The Heights of Climate Science

John All won’t stop studying mountain environments— even though he nearly died on one
John Thompson

John All's short list of amazing places

MERI founding Director John All has been around the globe on his quests to gather ever more data to document global climate change. And not all of his adventures end up in a crevasse—some find their trailheads in quiet meadows of flowers as far as the eye can see, dark jungles or alpine moonscapes lit by fading alpenglow. Here are some out-of-the- way locations that, for him, rank among the most spectacular in the world.

Bhutan: “The nicest people on earth.”

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park: “This one isn’t rare or out of the way, actually. But for me, it’s the single most tranquil place on the planet.”

Sossusvlei, Namibia: “It’s like being on Mars. There’s just no place else like it.”

Alpamayo Col, Peru: “The best campsite with the most incredible sunsets.”

“We’re going to take Western students into alpine research environments across Washington and the world.”
WWU Research Professor John All (in dark blue coat) joins Peruvian Quecha climbers at about 16,400 feet, near the summit of Mount Ishinca in Peru in an expedition with the American Climber Science Program.

He was stuck at the bottom of a 70-foot crevasse in the Himalaya, his ribs crushed, six vertebrae cracked, a broken arm hanging uselessly at his side, watching the sliver of light above him slowly deepening from bright blue as daylight gave way to night. John All could do two things: curl up, accept the pain and die, giving in to his circumstances and the numbness threatening to take over his body—or begin to fight and climb out of the overhanging ice.

All, the founding director of Western’s new Mountain Environments Research Institute and a faculty member in the Environmental Science Department, chose the latter. Somehow, hours later, he eventually wedged himself inch by inch out of that cold, cobalt-blue crack in the ice that had almost swallowed him whole.

“I knew I had to get going—that if I paused to think about it, I would shut down and never get out,” All says. “I just kept thinking about my mom, and how devastated she would be, and how I had so many things in my life that I still wanted to accomplish.”

All’s narrow escape from that glacier in 2014 went viral on social media, thanks to the short videos he sent out to Facebook and YouTube after the ordeal. The BBC News feature on All’s battle to survive has more than 2 million hits on YouTube; his first-person account is riveting.

It was around this time that an NPR reporter gave him the “badass for science” title. The key component: All wasn’t on the glacier on the flank of Nepal’s Mount Himlung for thrill-seeking— he was there for science, collecting samples to determine regional air pollution and glacial melt rates. A few weeks before his accident, All and his team were on Everest when a section of the Khumbu Icefall—a treacherous latticework of interwoven crevasses and gorges that climbers cross on fragile aluminum ladders—collapsed, killing 16 Nepalese climbers, including a member of All’s team. Narrowly avoiding that disaster, he relocated to Himlung on the northern edge of Nepal only to experience the freak accident that almost took his life.

All recovered in Kathmandu before coming home, battered and bruised but with his mission intact: to deliver to the masses his message about anthropogenic (manmade) climate change and what we can all do to understand what’s happening and adapt to it.

Not long after returning home, All began work on a book of his experiences, “Icefall: Adventures at the Wild Edges of our Dangerous, Changing Planet,” published in March by Public Affairs, in which All recounts his global exploits in the search for data, data, and more data—from the plains of Africa to the jungles of Panama and the slopes of Everest.

Son of a scientist

All grew up in the south, the son of an agricultural entomologist— a bug scientist—at the University of Georgia. The baked red clay of South Georgia’s fields was where All, working alongside his father, first became fascinated by science and research and how it can be used to make the world a better place. It also taught him his first basic lessons in how to endure tough conditions while doing that research.

“Boy, was it scorching hot,” he says.

While the steaming hardpan of the Peach State is about as far from the Himalaya as you can get, All hoped he would eventually be a mountaineer, as fascinated as he was by the world’s highest places.

“When I was a kid, reading adventures about heroes, mountains always stuck with me and climbing trees, rocks, and cliffs just felt natural. When I was 10, I had three real goals in life—to climb Everest, and compete in the Ironman and the Iditarod. One down, two to go,” he says.

His interest continued through college, picking up his doctorate at the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Georgia.

When he was in grad school in Arizona, All began working with the American Alpine Club learning about conserving mountain environments and how to climb. Fellow Arizona grad student Michael Medler, now an associate professor of Environmental Studies at Western, was the person who taught him to climb—as he has taught dozens of others—and gaining this technical skill allowed All to follow his research passion.

“I’ve been studying mountains ever since.”

Western: All’s New Base Camp

All first came to Western in 2012, two years before his accident in Nepal, to give a guest lecture as part of the Huxley College of the Environment Speaker Series, and he was smitten. It wasn’t lost on him that being so close to the Olympics and the Cascades— dubbed “America’s Alps” for a good reason—would be a fabulous place to do more of his alpine research.

As founding director for the Mountain Environments Research Institute ( All has created an interdisciplinary research group made of faculty from Huxley, the College of Science and Engineering, the Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The mission of MERI is to develop an inclusive and collaborative center devoted to research, conservation, and education—and designed to get Western’s students and faculty into the field. The overall goal: to create the next generation of skilled mountain researchers.

“The faculty who are part of the MERI experience at Western are just incredible,” All says. “They are going to be able to offer students such a wealth of expertise and opportunities to work in cutting-edge research around the globe.” All says the areas of faculty expertise cover everything from how black carbon molecules and snow algae help melt glaciers in the Andes to how land use exacerbates climate change in the Himalaya.

“We’re going to take Western students into alpine research environments across Washington and the world,” All says, “which is important, because mountain environments are changing quickly and are among the first to be impacted by climate change.”

This summer, MERI will host a study abroad program in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca in the Andes, featuring five weeks of backpacking and research.

All, who is also the executive director of the nonprofit American Climber Science Program, has also begun laying the groundwork for a Mountain Research Skills Certificate Program through MERI. After multiple surveys revealed a strong student interest in mountain research courses, MERI faculty are creating this certificate to provide the skills to conduct research in mountain environments as well as foster stewardship within the region’s communities.

“In the end, that’s what it all really comes down to—getting our students into these places to see for themselves how the Earth’s climate is changing so very quickly; then allowing their data and their experiences to help tell the story,” he says. “Taking it to the next level—that’s going to be their job.”

All of which sounds, dare we say it, pretty badass.

John All, during a fateful expedition to Nepal in 2014, recorded data at more than 16,000 feet in Cho La, a summit pass in the Himalaya, while hiking to Everest Base Camp.

John Thompson is the assistant director of Western’s Office of Communications and Marketing. He knows the closest he will ever get to the slopes of Everest is a stroll through Schreiber’s Meadows on the flanks of Mount Baker—and he’s OK with that.

courtesy of John All