The cool calling: Glaciologist Alison Criscitiello is redefining the term explorer

She's also combining her knowledge and skills to uncover the secrets of climate change 

  • Jun 18, 2021
  • 2,830 words
  • 12 minutes
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Alison Criscitiello remembers one of her life-defining moments in two parts. First was the meeting at the airport. It was 2009. Criscitiello, all 5’1” of her, stood at the El Plumerillo Airport in Mendoza, Argentina, waiting to greet her mountaineering client. He’d hired her to help him climb Aconcagua, which at 6,962 metres is the tallest mountain in the Americas. Criscitiello, who was 27 at this point, had climbed mountains professionally for several years and had been going to ever-more impressive extremes in the outdoors since childhood. Now, she was a guide for hire, the sort of hard-as-nails expert people pay to help them tackle big altitude. Her clients were exclusively men.

Her client stepped off the plane, scanned the arrivals lounge and set his gaze on her. For this guy, Criscitiello’s age and size didn’t fit — but more accurately she didn’t fit. He expected a mountaineer. An explorer. A man.

He wasn’t convinced and felt entitled to say so. “I’m small,” says Criscitiello. “I remember him judging me. I was obviously the mountain guide, but he was in complete disbelief.”

The second part of the story takes place on Aconcagua. Up there, Criscitiello transformed. She lugged more than her body weight in her pack. She moved as if her lungs didn’t notice the altitude and, oddly, somehow she seemed to enjoy the cold. She remembers looking at her client, only to see him struggling for breath and acting sheepish. “He was basically like, ‘Thank God I’m here with you and I know I really judged you.’”

“We had a conversation about it,” says Criscitiello.

If Criscitiello’s story had ended here, she’d have already reshaped attitudes about the places she loves and perceptions of who belongs in them. But she only kept climbing, reshaping. After that trip, she continued to fuse her love of climbing and adventuring with her passion for studying the massive, often ancient ice locked in the same cold places she feels drawn to, for clues about our changing climate. This saw her become a glaciologist, earning the first-ever PhD in glaciology conferred by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2019, she pursued her passions further by becoming the director of the Canadian Ice Core Lab, a frozen library of prehistoric ice at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The lab is filled with ice cores, tens of thousands of years old, that gritty explorers-disguised-as-scientists, such as Criscitiello, have harvested from extreme environments and study to reveal secrets about the planet’s climate past.

Of course, Criscitiello still has to push against male domination in scientific spaces. And on mountains, she still does the same while planting metaphoric flags. She has led the first all-women teams on climbs up peaks in Alaska and India. One of them was an unsupported ascent of 6,955-metre Lingsarmo (formerly known as Pinnacle Peak) in the Indian Himalayas in 2010. The expedition intentionally emulated the footsteps of explorer, glaciation pioneer and feminist Fanny Bullock Workman, who in 1906 climbed the peak and set the altitude record for a woman. Workman had been driven, in part, to prove she was an equal to a man. Criscitiello, in the same vein, has co-founded Girls on Ice, which leads teenaged girls on expeditions into the altitude and cold.

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Criscitiello on a “walk” near Atlin, B.C. (Photo: Sarah Waters)

Kate Harris, an adventurer and author of Lands of Lost Borders, about her solo bicycle journey along the ancient Silk Road, was one of the women on that Workman-inspired trip. She’d met Criscitiello at MIT in 2008, and they’d become fast friends. “I hung on for dear life,” says Harris of the experience. Harris says Criscitiello was in charge, her athleticism dominant. But it was her way of com- bining her disparate skills into a cohesive whole — linking the mountaineering with research that aims to preserve ice and cold in the places she loves to experience — that stuck for Harris. “The best descriptor of Alison is ‘explorer,’” says Harris. “She truly updates the term, makes it modern and fresh.”

In May, Criscitiello will yet again attempt to add to her list of firsts. After the coronavirus pandemic scuppered her 2020 plan for the Mount Logan Ice Expedition, a project in the Yukon sponsored in part by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Criscitiello has reimagined it. Originally, she was to lead a four-person team of male scientists to climb Canada’s tallest peak, to survey sites for, then later drill, an ancient ice core and, secondarily, to re-measure the mountain’s height, believed to be 5,959 metres.

