Big Up: Announcing the Everest-Lhotse Research Expedition

 “I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits”  -Reinhold Messner on the first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen

Everest (center) and Lhotse (right)

Everest (center) and Lhotse, the world’s 4th highest mountain (right)

When did it all start? Thinking back, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment. I’ve definitely had defining moments hiking in the Canadian Rockies and certainly on Colorado’s Longs Peak, but I sense the idea had a more subtle beginning. As early as age five, the cover of our family’s copy of the world almanac started to develop a visible crease. I would repeatedly flip to the same page and scan the list of the world’s highest mountains, memorizing and typing spreadsheets of the 14 peaks that reach over 8000m. I drew maps of Asia, annotated with locations of great peaks in Nepal, Pakistan and Sichuan.

So when I sat down with a group of researchers with a group of researchers interested in conducting a study on decision making on 8000m peaks this spring, I didn’t exactly need to do any background research. When the conversation turned to the subject of me getting support to climb and collect vital data, I had to ask repeatedly ask the obvious, “You want me to go climbing?!?”

I always told myself that if I was offered the chance to climb a really big peak, I’d take it. Well, it wasn’t so simple. First, I had to clear some initial hurdles: “You need to think about your priorities.” My advisor wasn’t trying to limit me, but rather to make sure I’d considered that there’s an opportunity cost in every decision we make. Then came the talk with my parents, who have had to bear the unfair emotional burden of my climbing. I get to experience all the adventure, challenge, and connection with the natural world, all while leaving cryptic messages about stomach illness and whiteouts in my wake. After my accident last summer, I considered dropping big expeditions altogether for my family’s sake.

Then things turned to the reality of the trip and the complicated set of office tasks it takes to pull off a major expedition. This fall, I’ve taken on this side project…a part time job of sorts. I’ve been working tirelessly writing grants, discussing details with expedition organizers, equipment manufacturers and the like, all for a shot at a big peak. I ended up convincing the research team that climbing the West Face of Lhotse, the world’s 4th highest mountain, without supplemental oxygen was the objective that spoke to me most while meeting team needs. The style and objectives of this expedition align with my interests in a way that I can put my full effort into making sure that we succeed on a number of levels. Lots more on that later. So…what are we actually doing?

Extreme Environments, Everyday Decisions

This expedition will produce the most comprehensive study of what it takes to climb the world’s highest peaks and the organizational framework necessary to return from them safely. Our research is led by Associate Professor Markus Hällgren, whose Extreme Environments – Everyday Decisions ( group examines how organizations operate in settings where the wrong decision endangers lives (he’s also working on emergency rooms). The increasingly commercialized nature of high altitude mountaineering provides an excellent laboratory to examine the challenges of upholding safety in the face of changing conditions. Previous studies of decision-making at high altitudes have focused almost exclusively on disasters, while everyday organizational behavior has been largely ignored. We feel that this research will be of great value, not only to the mountaineering community but to the greater pubic, as many parallels exist between expeditions and team projects of all kinds.

So I’ll be part of a team of researchers documenting the entire course of an Everest expedition, starting with the preparation we’ve begun months ago until well after we head home in June. Several researchers will trek to base camp and conduct ethnographic interviews of climbers, expedition leaders, Sherpas and doctors. In addition, we will collect other qualitative data such as photos, video of team meetings, recording radio communications, etc. I’ll be in charge of data collection on the upper mountain. While I’ll be personally attempting Lhotse, I will be interviewing Everest climbers on the upper mountain, recording climbing and impromptu decisions with a helmet camera, taking field notes and research photos from some of the highest altitudes on the planet. I will also continue my work with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, and I’ll include several climate change research projects to the expedition as well. If you want to see more about this, my work with ASC last summer was recently profiled by Outside.

Stay tuned for lots more on this spring!