Inside the American Climber Science Program

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Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez and Carl Schmitt collecting snow samples for black-carbon analysis at the summit of Vallunaraju (18,655 feet), Peru, in 2018.

Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez and Carl Schmitt collecting snow samples for black-carbon analysis at the summit of Vallunaraju (18,655 feet), Peru, in 2018.

In 2014, John All, the executive director of the American Climber Science Program (ACSP), a nonprofit that leads research trips into remote and mountainous environments, showed his grit in a video taken after he fell into a crevasse on Himlung, a 23,425-foot peak in Nepal. Looking into the camera, a bloody-faced All bluntly states, “Well, I’m pretty well fucked.”

All, near Camp II (~20,00 feet), had fallen 70 feet onto an ice ledge in the icy maw. His team, having succumbed to altitude sickness and fatigue, was recuperating down the mountain—and All’s satellite phone was in his tent. His one stroke of luck was that he had crampons on and both ice tools. In pain and unable to use his right arm, All moved upward and across the crevasse; he filmed himself during rests on ice bridges, explaining his progress and process. Ever the scientist, he problem-solved the entire time, looking for the next solution instead of letting the grim situation overwhelm him. After four painstaking hours, All crawled through a hole onto the ice and radioed for help. As the leader of ACSP, All demonstrates this same tenacity in the face of another seemingly insurmountable problem: climate change.

Since its founding in 2012, ACSP has brought climbers, scientists, and students together on trips to places including Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nepal with a twofold goal: facilitating field research into climate change’s effects on mountainous areas, and training a new generation of natural scientists. Through this work, All and his colleagues hope to provide concrete solutions to the climate crisis while empowering local communities in developing countries.

From the beginning, ACSP has been run by volunteers. Helming the trips are seasoned mountaineers and scientists whose only payment is the opportunity to do field work in far-flung locales. Participants must also pay trip costs and apply for a role—e.g., volunteers without prior scientific or alpinism experience, mountaineers who assist at high elevations, or researchers and students who run field work.

James Holmes, a finance professional who serves as the organization’s treasurer, is a great example of how the ACSP utilizes its members’ diverse skills. Holmes, who has a passion for science but does not like lab work, became involved after he realized that he could pursue field science recreationally by becoming a mountaineer. “I devoted my free time to being a proficient climber so that I might be able to assist research expeditions in the mountains,” he explains.

ACSP grew out of a 2011 trip organized by Frank Nederhand, a longtime climber and an environmental engineer specializing in air quality. After visiting Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, he saw the potential to utilize climbers’ skills to conduct empirical research at elevation in the Andes, and contacted the American Alpine Club (AAC) with his idea.

“Despite all the [nonprofits and universities] who were working hard in the Cordillera Blanca, almost all of the field-science work was done below about 10,000 feet,” says Ellen Lapham, the chairwoman and a co-founder of ACSP. Studies into pollution and ecosystems in the high Andes had been missing. As scientists, the team was interested in this unique arena, and as climbers, “Our expertise is really to get up high, so that was the niche that we filled,” Lapham says.

With the AAC’s backing, Nederhand organized the first trip to the Cordillera with the goal of beginning to characterize the ecosystem above 10,000 feet. All and Lapham were there, as were Rebecca Cole and Carl Schmitt, who today work as the ACSP’s research director and science advisory committee chair, respectively. This trip revealed the possibilities, and when Nederhand left the project afterward, All, Lapham, Cole, and Schmitt founded the ACSP. The ACSP has since returned to the Cordillera Blanca annually in an effort to produce data that measure ecosystem changes over time, including the amount of black-carbon deposits on the glaciers. This was spearheaded by Schmitt, an assistant research professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Black carbon comes from the burning of fossil fuels as well as wood and agricultural debris. These tiny particles float into the sky before settling back to Earth. When they land on glaciers, they increase the sunlight absorbed (versus reflected), which causes the ice to heat and then melt more quickly.

John All of the ACSP atop Lhotse in 2019, in a summit selfie. On the descent, amidst blizzardish, near-whiteout conditions, he collected the highest black-carbon snow samples ever taken, sustaining frostbite in the process.

John All of the ACSP atop Lhotse in 2019, in a summit selfie. On the descent, amidst blizzardish, near-whiteout conditions, he collected the highest black-carbon snow samples ever taken, sustaining frostbite in the process.

The ACSP has documented glacial recession since they first started visiting Peru. “In the old days, you might start encountering serious glacier at 16,000 feet, and then suddenly it’s [moved to] 17,000,” says Lapham. Glacial recession has also made research more difficult, as the team must navigate newly exposed scree. More detrimental, though, are its effects on the nearby communities’ drinking water, as the snowpack feeds the supply. As the glaciers melt, heavy metals are released, reducing water quality and potentially harming those who drink it. “Glacier retreat is exposing new types of rocks that contaminate the water and make it very acidic,” explains All. “This will lead to the long-term loss of water supplies for the villages and [the city of] Huaraz.” To mitigate the danger, ACSP is working with locals to locate the sources of pollution and to identify potential sources of cleaner water.

Other work the ACSP has conducted in Peru includes large ecosystem surveys of native flora and the mitigation of a dispute between ranchers and the forest service over anthropogenic fires—fires caused by cattle- grazing patterns and that were of great concern to the forest service, as they were changing the makeup of the local vegetation. Although ranchers denied culpability, the ACSP was able to show the grazing’s effects and come up with a plan that allowed the two groups to unite their interests.

The group has also led research trips to Costa Rica, Panama, and Nepal to study other ecosystems. All is particularly proud of a 2019 expedition that yielded the highest snow samples ever taken—at 28,000 feet on Lhotse. The ACSP does not go into these areas with the expectation of solving environmental problems. Instead, Lapham says, their goal is to provide the locals with information to help formulate solutions. “We believe that our biggest contribution is doing the data, doing it at a high peer-review level, and doing it over many years,” she says. As part of that philosophy, ACSP members work directly with locals. Schmitt has found working with students in Peru particularly motivating: “While there have been significant scientific impacts, I have always been more focused on the human impacts,” he explains.

Among Schmitt’s former students is Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez, of Huaraz, Peru, the ACSP team’s home-base when they visit the Cordillera Blanca. Rodriguez, now an environmental engineer, began working with the ACSP in 2014 when he was a student in Huaraz. Today, he heads research projects into black carbon on Andean glaciers, and credits the ACSP with helping him get the opportunities he’s had—going back to when the organization reached out to his university to recruit students. “[Beginning to work with Carl] was an exciting moment for me, because [as an Andean person] I always looked for mentorship, and it was happening; the opportunity knocked on my door,” says Rodriguez.

In April 2019, Rodriguez began an ACSP-affiliated project with support from the AAC to take snow samples from the Vallunaraju Glacier for one year, continuing ACSP work on black-carbon accumulation and glacier melt. Projects like this which involve year-round sampling are only possible with local help. “My vision is to become one of the best glaciologists in Peru, and to continue teaching students and unscientific people to understand the impacts of our actions on glaciers,” Rodriguez says.

Unfortunately, sweeping lockdowns in Peru due to the coronavirus pandemic necessitated that Rodriguez curtail his work, taking his last sample from Vallunaraju in late March. Still, the work done by ACSP will be there when the pandemic subsides, and many at the ACSP are looking toward the future with optimism. “I am hopeful that there will be a renewed view of environmentalism going forward,” says Schmitt. “I hope that people will see ACSP as an option to learn more about remote parts of the world and to actively help with research.”