A friend of Criscitiello’s, and fellow climber, Zac Robinson, an associate professor of kinesiology, sport and recreation at the University of Alberta, says Criscitiello’s preparation for such expeditions, in addition to all her other work, is impressive. “The fact that she does all of these things in addition to spending daily bike sessions in a hypoxia chamber, running multiple marathons in a week, dashing up peaks on the weekend and being a young parent makes her superhuman, as far as I’m concerned,” says Robinson.

In 2021, because of pandemic travel restrictions, Criscitiello has had to chart a new course for the Logan expedition in typical push-the-limits style. In May, it’ll now just be her and a small team of Canadians, including her main climbing partner, who summited with her on Mount Logan, instead of the larger group.

Given that Criscitiello has experienced first-hand the other side of the fragile barrier between adventure and tragedy, as well as extreme dangers presented by this mountain in part- icular, it’s a challenge that’s clearly sitting with her.

Says Criscitiello: “I’m definitely scared of Logan.”

About 20 years ago, in a small yurt 29 kilometres from the trail-head for Washington’s Hoh River valley, Criscitiello felt something pull at her. It was there, at altitudes as high as 2,432 metres, along a hiking path that started in rainforest, evolved into alpine and ended at the powder-blue ice of some of the nearly 200 glaciers in Olympic National Park, that she noticed it. Somehow, she was being pulled toward ice.

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Anja Rutishauser (left) and Criscitiello during a survey on Nunavut’s Devon Ice Cap in 2015. (Photo: Courtesy Alison Criscitiello)

From her yurt, which doubled as a station for her job as a ranger with the National Park Service, Criscitiello looked onto Blue Glacier. She was 20 and had come to this place as soon as she finished high school, looking for a challenge. But for someone already so capable, it was the ice, and the extreme altitude and cold that sustained it, that inspired something new within her.

“I was surrounded by glaciers,” she says. “The whole landscape and everything I could see from where I lived was shaped by ice. It was such a dynamic and complex landscape. Dangerous. You know, you think people shouldn’t be here. It’s just so powerful.”

She was hooked. It was her first experience being what she calls “two feet in.” Beyond comfort. She often worked alone for 10-day stints in the park, save a nightly, 20-second-long radio check-in. The days were just her and the ice, contemplating the rare factors that came together to allow it to be, how she needed all her wits to survive.

Several factors had merged to put her here in the first place. Her passion for outdoor adventure started in childhood, on multi-day trips to the mountains in New Hampshire with her identical-twin sister, Ra. The trips were escapes from the pair’s easy lives in the suburbs of Boston. But her parents had played a role, too. They were overachievers — her mom taught English and was completing her PhD when she had Criscitiello and her sister, while her father was a family physician. Critically, they saw their twin daughters as independent and interdependent and let them pursue outdoor adventures without supervision at an age many parents would not have.

First came overnight camping with family friends on an island in a small lake; next came the 33-kilometre Presidential Traverse Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. Criscitiello and Ra hiked it by themselves, camping for several nights. They were 12. In her twin, Criscitiello had “a born-in adventure partner.”

It was ice that hooked her and set her on a new path and eventually led to her working as a researcher on an icebreaker in Antarctica. She was now quite literally at sea level. The ice was abundantly there, as was the science. But the altitude wasn’t. Nor was her heart.

“It definitely didn’t click,” says Criscitiello. “I went from throwing myself physically into these places where I wanted to be, to alternately, in some ways, burning out. I just really wanted to study and understand the environment, and not just move through it.”

She took time to reset. She realized the connection between ice and altitude was the cold and ideally other women who shared her passions. She found a woman like her. Then it clicked. “It’s always important to see people doing what we want to do, and I didn’t see people doing what I wanted to do when I decided to get into this,” says Criscitiello, “until I found my PhD advisor at MIT.”

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Criscitiello in the Canadian Ice Core Lab freezer. (Photo: Courtesy Alison Criscitiello)

The path she’s been on since is to conduct remote, extreme polar science with women, whenever she can. “It feels different to me. There’s power to it.” Her research specialty is studying sea ice and its history hidden within ice cores, which in turn is a historical record of ancient climates. But beyond this, her passion is to explore what we do not know by finding new ice that adds to the record — by living on ice for months at a time in places such as Greenland, Antarctica, South America, the Arctic — and drilling into it to find its secrets.

