words :: Andrew Findlay.
In 2015, Alison Criscitiello, Kate Harris and Rebecca Haspel were skiing in the remote Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan hoping to trace the country’s border with China, when they were confronted by a group of men. They were armed, agitated, and wary of the trio of foreign women who had appeared, seemingly, out of nowhere.
“They very much did not want to be questioned on exactly where the Tajik-Chinese border really is,” Criscitiello says, recalling the sudden feeling of powerlessness in a volatile situation. “We left the area immediately and skied a different route than planned.”
The experience is another footnote in a life that has seen no shortage of adventure and adrenaline. Criscitiello loves adventure as much as she loves the cold. As a kid growing up in Boston, her happy place was exploring the frigid corners of a New England winter with her twin sister, Ra.
So, it’s fitting this world-renowned glaciologist celebrated her fortieth birthday this past May swaddled head to foot in down-filled extreme weather gear on Mount Logan, where she spent six weeks launching a two-year ice core study. Logan is one of the few non-polar regions of the planet where you can walk on ice that’s up to 200 metres deep.
“We summitted for fun just to take an altitude reading,” Criscitiello told me from her home in Edmonton, where she heads up the University of Alberta’s Canadian Ice Core Lab (CICL).
Scientist, mountaineer, mother, and mentor to young women—this pioneering alpinist and glacier specialist wears many hats.
For Criscitiello, science and fun intersect at the coldest places on Earth. She studies ice cores for clues about both ancient history and how climate change will impact glaciers and life on Earth. When she’s not in the lab or drilling ice cores, Criscitiello climbs mountains, and her resumé is impressive. She’s guided expeditions in the Andes, Alaska, and the Himalayas, and led the first all-female ascent of 6,955-metre Lingsarmo in the Indian Himalaya. In 2015, she, along with Harris and Haspel, ended up completing a winter ski traverse of Tajikistan’s eastern Pamir Mountains despite the close call with suspicious gun-toting locals.
Criscitiello’s path to the pinnacle of science and alpinism has been a parallel journey. After earning an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University in her twenties, she felt the call of the mountains. She trained to become a climbing ranger for the U.S. National Park Service, responsible for conducting alpine rescues and assessing route conditions. After a three-year tenure at Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park, she was ready to move on.
“A lot of people told me that I had a dream job and in a lot of ways it was. But I’m also a bookish person and after a while I wanted to use my analytical mind,” Criscitiello says, “I wanted to study the places I love.”
So, she hit the books again, studying for a master’s degree in geophysics from Columbia University. This was an important time in her life. Following her MA, she shopped around for a doctoral advisor and ended up choosing Sarah Das at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was a fortuitous decision, as her second pick advisor wound up losing his job for accusations of repeated harassment of female students and colleagues. “I could have been one of those women,” she says.
She went on to earn a PhD in glaciology, the first-ever conferred to a man or women by MIT. Her formal education reinforced some life lessons for Criscitiello. Despite being young and coming of age in an era of awareness around gender equality, there were still barriers. When she looked around, she didn’t see a lot of contemporary role models and mentors in her realm of the physical sciences. Instead, ironically, she was inspired by women of the past—people like Mary Vaux, who was born into a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family.
On numerous trips to Western Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Vaux conducted pioneering studies of iconic glaciers like the Illecillewaet in Glacier National Park. However, her contributions to science were overshadowed by those of her famous husband, paleontologist and geologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. Like Vaux, Criscitiello’s scientific curiosity led her to Canada, specifically to do a post-doc with University of Calgary’s Shawn Marshall. She moved from Boston to Canmore, knowing nothing about the town and with no intention of staying in Canada long term. But her timing was good; the newly established CICL was well funded, and of course she could climb and ski in Canmore’s backyard. On a trip to the Yukon, she met her future wife, Amy.
“I was offered the job here at CICL upon finishing my post-doc. Accepting the job, marrying Amy, and falling in love with the mountains here, all have kept me here, permanently,” Criscitiello says.
As her scientific career flourished in Canada, so too did an understanding of her own personal circumstances and the advantages it has afforded her. “I grew up in an upper middle-class family,” she says candidly.
This realization led her to start volunteering with Girls on Ice, an American non-profit dedicated to giving teenage girls mountaineering experience and opportunities to explore art and science in a wilderness setting. At first, her involvement was minimal, mostly helping to select candidates. When she started seeing more and more applications from Canadian girls, she spotted a need and an opportunity.
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So, in 2018, she co-founded Girls on Ice Canada. The program accepts ten candidates each year and is held in Rogers Pass. The Canadian version has been so successful that two new chapters are being launched—Girls on Ice Kootenays and Girls on Ice Yukon.
“I don’t get paid for any of this, but I think it’s the most important work that I do,” Criscitiello says.
When it comes to her paid work—examining ice cores drilled from the coldest locations on the planet—she’s forced to face a stark reality: the very frozen places she loves to explore are melting beneath her feet. Though at altitude on Mount Logan, climate change can seem like a distant reality, not so in the Canadian Rockies where even a non-scientist would be alarmed by the rate at which glaciers like the Athabasca are retreating year after year.
“People ask me if my work is depressing. I’m a field-based scientist and I write papers. Ultimately, I hope that the work I do informs policy,” she says. “The policy world is not my world.”
Now, with a two-year-old daughter named Winter at home, Criscitiello has a new challenge: balancing risk and research in the mountains with motherhood.
“It’s always hard to tear myself away, and it’s simultaneously so good when I’m out doing what I love. I’ve needed help finding that balance. I think bigger, riskier objectives, which I used to love might not be something I’m comfortable with anymore. But I’m okay with that,” she says. “I truly think, for me, the biggest risk since becoming a mother is not being myself.”