An Interview with John All
We were fortunate enough to get to interview Everest mountaineer and scientist, John All recently.
Editor: We appreciate you taking the time to speak to us, John. We know you are healing and have a tight schedule.
Watch the incredible footage of Dr. All's rescue!
How and when did you develop an interest in mountaineering and science?
How old were you?
John All: My father was a scientist and professor and I have been surrounded by science since I was born. My mom told me that as a baby I would lay in a small cradle in a forest clearing while my father collected data. I would watch the birds and insects and laugh all day long. Later, as we grew older, my brother and I helped Dad collect data and worked on his experiments with him – it was like a game for us. The more I learned about the world, the more I wanted to know and so that led me down the road towards science.
As for mountaineering, like many people I think, my experiences began with Boy Scouts. Backpacking, rock climbing, survival skills, tree climbing, wilderness medicine – once I was inundated with these things it was impossible for me to not continue down that path…which inexorably led me to larger and larger mountains until I summitted Mt. Everest.
Combining these two passions led to the formation of the American Climber Science Program (www.climberscience.com) with Ellen Lapham, Rebecca Cole, and Carl Schmitt. The ACSP works with climbers and scientists (including students) on research and conservation in difficult-to-access areas of the world.
While we mainly focus on the high peaks of Peru and Nepal, we’ve also worked in jungles and deserts and caves. The thing that ties these efforts together is doing holistic environmental research while making it safe for non-climbers to train for and survive in these difficult locations.
Editor: You were involved in an accident in the Everest region and were rescued. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?
John All: This was a difficult year in Nepal. We were on Everest when the massive icefall occurred and my team was in the middle of it. For most of the day, I wondered how many of my friends had survived as everyone was scattered. Asman Tamang died and left behind a new wife and 9-month old daughter and it devastated me.
He and I had laughed and joked about racing through the icefall and drunk a raksi toast of rum together during the Puja eight hours before and then he was gone. But we weren’t just there to climb, we were there for science. My Nepali friends believe in our work and pushed through the logistics for a different peak that was also on the Tibetan border and could be climbed in the short time we had left before the monsoon.
We moved quickly to base camp and then up the mountain, but unfortunately, at 6000 meters one of the three remaining people on our team was feeling ill. With probably less than a week left before the monsoon began, I had a difficult decision – should we all descend while she recovered?
Or should I remain in Camp 2 alone and process samples so that when she felt better, that tedious task would already be done and we would be ready to resume climbing? It would buy us a day or two of precious time.
The days before the monsoon were counting down and I didn’t want Asman’s sacrifice to be in vain, so I chose the risk and the science. Unfortunately, the odds caught up to me on a safe looking section of glacier near the tent just as I was about to collect snow samples.
I fell 70 feet into a crevasse that had been covered by a thin layer of snow, but fortunately landed on an ice-block above the rest of the void. I had 15 broken bones including 6 vertebrae, a severely dislocated shoulder, torn muscles and tendons, a smashed knee, and both external and internal bleeding.
Fortunately, I had my ice axes and my left arm worked, so I managed to climb the vertical walls, traversing a few hundred feet to my right towards where the crevasse narrowed so that I could chimney the last few feet to the surface. It took about five hours to climb out of the crevasse and then another couple of hours to crawl to the tent and the sat phone.
After I posted a call for help on our American Climber Science Facebook page, a helicopter came and got me 19 hours later. I probably wouldn't have lasted much longer and so I was grateful to hear the rotors.
Editor: I bet! What was it like being interviewed by the BBC and how did that go?
John All: Fame is a strange thing. One of the first people who interviewed me after my accident was from the CBS Evening News and his first question asked if the videos that I recorded in the crevasse were fake! What had happened to me didn’t seem real or even possible to him (or to most people since).
As people have become more familiar with my story, the questions have become much better. I did interviews with every major news organization on Earth – it was surreal seeing my name surrounded by Arabic – but the British have been the most interested and they are invariably polite.
Editor: What draws you emotionally to mountaineering? Was this something you planned early on in your life?
