In early February, Alison Criscitiello PhD ‘14, Rebecca Haspel, and Kate Harris SM ’10 set out on a 40-day winter ski traverse through the rugged Central-Asian Pamir Mountains carrying 50-pound backpacks and dragging sleds.
Their mission: bring attention to conservation issues related to migratory wildlife that populate an area made up of the bordering countries of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan. They named the journey Borderski.
Called the Roof of the World by locals because of its dramatic 4,000-meter mountains, the region is home to endangered Marco Polo sheep, snow leopards, and ibex. “It’s beneficial to a healthy population of animals like ibex to have huge migratory corridors. They need a lot of land, and they cover a lot of land in a year,” said Criscitiello.
She argues that such migratory corridors are being threatened by the rise in fences being built along national borders. “Fencing borders means nothing when you are in the middle of the mountains, but has huge implications on migration,” said Criscitiello.
The women—nicknamed the Fanny Pack to honor 20th century woman mountaineer Fanny Bullock Workman—traversed along Tajikistan’s border with Kyrgyzstan, China, and Afghanistan. They met with locals in the eastern part of Tajikistan and got to know several farming and shepherding families.
Because certain areas of the route did not have enough snow suitable for skiing, the pack strapped sleds on their backs and shuttled loads or skied on frozen river beds. “I’ve avoided skiing on ice most of my life,” said Criscitiello. “This was a first.” At another point in the trip, a nearby avalanche prevented the women from meeting up with the filmmaker capturing the journey.
And it was cold. The pack experienced nights as cold as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and had to stop skiing by 4:30 p.m. because temperatures dropped dramatically as night fell. “Friends joke with me that it’s impossible for me to get cold,” said Criscitiello. “But I think for the first time ever I did actually say out loud, ‘I’m sick of being cold’”
Now that Criscitiello has returned to postdoctoral work as a glaciologist at the University of Calgary, she and the other women in the pack are already planning their next adventure.
“Mountaineering is my other life,” she said in a recent Women in STEM podcast. “For me, there is really nothing else in the world that compares to that feeling of being somewhere incredibly remote and frozen, even if it’s inhospitable. It just makes me be really present.”