Extreme Persistence | Science | Smithsonian

Extreme Persistence

Madeleine and Thomas Nash braved high altitudes and frigid temperatures for "Chronicling the Ice"

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How did you first meet Thompson? What drew you to him and his work?

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Madeleine: We first connected in 1997 when I called him on the phone. At the time, I was writing a story about the powerful El Niño that had arisen that year, and I was fascinated that his ice cores contained a record of El Niños and La Niñas that went back 1,500 years. The following year I met him in person. I still vividly remember the encounter between Thompson and paleoclimatologist Rick Fairbanks at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December 1998. They were trading tales about hardships they'd endured in the field. "Lonnie's war stories are better than mine," Fairbanks humorously noted.

And then, in the summer of 2000, Thomas (my husband) and I went with him on a small expedition to the Quelccaya ice cap in southern Peru. It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done. When I got to the top of the ice cap at 18,700 feet, I felt I had accomplished something big. When you go on expeditions with people, you grow to understand them in a deep, almost visceral way. It was then, I think, that I grew to appreciate what Thompson goes through to get his ice, how much physical and mental strain is involved.

Do you and your husband work together a lot?

Madeleine: Not all the time, but we've done some very nice stories together. In 2002 we went to Antarctica as a writer-photographer team for Time. We've also collaborated on travel pieces that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. What's nice is that, later on, when I'm writing, I can pull up his photographs and the whole experience of being in a different place comes flooding back. We keep on talking about doing a book together. Maybe we will!

Did either of you have any difficulty with the elevation?

Madeleine: Oh yes. Even though we were both taking Diamox [a drug prescribed for altitude sickness], and even though we were careful not to ascend too quickly, I still felt robbed of energy and, indeed, lost appetite to the point that I had trouble forcing myself to eat. I think I was losing about a pound a day. After Thompson and the others established themselves in the high drill camp, my husband and I debated whether or not we should follow. In the end, we decided against it. The high mountains are unforgiving places; before going farther, I needed to feel I had enough energy in reserve to be able to deal with any problem that might arise—and I clearly didn't. I thought Thompson's description of the climb as "a walk in the park" was highly amusing!

Thomas: The Antarctica story prepared me for dealing with cameras in extreme climate conditions, so I researched the issues that might come up in Tibet. Since I am now shooting digital, using a Nikon D2X, I need to be able to back up images to a computer disk. Few people realize that personal computer hard drives are only qualified to 10,000 feet, and we were over 16,000 feet for over a month. The pickup heads that fly over the spinning disk are held up like an airplane by the air inside, but, of course, they are only a tiny distance above the magnetic surface. As the air gets thinner, the lift reduces. The drives will work higher than 10,000 feet, but the probability of a crash goes up. I carried five portable disks and backed up every image onto at least three of them as soon as I could. The raw images take lots of space, so I was carrying over 400 gigabytes of disk! The MacBook worked fine at the truck camp at 16,000 feet. When I got up to the mid-camp at 17,800 feet, I turned on the MacBook and it did not boot up the first time. I tried again and I saw a message from the operating system I never want to see again—something about "can't find the data"—the data being all the pictures I had taken up to that point. After gasping and catching my breath (no easy matter at that site), I quickly shut the computer off and left it off until I got down to 16,000 feet two weeks later. There it worked well again; all the pictures were still there. In the meanwhile, I stored the images on 16 gigabytes of flash cards the camera uses. Since those cards do not use mechanical devices, they work well at altitude.

Were any of the photos tough to capture?

Thomas: The picture of Lonnie Thompson in front of the glacier was taken on a rocky outcrop at 18,700 feet on the route to the ice camp. Lonnie is a very good subject and cooperative, but I may have delayed his trek upward as he arrived at the ice at dusk.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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