Livin' on the Edge

Written by Hailey Hoffman // The Western Front

Thursday, Apr. 20, 2017


While in the Himalayas, geoscientist and Western professor Dr. John All was researching climate change. He took one wrong step and plunged 70 feet into a glacial crevasse. 


On his trip to Nepal in May 2014, 16 members of All’s team died in an avalanche prior to his fall. All said he attributes the perils of this trip to the rapidly warming climate which have caused the glaciers to melt and make the region even more dangerous.  


“There used to be several hundred feet thick ice, so it could undulate underneath,” All said. “But, when you remove that top layer and it undulates, [the ice] cracks, breaks and falls off.”  


While in Nepal, All studied climate change by collecting samples of ice and snow and analyzing how the accumulation of dust and ash from industrial areas was affecting causing glaciers to melt. 


After the fall, All woke up on a three-foot ledge with a dislocated shoulder, internal bleeding and 15 broken bones, six of which were vertebrae. At this time, he was alone at camp 2 on Mt. Himlung and had no one to call for help. With one functional arm and an ice axe, he climbed seven stories up and survived the night alone. 


In March 2017, All released his book, Icefall: Adventures at the Wild Edges of Our Dangerous, Changing Planet, about his 2014 experience in Nepal. 


All also shot videos from within the crevasse during his ascent and posted them to his Youtube channel, DrJohnepall. 


All’s environmental and climate research took him across the world to the African savannahs, to the summits of the Andes in South America and deep into the Amazonian rainforest. He said he’s been held at gunpoint nine times, stepped on a black mamba and been chased by hyenas while doing research.  


“I’ve had death so many different ways,” All said. “But I’ve continually fought and kept moving forward.”  


In his lifetime, All said he’s seen numerous changes in alpine environments, in how people utilize natural areas, and in how people’s livelihoods are affected by the changing climates of the world.  


“The whole world is being changed. The climate is changing. There are ever-growing populations,” All said. “It's kind of this one two punch that hits natural ecosystems.”  


All said his love for climbing and the environment led him along this adventure-filled path. He said he initially believed climbing was solely a hobby and couldn’t be used to progress his career. But, in 2010 he received a Fulbright Grant to work in Nepal. While there, he realized he could combine his two passions in his career. 


In 2010, All started the American Science Climbers Program, a volunteer organization that collects environmental data in the mountains to further study climate change.  


Now, as a professor in the Huxley College of the Environment, All started the Mountain Environments Research Institute. The program is based off the American Science Climbers Program but specifically aimed to educate and train students. 


“After the crevasse, I really realized that we need to be able to approach these areas in teams, safely,” All said. “The way that starts is with students.”  


All enlisted the help of faculty members from different departments to allow students of different majors who are interested in alpine environments to participate.  


Dr. Eric DeChaine is an associate professor in biology and member of the Mountain Environments Research Institute Executive Committee. 


“It’s a nexus for bringing together faculty and interested parties in alpine mountain environments whether it’s for the communities that live there, the plants that live there, the snow, or the ice,” DeChaine said.  


All said he decided to bring the program to Western due to the close proximity of the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges and the passion the faculty and students have for the environment.  


This quarter, the Mountain Environments Research Institute offered two courses taught by All: Introduction to Mountain Research and Mountain Permaculture Science. The courses train students on the logistics of mountain research and give them valuable experience in the field, locally and abroad. 


All is able to teach the various skills he used in the Himalayas, like when he climbed out of the crevasse by stabbing his ice axe into the narrow walls and wedging himself up inch by inch.  


Every summer since 2014, All travels with a group of students through the Mountain Environments Research Institute to the Cordillera Blanca region of Peru where students are required to use these skills to study climate change.  


“It gives people cultural as well as scientific experience when they go down there with us,” All said.  


On a trip to Peru last summer, the team studied how receding glaciers are contaminating the local water sources. 


“We learned a lot about how as the glaciers are receding from the rock faces and now new rock is getting exposed. The minerals from those rocks to get leached into the water sources,” senior Elsa Balton said. Balton is a Cellular and Molecular Biology and Spanish double major who studied water. 


Senior Penelope Kipps, a filmmaking major, also travelled to Peru with All. Kipps said she was awed by his wealth of knowledge on climate change, especially in the Andes. 


“Just talking with [All] about his experience and being able to ask him anything about climate change, glaciers or his mount climbing experience and getting answers and hearing his stories was really inspiring,” Kipps said.  


All and the other executive directors of Mountain Environments Research Institute are currently drafting a Mountain Research Skills certificate, allowing students to major in any field and additionally earn this certificate. All said he is working with the National Forest Service, the National Parks Service and guiding companies like the American Alpine Institute.