That’s why the trip to Mount Logan has been on her mind for years. A meltdown of the ice core lab in 2017 (in which some of the cores from Logan were damaged) partially sparked it, of course, but so did the past. The original cores from the area stored in the lab were from 2002, harvested by a team that didn’t have the technology available today to find the oldest ice. The cores are “not necessarily from the right site,” says Criscitiello.

What she’s after, this time using newer ground-penetrating radar technology to locate it, is likely the oldest non-Arctic ice still in existence, something in the neighbourhood of 30,000 years old. It’s ice that has never melted and refrozen, and thus has locked in a part of history.

Its location on Mount Logan is vital. Most ice polar scientists like her deal with it at the North and South poles. This gives researchers a picture into changes in global climate. What ancient ice at Mount Logan offers, on the other hand, is a more localized archive of climate for the region.

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Criscitiello with a core from Nunavut’s Agassiz Ice Cap in 2016. (Photo: Courtesy Alison Criscitiello)

“The record that exists on Logan might be able to tell us something, for example, about how El Niño has changed in the past and has impacted the Pacific Northwest and that region of Alaska and Yukon in ways that we just don’t know because we don’t have records from the right part of the Earth,” says Criscitiello.

To find it means climbing one of the highest, coldest, most remote peaks in the world. Two-feet-in sort of stuff.

Today, at 39, with a two-year old daughter, named Winter, Criscitiello says she’s changing. She once felt a pull only toward the ice, and the extreme places where it remains. Now there’s a force in her life that sounds a lot like balance.

“When I was younger, and a student in particular, and even through my post-doc, I think I would say that I spent about half the year in the field, and that field part of my year is really what kept me hanging on through all of the meticulous lab work and data analysis and paper writing,” she says. “But now I don’t know. It’s only been the last couple of years, but it’s shifted a little bit to both. When I’m in the field I have a pull to be here. And when I’m here I always have a pull to be on the ice.”

The losses she has experienced may play a role. In 2016, Criscitiello and her close friend, Anna Smith, flew to India to climb in the Miyar Valley. At 4,700 metres, Criscitiello wrote in her award- winning story about the trip in the fall 2017 issue of Alpinist magazine, she turned to see Smith slumped over and vomiting. Criscitiello helped Smith down to their advanced base camp, where she looked after her for the next three days. But on the fourth day she woke, opened Smith’s tent and discovered her lifeless body.

“Eventually, I did the single hardest thing I have done in my 35 years: I sent two messages — one to Anna’s mother and one to her partner — telling them. It took a long time to find the words,” wrote Criscitiello in 2017.

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Photo: Rebecca Haspel

As she looks toward her next climb on Mount Logan, Criscitiello stresses that working with only one other climber has many advantages over climbing in a large group. “My personal mountaineering style has always been small, fast, more efficient,” she says. “I acclimatize to altitude quick.” Having several people creates its own risks, she adds. Going down to two, somewhat counterintuitively, means you’re decreasing complications. Still, it’s a push. “The idea here is to not delay because of the pandemic, to go with the most sure shot I can, and do it as fast and light as possible.”

The stakes are also high because of her history with the place. “I’ve worked for years at the poles and never had a cold injury — Logan’s the only place that got the better of me,” notes Criscitiello. “It’s so cold and big compared to other mountains.”

When she climbed it last in 2016, large storms were rolling in and she had to make a safety call: Get up, then get down, fast. “We left our high camp at 5:30 in the morning, sum- mited and then skied down in one push, through the night. We were down by like 3:30 a.m. Me and the guy who was with me both got very bad frostbite on our feet. I’ve been much higher than Logan, in expeditions in the Himalayas, and guiding on Denali and Aconcagua and these other high peaks, but I’ve never had such an experience. I did say when I climbed it last that I’d never go back.”

She will be back, though. Few who know Criscitiello would be surprised by that. She has, for nearly 20 years, defined herself as a person who seeks out the ice. And the trip will be yet another all-woman climb.

What is it, then, about this pull toward the ice, given all the dangers? “The cold really forces you to live simply,” she says. “It doesn’t care about you. Everything is reduced to these fickle, survivalist needs. There’s something about that I seem to crave.”


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