Extreme Alpinism in the Name of Climate Science

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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.

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

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