John All: Who can explain emotions? We love what we love and must follow wherever love leads – and there’s no way to plan for that. Climbing feels as essential as breathing to me and I can't see a hill or mountain without pondering ways to the top and then climbing it. It doesn't have to be a famous peak – if I visit a friend with a hill behind their house or see a boulder next to a gas station, I'll climb it.
Editor: Who are your mountaineering icons, the ones you look to for inspiration?
John All: One of my majors in undergrad at Duke was history and I've always been drawn the greats who redefined what was possible – Norton cruising the Great Couloir until snow blindness crippled him, Wiessner pushing K2, Messner solo and without oxygen on the North Ridge. And most importantly, Hillary.
Not because of the climb necessarily – while he was very strong it was good weather that finally let someone summit Everest – but because of how he spent the rest of his life caring for the Sherpa people instead of getting rich. A celebrity who was the first to climb Everest could have become a millionaire and been in all of the tabloids. Instead he used his fame to build schools and airports and to plant trees across the Khumbu. Strength with compassion is what makes a man great.
Editor: What are your feelings towards the Sherpa community? How important is their contribution in the world of Everest mountaineers?
John All: They are the brothers who choose to go into danger with us. It deeply saddens me to see so many people treat them like servants or worse. People forget that when you tie into a rope with someone, you are binding your life to theirs for a time and that should carry more respect.
I treat my Sherpa friends as equals – eat in the cook tent with them, drink tea with them, laugh and cry with them – while the rest of my team hides themselves away in the dining tent. I can't imagine climbing any other way.
Editor: You were recently contacted by the producers of American Ninja Warrior asking you to be on the show next season. That must be exciting!
John All: Mark Twight said the goal of alpine training is to make yourself indestructible - because the harder you are to kill, the longer you'll last in the mountains. I love doing anything that stretches my physical limits and makes me struggle in a new way – triathlons, tree skiing, paragliding, snowboarding, scuba diving, mountain biking, intense yoga, kiteboarding, jujitsu, deep caving, rugby, etc. American Ninja Warrior sounds like a great way to train, while still laughing because it's just a safe game for TV.
Editor: What are some of your future goals, John?
John All: I've been thinking about a Gibraltar to Cape of Good Hope mountain biking trip if I can tie enough science together to make it meaningful. I've done research in the game parks of Southern Africa while dodging animals trying to kill me and would love to do an environmental transect of the entire continent.
My friend Graham and I been talking about getting data in a transect from Tajikistan to Pakistan with multiple summits - including K2 to finish things up. Carl and Rebecca, my friends with the ACSP, want us to plan trips to collect data on Ellesmere Island and also Kamchatka and to return to the jungles of Costa Rica.
Life is full of possibilities and it's just a question of deciding what has the greatest impact for science and conservation while also being the most fun!
Editor: Thank you for giving us a chance to learn about your journey, and we extend our best wishes to you.
Dr. John All is a geoscientist whose life has been devoted to exploration around the world as he examines how climate change and resource management interact to impact communities and the biosphere in mountainous regions.
He is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the American Climber Science Program (www.climberscience.com www.mountainscience.org ). The American Climber Science Program, or ACSP, is a group of volunteers who further the goals of exploration by bringing scientists and students into the mountains of the world to conduct environmental research and engage in conservation activities.
Through the ACSP, experienced volunteer climbers assist in conducting research while also helping scientists and students learn to survive and work productively in these hostile environments.
Through the ACSP, Dr. All is interested in expanding our understanding of climate change impacts on the biosphere in remote locations and identifying ways in which resource management can inform climate change adaptation more broadly.
Dr. All has led expeditions on five continents in extreme locations from deep caves to tropical rain forests, deserts to the world’s highest mountains. He has led expeditions to climb Mt. Everest and numerous other noteworthy peaks across the world and is a Lifetime Fellow of the Explorers Club in New York City.
He worked for 6 years as a Program Officer for a UN Climate Change and Human Health Initiative prior to founding the ACSP, and is currently a geoscience professor at WKU in addition to his work with the Climber Science Program.
Associate Professor, Western Kentucky University
Director, American Climber Science Program (ACSP)
Co-Leader, ACSP-Peru Expeditions: 2014, 2015
Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
Photo Credit: John All
On the Cover: Dr. John All - PhD, JD