Research field experience takes students to new heights
February 15, 2015
A new course offered by the geography department took six students to the Cascade Mountains of Washington state last summer and is slated for more trips to rugged mountain locations in the future. Spearheaded by Associate Professor Lynn Resler and Senior Instructor Dave Carroll, the course engages students in an intensive study of the landscape and weather of mountain environments. “The course offers an incredible experience,” said Resler. “It strengthens students’ knowledge of physical geography, outdoor ethics, and wilderness skills.”
“It was awesome witnessing processes I had learned about in my meteorology classes,” remarked meteorology major Sean Ridge. “Seeing it in real life was the most engaging demonstration possible.”
Prior to their trip, the students attended a spring semester course designed to familiarize them with the North Cascades environment and train them for the physical components of the trip, such as cold-weather backpacking, basic rope work, and climbing skills. “In addition to the geography-related curriculum, students learn a tremendous amount about personal limits, self-reliance, and outdoor leadership,” explained Carroll. “They trained for the trip months in advance in order to be physically fit and hone their outdoor skills.”
The team partnered with the American Alpine Institute to conduct alpine environment studies and train in safe alpine wilderness travel. “We learned so much more than the anatomy of a glacier and how to save your rope team from tumbling into a crevasse,” said Bonnie Long, who earned her bachelor’s in geography in May 2014 but returned for the summer excursion.
“Learning basic mountaineering skills and transforming from classmates to people you’d trust to pull you out of a 100-foot crevasse made the course more fulfilling than I expected,” Ridge added.
The students learned how complex mountain topography influences the dynamics of physical systems as well as the forces and events that formed the Cascade Mountains. “Each student chose a specific topic to make observations about,” explained Long. “We measured various environmental factors along the way. I had a temperature probe clipped to my backpack, and we used other meteorological measuring devices to track wind speed, pressure, and altitude.”
The students used both traditional and modern navigation tools to traverse the backcountry, employing maps and compasses as well as handheld GPS devices. They also utilized high-definition, helmet-mounted video cameras to record location, elevation, air pressure, and temperature in addition to the breathtaking mountain views.
“It was like we had stepped into a completely different world,” recalled Long. “At one point I actually crawled up to the edge of a crevasse on my stomach and hung over the edge for a better look. I couldn’t even see the bottom!”
The Cascades adventure culminated in an expedition up the 10,781-foot Mount Baker, the second-most glaciated volcano and thermally active crater in the Cascades range.
“You have to really want to summit,” said Ridge. “We actually turned around once due to weather, but then tried again an hour later after part of our group decided they still wanted to try.”
The Cascades trip will certainly not be the last of the geography department’s alpine excursions. “The structure for the mountain environment field course continues to evolve, and the plan is to follow up the Cascades course with a trip to the Andes of South America, where students will study and experience the alpine environment at elevations of 20,000 feet or more,” said Carroll.
“The Andes is a region that will be heavily impacted by climate change,” explained Ridge. “The towns there are highly dependent upon glacial meltwater, and with the glaciers retreating rapidly, their water source is in danger. Witnessing this issue firsthand would help humanize the impacts of climate change.”
“This trip was definitely worth it,” Long concluded. “Field courses allow you to fully submerse yourself into the material, no distractions, and it’s fun!”
Read the press release about preparations for the trip.