Explorer of the Week: Alton Byers

 At age 21, geographer Alton Byers thought to himself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if one could become a mountain geographer, studying mountains, mountain people, and conservation as a career?” His resulting work as a “climbing scientist” has allowed him to establish new national parks, protect a mountain species, and help people reduce the risk of potentially dangerous glacial lakes.

What project are you working on now?

Since March 2012 I’ve worked as co-manager of the High Mountain Glacial Watershed Program, currently with projects in the Everest region of Nepal and Huascarán National Park of Peru. Our goal is to increase awareness for the importance of high mountain ecosystems and people, which we do by promoting collaboration between scientists, fostering the next generation of ‘climber scientists’ through our small grants program, and implementing community-based projects that help local people and governments reduce the risk of new and potentially dangerous glacial lakes.

Watch a video made by Alton’s son, Daniel, that shows their community consultations and glacial lake research last September in the Everest region.


What originally sparked your interest in geography?

High up the slopes of Dhaulagiri in Nepal at age 21, staring across the Kali Gandaki River Valley below at the Annapurnas to the east, and thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool if one could become a mountain geographer, studying mountains, mountain people, and conservation as a career?

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?

The collapse of more than 200 meters of the Imja glacier terminus between May and September 2012, creating hundreds of ship-size icebergs. I’ve been photo monitoring the glacier and Imja glacial lake since 2007, and the average loss has been about 35 meters/year. The loss of 200 meters in just three months sends a disturbing message regarding the possible acceleration of warming trends and their impacts, even in the world’s highest mountains.

Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found?

I was really confused one foggy night in the Flattop Wilderness region of Colorado, spending the night under a tree, having taken a wrong turn on the way to a trout stream. It was strange how once I realized that I was lost, I could swear that I heard voices very clearly saying, “Hey!”—which would get my hopes up for a minute until I realized that I was probably imagining things. The next morning I walked downhill about five miles to a dirt road, found a vacation home where the people fed me pancakes, then walked the ten miles upstream to the place we were staying. I’ve been a fan of maps, compasses, GPS, and natural navigation ever since.

Photograph by Daene McKinney
Photograph by Daene McKinney

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?

Wade Davis. How many people have had a movie made about them at age 28, including a look-alike actor with wavy hair? His research in ethnobotany, indigenous cultures, natural resources, and now the early British Everest climbers is unparalleled, and he’s got the coolest, custom-built office in D.C. Now having said that, I really wouldn’t want to trade places with anybody, but I do have the highest respect for Wade.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?

Mysterious, ancient, underwater cities, lost cities with exotic names like New Orleans, New York, Washington, D.C., and Tokyo.

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled?

The eastern region of Makalu Barun National Park in Nepal, where I lived in a village in the mid-1990s helping our Nepali colleagues set up the park. There are no roads, it’s a wilderness region, the biodiversity is remarkable, and the people still live largely off the land in sustainable ways—bamboo, for example, has over 80 different documented uses in their day-to-day life.

What is one item you always bring into the field?

A Petzl headlamp, with spare AAA batteries. Whether I’m getting up at 3 a.m. to begin a climb or finding the outhouse, it’s an indispensable piece of equipment.

Have you had any scary experiences in the field?

Not scary, but weird. In 2010 Daniel and I were descending down the remote Hongu valley in Nepal as part of my NGS-Waitt grant. That night, Kamal, the leader of the porters, kept hearing strange, nasal noises outside his tent while JB, the expedition sirdar (leader), slept soundly. There were also sounds of someone moving about and around the tent, sometimes even slapping it with a palm, but every time Kamal stuck his head out to look there was nothing, only silence. This continued throughout the night, and he was thoroughly frightened. The next morning he and JB walked around the area to try and figure out what the noises were, and immediately behind the tent they found a fresh grave, most likely of a porter who had died during a recent expedition. My Western friends raise an eyebrow when I tell this story; my Nepali friends insist that the porter’s ghost was still wandering because the body hadn’t been properly cremated, that it was not an evil spirit at all but only saying, “I’m here, I’m here.”

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?

Keep dreaming.