Glaciologist Puts Her Girls on Ice

Illustration by Stephen Rountree
Erin Pettit (far right, dashing to get into the picture) has taken teenagers to explore Mount Baker since 1999. Photo by Erin Pettit
The girls learned climbing skills from mountaineering guide Cece Mortenson (far right, beckoning them into a cave carved out by a glacier sliding over a boulder). Photo by Erin Pettit
Mountain climbers wear harnesses and are roped to each other in teams in case they have to retrieve anyone who falls into a crevasse. (Instructor Mortenson helps student Tiffany Riesenberg, 16, pick her way up the glacier.) Photo by Erin Pettit
The students (including Molly Holleran, age 17) practiced self- arrest—stopping a fall on a slope using an ice ax. Photo by Erin Pettit

For a few days this past August, a handful of teenagers became climate researchers investigating a glacier on Mount Baker in Washington State. Erin Pettit, a 35-year-old glaciologist, led the nine adolescents, ages 15 to 18, on the ten-day expedition as part of a program she created called "Girls On Ice."

Having the program be an all-girl experience is important to Pettit. "This is a course to get dirty, wear clothing or harnesses and helmets that are not necessarily the most beautiful or flattering. Our society has taught girls not to like any of those things, and to not show their interest or intelligence in science. But I want to provide a space without that pressure—where the girls can show their interest, their intelligence, their strength. Then when they get back home, hopefully they will feel a bit less constrained.”

The students were trained to calculate the velocity of streams and use GPS to measure the movement of the glacier. They also practiced mountaineering skills such as how to rope up in a harness to climb a glacier—and how to fall down one. For many of the teens, just carrying everything they needed in 50-pound packs on their backs, setting up camp and cooking over a gas stove was part of the learning curve.

Pettit’s program has left a lasting impression on the teenagers. One of the students she took out on the ice in 2001 has gone on to study marine biology. Another did research on glaciers at the Juneau ice field in Alaska. "But my goal is not to turn these girls into scientists,"she says. "My goal is to provide the kind of critical-thinking skills that are necessary for science—and for everything else we do in life.”

Read the students' journal

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