Extreme Alpinism in the Name of Climate Science

Ascending Mount Lenin. Photo: Hari Mix

Is Hari Mix a mountaineer with a science habit or a scientist with a mountaineering habit?

"I'm not sure," says the 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Earth Systems Science at Stanford University. "They're definitely related, I've always been drawn to the scale and beauty of the earth's processes, so I want to go and interact with them directly, and mountaineering is a great way to do it."

This summer, Mix climbed a number of peaks in the Pamir Mountains, mixing his summit pursuits with scientific study. At the top of Mount Lenin, a 23,406-foot peak on the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Mix collected microbe samples from the highest elevation to date for a climate change research project. (Actually, he bagged several small rocks, in which the microbes live.) Dragos Zaharescu, a research associate at the University of Arizona's Biosphere 2 research program, is now analyzing the samples that Mix collected on Mount Lenin as well as from three other nearby peaks.

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a Bozeman, Montana-based citizen science organization that seeks opportunities for climbers and other outdoor athletes to contribute to scientific research, connected Zaharescu and Mix.

Zaharescu is also analyzing other samples, collected from high on Mount Denali, an archipelago in Artic Russia, Kilimanjaro in Africa, and other peaks around the world. His research focuses on how climate change may be impacting the way biotic communities in high altitudes colonize rock and break it down, initiating nutrients transfer through the ecosystem.

The sampling itself was a very straight-forward process—placing a couple of small rocks into a bag, noting the exact coordinates, and repeating this every 200 vertical meters or so throughout the descent. But the environment wasn't always so hospitable. "I finished the last of my food and water on the summit," Mix says of the Mount Lenin climb. "I wasn't able to eat or drink much anyhow due to altitude-related stomach problems. I added a rock sample from the summit to my pack and headed down. On the descent, I could see a storm approaching, so I quickly collected a few samples from the summit down to around 21,500 feet before being engulfed by the storm. I navigated back to camp by GPS alone as there was no visibility."

At times, waist-deep snow made finding rocks to sample impossible. "Sampling the upper mountain was by far the hardest science I've done," Mix says.

High alpine rock sampling. Photo: Hari Mix

On a speed ascent of 23,311-foot Mount Korzhenevskaya, Mix's attempts to collect samples were thwarted when he could not find a cache, which contained his bags for sampling, that he had buried in snow during an earlier acclimation climb. He thinks the cache, which also contained important climbing gear, was either stolen or drifted during a storm.

Mix incorporated the climbing expeditions into a trip that had him in Central Asia for a month-long geologic fieldwork project as part of his Ph.D. research. But he had already spent four weeks collecting in Mongolia as part of a large National Science Foundation project that was also focused on climate change. His trip was funded in part by a Live Your Dream Grant from the American Alpine Club.

Next up for Mix is, hopefully, a trip to Nepal this spring, with attempts at both Lhotse and Everest. Ideally, this will also involve some scientific work, arranged through ASC. But it's all still contingent on funding.

"I think there might be a niche out there for me, doing climate change research and mountaineering," he says.

 —Mary Catherine O'Connor

Filed To: ScienceClimbing