wood burning. I can proudly say I took a CO2 sample on the tallest mountain in Peru: Huascaran Sur at 22,200′ above sea level! [Ed. The funding has been obtained and the samples are being analyzed right now.]

I ended up attempting 4 peaks and summiting 3. I want to say ‘thank you!! to [AAC Industry Partners] Patagonia, & Black Diamond as well as Kirkham’s Sporting Goods in Salt Lake City, Starbucks, and the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute for donations to the fundraiser held for this expedition.  Without the donations and support of, the successful fundraiser would not have been possible!

My jump in the photo is a shout out to those who make their dreams come true…and ‘yes’ next time I will have skis!  What do you do when your dream comes true?


AAC – Peru 2011 from Will Eccleston on Vimeo.

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