Climbers and Climate Change: Alice Hill

Did you know the AAC supports cutting-edge scientific research? Through the Research Grant program, we provide funding to multiple researchers across the country every year. The scope of work Our Researchers conduct is broad, but a common thread among many of them is investigating the effects of climate change. A timely topic, we've asked several of our researchers to sit down and chat with us about climate change, their research and their climbing. 

AAC member Alice Hill is a 4th year Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the Geography Program. Alice's research is focused on mountain hydrology, specifically the importance of snow and ice melt water as water resources for communities in Central Asia. Jonathan Oulton, AAC member and geologist, spoke with Alice to find out more:

Q&A With Alice Hill

Oulton: Why is your research important to climbers and non-scientists?

Hill:  Rivers in the Central Asia region are sourced from snow and ice melt in the mountainous countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and then they flow across borders downstream. Changes to glaciers and snow in a warming climate suggest that this region might experience water vulnerabilities in the future. I am trying to quantify that potential water vulnerability. This region is already politically tense for a variety of reasons, and water resources could be a spark for conflict.

Oulton: Many people consider that region to be volatile and dangerous. After your experience, how do you respond to this pre-conception? Is it justified?

Hill: In rural communities we experienced generous hospitality and positive interactions. In remote alpine areas our Kyrgyz colleagues were more concerned about our safety from packs of wolves than from the people who live in those areas. In urban areas we didn’t feel unsafe, although we did pay attention to State Department warnings that were issued.

Alice Hill below the toe of the Karabatkak Glacier, Kyrgyzstan.

The highly bureaucratic systems were challenging and at times made me feel vulnerable. There are a different set of cultural norms that I didn’t understand. I wasn’t privy to the bribing culture, even for tasks as simple as getting your luggage on an airplane. Not speaking Russian, Kyrgyz or Tajik, there was a challenging language barrier. Thankfully our in-country partners were there to help us as both translators and negotiators.

Oulton: It’s nice to hear that there are good people in these places. Looking forward, what do you foresee as the most significant challenges to addressing the issues of climate change?

Hill: For me, the biggest challenge with climate change is getting our new leadership to actually buy-in that it is happening. I am anxious that the new administration will be led by people who choose not to believe that climate change is real. That, to me, is the major concern because they are the ones who affect what policies we adopt and what kind of role model we want to be to the international community. I’m trying to stay optimistic.

Oulton: A common sentiment is that "the actions of an individual can't influence an issue as massive as climate change." This attitude is dangerous, as it can lead to complacency. What actions can an individual take to have a positive, real influence on climate change?

Hill: As westerners, we all make individual choices that affect our climate. Indeed, all of us need to make individual lifestyle changes to holistically make impactful change. There are many positive individual decisions we can make on a daily basis: riding a bike, or taking the bus, living in a smaller house, taking shorter showers, buying local food.

The question is, to what level are we willing to inconvenience ourselves? We’re so used to having this highly convenient lifestyle and we need to be willing to sacrifice some of that for the sake of our local and global community We need society scale buy-in for individual changes to collectively have an impact.

Oulton: Absolutely, do you think that leading by example in our communities is effective?

Hill: I think that’s certainly one of the most important ways to do it. I know I’m affected and inspired the most by my friends that ‘walk the walk.’ I think role-modeling is an important piece of the solution.

Alice Hill (center) and fellow CU researchers Alana Wilson and Cholpon Minbaeva (both left) were greeted with kindness and incredible hospitality by the locals in the Kyzyl Suu Basin, Kyrgyzstan.

Oulton: Great, thank you. That covers our main questions on climate science and impact. Let’s talk about climbing. What is one of your most memorable climbing experiences?

Hill: While working in the field as an instructor with NOLS, there was one route that was especially memorable; a traverse across the Northern Patagonian Icefield. Patagonia is one of those places where you have to really lean into the uncertainty of the terrain and weather, among all the other variables that climbers are used to. Case in point, my co-instructors and I wanted to try a traverse that included an unmapped “blank” area on the map. This blank spot had no mapped topographic information because the photographic glare off the glacier surfaces prevented aerial photographs from being used to discern terrain information.  So we basically had little idea what was in store around the next corner until we got there.

We were feeling pretty good about the route after getting up-and-over what we thought was going to be crux of the traverse. We dropped down into a glacial valley and thought we could just run the valley out to the main glacier to get a food re-supply. As it turned out, we were perched on top of this buttress at the head of a steep sided valley with a Class VI cascading river running down the guts.

After days of scouting, we found a route out we were fairly confident we could use to descend. We rappelled down the buttress and pieced together this really steep, thick bushwhack to curl around a ridge. Upon finally reaching our re-supply location, we discovered there was nothing there.  At this point we were totally out of food, eating spice-kit soup, and mostly going off mate fumes. We walked out another day to the only other logical place the food supply might be. Lo-and-behold there it was... We set up camp, rested, and literally ate for two days.

Oulton: You are quite the leader, Alice. Thank you so much for talking with us today. Good luck with your research and the rest of your doctoral program!

Alice Hill taking water samples below the Karabatkak Glacier, Kyrgyzstan.

For more information on Alice, her research, and other AAC Research Grant recipients, please see the following links:

AAC’s “Meet Our Researchers” Webpage

Alice's Trip Report for the AAC

Alice’s CU Boulder Profile