It was only after Ryan Vachon and a small team of scientists reached Tibet’s Nanu Nami did they realize the true irony of their long and arduous journey. The very ice they had travelled to across the world for was thawing, melting away thousands of years of climate information beneath their feet.
Vachon, a climate scientist and ice climber, is familiar with the physical—and mental—ups and downs of research and alpinism. In 2004, he and
four other scientists crammed into an SUV full of research and climbing equipment to reach the most remote corner of Tibet in the hopes of finding ancient climatological data. A military escort ushered them through frigid landscapes so cold they were forced to burn animal feces for warmth. But finally after days of trekking through grueling altitude, and plummeting temperatures, they found the rules of the game had changed.
But that has never been much of a problem for the kind of person who writes their own rules.
Ryan Vachon’s first rope was a clothesline—stolen from his mother. Growing up in Boston, Vachon, a self-described spazz, was always looking for ways to get outside, whether backpacking, mountain biking or climbing. Eventually, he graduated from a clothesline to a Goldline rope, a static strand of braided nylon infamous for its ability to twist and knot on its own, but sufficient for Vachon to continue exploring the cliffs and crags around Boston. He took to climbing the old buildings that populated Tufts and Harvard universities in Boston, using the aged masonry to scale chapels and lecture halls.
“I feel lucky that I got through those years,” said Vachon, with a chuckle.
Vachon is 44, tall and sinewy in a way that clearly lends itself to vertical movement. His eyes are a glacial blue and squinty—whether from his perpetual laughter or too much time spent on exposed, windy ridges, it’s hard to tell. His hair is a salt and pepper gray, cropped short in a way that suggests it is enjoying a rare respite from a beanie or helmet.
Growing up with dyslexia, Vachon was always a restless, kinetic learner. Though his learning disability made school challenging and frustrating, Vachon’s natural curiosity about the world around him—the cogs, knots, plants and rocks that dominated his life, inspired him to pursue a degree in engineering and ultimately a Ph.D. in stable isotope geochemistry—determining the age of ice and rock by studying their molecules.
In Boulder, Colorado, he fell instantly in love with the glacial cirques and jagged peaks that stretch across the state. His attitude was contagious, notes his long-time climbing partner Steven Hobbs, an instructor in CU Boulder’s department of Integrative Physiology.
“His passion for climbing and his relentless encouragement brings out the best in people,” said Hobbs.
Vachon’s early research centered on ice core drilling, a delicate practice that involves scaling mountains and glaciers and using a hollow drill to extract delicate ice cores to study ancient ice layers. As part of his research, Vachon took up photography to document his adventures in the Rocky Mountains and beyond.
Vachon relished every chance to venture into the mountains, camera and ice core drill in hand. After one such expedition in 2003, the team, lead by researchers at Ohio State, were able to publish their findings in the Journal of Quaternary Science, a huge boon for their research. National Geographic called and asked for footage of their exploits. Then Nova. Then the History Channel and Discovery channel.
“I thought that things were coming together nicely,” said Vachon. “But in reality, I just happened to be there….with a camera.”
He was spending every moment he could in the mountains, trying to hone his craft as a photographer. Not one to half-ass anything, Vachon threw himself into his latest pursuit of relentlessly documenting climate research.
While he continued to love the science, eventually Vachon’s scientific research stopped. Climbing followed soon after. He was still frantically documenting climate research as the real work of a documentary filmmaker was beginning to kick in; long weekends out gathering footage, and long nights editing and tweaking to perfection. He has production credits on films such as Drilling, From Top to Bottom, Polar Visions and Flipping 50, several of which enjoyed acclaim at Kendal Mountain and Autrans film festivals, but something was missing.
“I was telling some really important stories,” said Vachon, “but I just wasn’t climbing anymore,”
What began as a career that attempted to merge all of his passions had come to consume all but one. But Vachon’s storytelling too began to plateau as he discovered that he could only successfully sell so many films about ice core drilling.
“It just really took the passion out of it for me,” said Vachon, “and I could only tell the same story so many times.”
So when an old climbing buddy pulled him aside and proposed an ambitious climb, Vachon, remembering the smell of a wet rope, eagerly agreed.
“Suddenly, I was right back at it,” said Vachon. “Doing this weird, crazy thing just for myself.”
Once climbing and science communication were no longer always intertwined, both elements of Vachon’s identity began to truly thrive. He pulled together two back-to-back wins of the men’s’ mixed climbing competition at Ouray Ice Festival in 2016 and 2017, a competition that combines all the frustration and technique required of dry-tooling with the fear of ice-climbing. He’s racked up numerous first ascents, as well as nabbing the second ascent of Saphira (M15-) in Colorado.
Vachon maintains that the most fulfilling component of climbing is the relationships and appreciation for the natural world forged during long and cold weekends in the mountains.
“I don’t climb for any sort of appreciation from the outside world,” Vachon said. “I do it for self-growth, and the people I meet along the way.”
As for his science communication, Vachon is now hard at work on a pilot for a television series aimed at introducing middle-schoolers to science. He loves being able to integrate his outdoor adventures into engaging, science-based programming for youth. At home both in the mountains and behind a camera, Vachon sees himself as a catalyst for both scientific inquiry and outdoor adventure.
And although Vachon relishes the chance to compete, he is more immediately focused on pushing himself to explore new areas and try new routes outside.
Zoë Rom is a Masters candidate in journalism at the University of Colorado.
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