Alton Byers


Expeditions Council Grantee, Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee, National Geographic Society/Waitt Grantee, National Geographic Blackstone Innovation Challenge Grantee

Photo: Alton Byers

Photograph by Daniel Byers

Photo: Alton Byers

Photograph by Daniel Byers

Birthplace: U.S.

Current City: Elkins, WV

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

At 14, roaming the hills north of Athens, Greece (my father was in the foreign service), with my half Sioux-half French best friend Lynn Shangreaux, homemade backpacks on and shotguns in hand, I wanted more than anything to be a circa 1830s mountain man and trapper out West. (That's all we talked about at night around the campfire.) But those days were long gone, and at 17, climbing Kilimanjaro and on a hunting safari with Lynn on the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania, I was convinced that my destiny was to become a big-game hunter, and I pursued that idea for a couple of years. Then at 21, trekking high in the Himalaya for several months with my Tibetan refugee porter and friend Chogyel, I remember looking over at one of the Annapurnas and suddenly coming up with the idea of becoming a mountain geographer—making a life of not only studying mountain people and ecosystems, but of perhaps helping them as well through conservation and community development projects.

How did you get started in your field of work?

When I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro at age 17, my first real mountain climb, I was so windblown, sunburned, dehydrated, and sick with the altitude that on the trek back down I swore I'd never climb another mountain again. But that was short-lived, and a year later I was climbing the Grand Teton and other summits, trained by a wonderful group of hippie climbers that I would visit each weekend after work with the road crew at Yellowstone National Park. Several years later it all seemed to come together when I decided to become a mountain geographer, a sort of "climbing scientist" like so many of my heroes from the 1850s onwards.

Following a short career as a trekking and climbing guide in Nepal (I met my wife, Elizabeth, at 6,100 meters), I worked for two years with a large, U.S.-funded conservation project in the Mustang, Myagdi, and Gorkha regions of Nepal. That experience led to my Ph.D. in geography (living for a year in the Mount Everest region for the fieldwork) and dedication to mountain conservation and promotion of field-based research.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to your work?

The ability to make a positive difference. In a rapidly changing and shrinking world, it's the satisfaction of looking back and knowing that I've played key roles in the establishment of new national parks in Nepal (Makalu-Barun, where I lived for two years with my young family, working as co-manager); protection of the mountain gorilla in Rwanda; conservation and restoration of high mountain ecosystems in the Himalaya, Andes, and North America; and more recent promotion of Andean-Asian collaboration and exchange by leading field expeditions consisting of scientists from 15 different countries. I'm not entirely sure how it all adds up in the grand scheme of things, given the relentless destruction of the world's wild regions and wildlife, but at least it's a positive contribution.

What's a normal day like for you?

If I'm in the field or on an expedition, which is about half my time, it's up early, walk and conduct fieldwork all day, back to the tent by 5 p.m., dinner at 6 p.m., and in bed by 7 p.m. When I'm in the U.S., I work for The Mountain Institute out of my home in Elkins, West Virginia, so a typical day revolves around telecommuting, conference calls, proposal preparation, report writing, planning the next expedition, hauling firewood, and walking at least an hour in the surrounding hills. Depending on the season I can also be found multitasking with vegetable garden work, canning vegetables, grinding venison, making sourdough bread, making venison jerky or salami, etc. I also give quite a few public presentations—for example, since October I've presented on our new High Mountain-Glacial Watershed Program to the International Mountaineering Association in Nepal, the National Research Council, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the National Science Foundation, Trustees of the Mountain Institute, U.N. Climate Change meetings in Durban, and the U.S. State Department.

Do you have a hero?

