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Graduation Celebration to Remember at Everest Base Camp

Members of the Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition team wore graduation robes made from trash bags and ate cake for a spontaneous commencement celebration at 17,500 feet of elevation.

From April to June 2019, an international team of scientists, climbers and storytellers, led by the National Geographic Society and Tribhuvan University and supported in partnership with Rolex, conducted a scientific expedition to Mount Everest. Among this crew were team members Heather Clifford and Laura Mattas who, on their university’s commencement day, celebrated the completion of their degrees with a once-in-a-lifetime graduation ceremony at base camp! 

To highlight this momentous occasion, we caught up with Heather and Laura to hear all about the festivities. 

What was your role in the Everest expedition?

Heather: For the Everest expedition, my role as a member of the glaciology team was to collect ice, snow and stream samples to better understand climate, pollution and atmospheric circulation during the past and present in the Khumbu region. For this study, I assisted in drilling an ice core from the Khumbu glacier next to Everest base camp, collected snow samples at base camp and stream samples along the Khumbu glacial meltwater stream over a month-long period. The resulting chemistry measurements from the ice, snow and stream samples can help us to learn about atmospheric conditions in the past and present, which could be used as an analog for the future. 

Another important goal of our study was to measure pollutants in the ice, snow and streams to understand human impacts on this environment. Studies have shown glacial meltwater pollution can negatively affect local communities, and we plan to develop a risk assessment of pollution focusing on glacial meltwater streams throughout the Khumbu region. Our study will also encompass the human impact on Everest base camp and determine if this causes any negative effects on communities downstream of the Khumbu glacier.

Laura: I was a member of the Geology team, conducting glacial geologic studies on the Khumbu glacier at Dingboche and Loboche as part of my master’s work.

Photo courtesy of Heather Clifford.

Tell us about graduation day! How did you celebrate?

Heather: In December 2018, I defended my master’s thesis and was not able to attend graduation in December or spring. Laura brought it to my attention that May 11th was University of Maine’s commencement date while we were at base camp. We thought it would be a fun idea to take this opportunity to have a ceremony for us, especially with both of our advisors present.

We spent time during the day making caps out of cardboard and tape, and a gown made from trash bags. I added a yellow jacket around my neck to signify a master’s hood, typically worn during the ceremony for graduate students.

At the beginning of dinner, we entered the tent with our cap and gown to “Pomp and Circumstance” and were greeted by our advisors who had our “degrees,” which were actually rock sampling bags from the geology team. Each advisor gave a speech and handed us our degrees, then we celebrated with cake that said, “Congrats Heather and Laura!” It was a fun and spontaneous celebration as I had not celebrated finishing my degree yet, and it was nice to share it with the rest of the crew who we had gotten to know over the past month and a half.

What was your favorite memory from the ceremony? Was there anything (or anyone) you missed?

Photo courtesy of Heather Clifford.

Heather: My favorite part of the ceremony was both the inspiring impromptu speeches made by my advisor, Paul Mayewski, and Laura’s advisor, Aaron Putnam, and receiving my degree (rock sampling bag) that had been signed by the crew of science, media and logistics teams at base camp. It is a nice souvenir from the expedition that I have hanging at my desk. The fact that our cooking team made a cake at 17,500 feet and put our names on it was pretty hilarious. Who knew you could get all the ingredients and bake a cake at Everest base camp? 

I would say we were missing family and friends, but the tent was too small anyways. Plus I don’t think a lot of them would appreciate a party where you can barely breathe at 17,500 feet. Altitude is definitely not for everyone! 

Laura: My favorite part was [expedition leader and scientific lead] Paul [Mayewski]’s introduction of us as “high achievers,” and other great and terrible puns sprinkled throughout his introductory speech.

I definitely missed my friends and family and wished that they could be there, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was great to have such a unique and personalized ceremony with our field family!

Follow updates from the Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition and explore historical and new data about the role of Mount Everest as a water tower for the region at www.natgeo.com/everest.

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