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science in an extreme environment

2 march 2019

Science in an Extreme Environment is an odd mix of philosophy/history-of-science theorizing, adventure narrative, and nonfiction of the absurd. Philip Clements' story of the 1963 U.S. expedition to Mount Everest shares elements with many another narrative of extreme mountain climbing, but it offers a unique critical perspective on an unrepeatable expedition, neither lionizing nor cynical. Clements captures the fear, bullshit, courage, ethnocentricity, and elemental strangeness of an unprecedented exploration of Everest.

"Unprecedented" and "unrepeatable" are central to Clements' thesis and produce some of the paradoxes he studies. A few previous expeditions had put climbers on the summit of Everest, but none had had such sweeping scientific ambitions, combined with such mountaineering ambition. The 1963 expedition was the first to climb the West Ridge of Everest, and (because those climbers came down via the South Col) the first to traverse the mountain (walking across the top instead of up and back down the way you came, which the expedition also achieved). But the 1963 team also included a number of scientists whose job it was to produce generalizable knowledge about physiology, geography, and social psychology. As Clements incisively asks, how can you produce generalizable knowledge about a unique place, under conditions that are near-impossible to replicate?

Since the focus is science, Clements concentrates not on the summit climbers (with the exception of Barry Bishop, who was on one of the summit teams and studied solar radiation). Clements also makes Norman Dyhrenfurth, the leader of the expedition, into a minor character once the team is on the mountain. Dyhrenfurth is the star of earlier chapters, where he performs amazing feats of rhetoric to get an American Everest expedition funded in the first place.

And if you guessed that the route to such funding, in the early 1960s, would be via outer space, you're correct. Much of the support for the climb came from National Geographic, but much was supplemented by government sources. The U.S. Government saw little point in making Everest a regular destination, but they could see the connection between Everest and space, Everest not being all that far from space. And the space program had a blank checkbook during the Kennedy administration. Dyhrenfurth made a plausible case that the conditions men would endure in the Himalayas provided a preview of those they would encounter in orbit or on the Moon.

And I said "men" because it was 1963 and everybody involved in climbing or space travel was a man. Assumptions about sex have changed a lot in 56 years. Also needless to say, "men" in the minds of these researchers meant Euro-American white men. Sherpas, as always, did most of the work (and one, Nawang Gombu, was on the summit team); but the Americans were interested mainly in themselves.

Dyhrenfurth's scientific brain trust, and thus the protagonists of Clements' story, are five researchers: Bishop (heliometry); Maynard Miller (geology and glaciology); Richard Emerson (sociology); James Lester (psychology); and Will Siri (physiology). Their mountaineering experience varied, from Bishop, who was a star of previous expeditions funded in part by National Geographic, to Lester, who hadn't climbed much of anything before. Their research agendas also differed. Miller was going to collect rocks and ice and put them under the microscope. Siri (who no doubt thanked his stars that the iPhone was long in the future, so his tentmates couldn't continually ask him "Siri, how high is Mount Everest?") was going to take blood and urine from the climbers and do chemistry. Bishop intended to set up gizmos and measure light.

Emerson and Lester did far "softer" science but shared their "hard-science" colleagues' positivist assumptions. Emerson would have the climbers observe variables about themselves (such as "Motivational Investment, Energy Mobilization, and Uncertainty," 30) and record their findings as numerical data points in diaries; he also intended to run "bull sessions" to see what people would say. One is tempted to say that Emerson's method was somewhere between heuristic, subjective, and useless, but he took it quite seriously and I suppose we should take it seriously too. In many ways social sciences are still where they were in 1963 in terms of quantifying the human world.

As for Lester, the psychologist, he "felt that his ideas for research 'stubbornly resist maturing, beyond the "I-wonder-what-happens-when-18-men-try-to-climb-3-mountains stage"'" (35). In some ways Lester is the most intriguing character in the book, the most open about the dubiousness of his agenda, Everyman on the mountain. Everest kicked Lester's ass to such an extent that he swore off climbing for the rest of his life, afterwards; but heck, to wander onto the Khumbu Icefall in 1963 as a complete layman is no mean achievement, and he wrote about it eloquently.

The 1963 climb balanced triumph and tragedy. Climber Jake Breitenbach was killed by an avalanche in the Icefall, but his death was essentially a "normal" occurrence on Everest, unrelated to hubris or bad decisions. Miller suffered a badly broken foot, summit climber Willi Unsoeld lost toes to frostbite, and several climbers spent scary nights at very high altitudes. Richard Emerson bivouacked overnight 30 feet deep in a crevasse, and lived to tell the tale. But despite a risky decision by Dyhrenfurth to split the team into two summit parties and come at the top of the mountain from different angles, the climbing aspect of the adventure, as noted above, was remarkably successful.

How was the science? Clements is ambivalent. His main theme is that, above a certain height, the science broke down completely. Bishop set up few of his gizmos. Miller had to leave behind many a rock and chunk of ice. The men rebelled against filling out Emerson's diaries – the rebellion being data in itself, I reckon – and Lester's project remained at the "I-wonder-what-happens" stage, though he wrote eloquently about his experiences. Only Will Siri seems to have completed what he set out to do, though the men also chafed at his puncturings and proddings. And Siri was unsure what his data meant. He was expecting to find that the 7-8K heights of Everest played hell with people's bodily functions. But he found that everybody he studied seemed fairly normal throughout. I'm not a scientist or even a historian or philosopher of science, but I wonder if Siri's findings embody a kind of survivor bias. The summit teams appeared to come back with only superficial ill effects; but anybody who would have suffered catastrophic effects never climbed very high to begin with.

And in any event, as Clements observes, the sample sizes were really, really small. The data collected by Bishop and Miller, scanty though it was, formed the basis for high-altitude science that continues to have important implications for studying things like glacier formation and the greenhouse effect. But the human sciences on Everest seem to have lacked application beyond being a unique record of those few months in 1963. There is a point beyond which science can say little, and poetry must take over.

Clements, Philip W. Science in an Extreme Environment: The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.