I have so many heroes that it would take hours to list them. What they all have in common is that they were explorers, and I now have a huge library of exploration literature and biographies. But the people I really admire were and are the climber-scientists of the world, people like Erwin Schneider, who put up many first ascents in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru in the 1930s while publishing beautiful and brilliant maps, photographs, books, and articles. I try and promote this combination of traditional, muddy-boots field geography with the best of modern tools and technologies among young scientists, mostly through periodic training courses and expeditions. For example, I recently took six Ph.D. students on an international glacial lake expedition to Nepal along with a group of more senior scientists, and I think that the experience was extremely positive and meaningful for them.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

Fieldwork in remote mountain regions. For example, the NGS-Waitt Grant Program recently co-financed two research projects with colleagues at Hokkaido University on glacial lake outburst floods in the remote Hongu Valley of eastern Nepal. The work involved weeks of trekking, crossing two semitechnical passes over 5,800 meters in elevation, daily fieldwork at altitudes over 5,100 meters, living for weeks in tents, and fascinating scientific discoveries and insights. Another favorite experience is that of taking my family climbing in Peru and watching my 17-year-old daughter laughing and running circles around me at 5,900 meters. In the fall of 2010, it was my son running circles around my expedition in Nepal as he filmed our glacial lake research, then jumping into the most unstable of the high altitude lakes to see if he could cause an outburst flood. But seriously, it's really thrilling to see their skills and commitment to conservation growing, in part because of these experiences.

The most challenging was a project I just finished where I served as expedition planner, fund-raiser, and leader for 35 international scientists for three weeks in the Mount Everest region of Nepal. We all got up to the glacial lakes and then home safely in the midst of an earthquake, resulting in landslides that washed out our route, bad weather, and even the harrowing news of a plane crash the day after we returned to Kathmandu. I loved it but was exhausted when it was all over!

What are your other passions?

My wife, my family, mountain exploration, all-day walks in the wilderness areas surrounding our home as frequently as possible, writing and publishing, practicing self-reliance skills such as growing, canning, or hunting as much of our food as possible, and my new truck.

What do you do in your free time?

All-day walks with my wife in the surrounding wilderness areas as frequently as possible, writing and publishing, practicing self-reliance skills such as growing, canning, or hunting as much of our food as possible, playing guitar, and looking at my new truck.

If you could have people do one thing to help save mountain environments, what would it be?

If people could do one thing to help protect mountain environments and improve the lives of mountain people, it would be to support the work of The Mountain Institute!

The Mountain Institute News


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    The Mountain Institute on Camera

    Filmmaker Daniel Byers represents mountain people and environments in the Andes, Himalaya, and Appalachians in a series of short films.

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    From the Mountaintop

    National Geographic Facebook fans posted their questions for members of The Mountain Institute's international expedition to a potentially dangerous new glacial lake in the Himalaya. The team responded via satellite phone with audio answers and photos.

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    Expedition to a Glacial Lake

    The mountain world is changing faster than any of us could have imagined. These changes threaten all of us who live downstream. Glaciers are melting, rainfall patterns are changing, and the world's most important freshwater supplies are endangered.

  • Photo: Man wears snow goggles made from duct tape

    Duct-Tape Snow Goggles and Other Himalayan Adventures

    Cut off from the world while crossing treacherous mountain passes in deep snow was all in a day's work for a father-and-son team determined to trek through the remote Hongu Valley in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal.


  • Photo:Alton Byers and his team setting up at Chamlang lake

    Glacial Lakes Risk Assessment

    NGS/Waitt grantee Alton Byers—working with The Mountain Institute (TMI), Hokkaido University, Japan; the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Nepal; and the American Alpine Club (AAC)—launched a scientific field expedition to the remote Hongu Valley of Makalu-Barun National Park in eastern Nepal to scientifically assess the condition of nine glacial lakes that have grown significantly over the past 20 years as a result of global warming.

Expedition Clip Book

In Their Words

If people could do one thing to help protect mountain environments and improve the lives of mountain people, it would be to support the work of the Mountain Institute!

—Alton Byers



Listen to Alton Byers

Hear an interview with Byers on National Geographic Weekend.

  • 00:11:00 Alton Byers

    Part of the job of doing risk analysis of glacial lakes high in mountains is the act of just getting to the lake. So Alton Byers spends much of his time stomping up mountains simply to do his job. As he's gotten older, the geographer tells Boyd that he's learned the secret to high altitude success -- maintaining the same pace at 5,000 feet that he does at 20,000 feet.

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