Alison Criscitiello: Breaking new ground in science and mountaineering
The Explorer and ice core scientist's recent expeditions to Mount Logan are historic in more ways than one.
To National Geographic Explorer Alison Criscitiello, there is nothing more thrilling than cold, high-altitude places. As a glaciologist and ice core scientist, her work has taken her from the Arctic to the Antarctic in search of secrets about the Earth’s climate that remain hidden deep within ice. As a professional high-altitude mountaineer, she also seeks out chilly weather and big peaks for fun.
Most recently, with support from the Society, Criscitiello tackled perhaps her most daring feat yet: Canada’s highest point, Mount Logan.
Located in Yukon Territory in northwestern Canada, Mount Logan is thought to house some of the oldest ice on Earth. Glaciers and ice sheets there contain a wealth of data about the history of the region and its climate—valuable information that Criscitiello has dedicated years to uncovering and interpreting.
In May 2021, as part of the Perpetual Planet Expeditions partnership between National Geographic Society and Rolex, Criscitiello scaled Mount Logan to conduct radar surveys of the summit plateau, searching for ideal ice core drilling sites with her climbing partner, geologist Rebecca Haspel. While there, the scientists installed the highest weather station in North America near Mount Logan’s peak. This was also the first high-altitude radar survey ever conducted solely by two women.
One year later, Criscitiello made a second trailblazing expedition to Mount Logan. This time, accompanied by six other scientists, the Explorer set out to extract a deep ice core from the mountain’s summit.
The expedition, Criscitiello admits, was difficult in expected and unexpected ways—even for a professional mountaineer. During the ascent from base camp to Mount Logan’s peak, which took 10 days, three of Criscitiello’s crew members were forced to turn back due to altitude-related health issues, leaving her with a smaller team and less resources than anticipated to operate the 900-pound ice core drill.
“I kept the drill running 14 hours a day, which was a lot for people,” says Criscitiello, who prepares for her intense treks with a strict training schedule built on running and strength training. “It was a physical max for what is possible at that kind of altitude.”
Working in three-hour shifts, the mountaineers were able to complete the extraction in just 11 days, pausing only to repair the drill after a serious motor malfunction. Looking back on those difficult moments, Criscitiello says the expedition was still an overwhelmingly positive experience, yielding data far beyond her expectations.
“Every single scientific objective was ticked off, which was by no means a given,” Criscitiello says. “I think this was the highest-risk, highest-reward project that I have ever had the opportunity to lead so far in my life.”
Now back home in Edmonton, Alberta, Criscitiello will spend the next several months studying the nearly 2000-pound ice core, conducting a series of analyses to better understand the region’s environmental history, as well as the impact that climate change has on glacial ice.
At a record-breaking 327 meters—significantly deeper than anticipated by the 2021 survey—it is likely the oldest non-polar ice core ever recovered in North America, and is estimated to contain roughly 30,000 years of environmental data.
“No deep ice core—something that’s drilled with an intermediate depth drill like this one–has ever been drilled anywhere near an altitude like this one,” says Criscitiello. “Not even close.”
The Mount Logan ice core is far from the first groundbreaking project on Criscitiello’s résumé. Before moving to Canada for a postdoctoral fellowship in 2014, Criscitiello was awarded the first Ph.D. in glaciology ever conferred by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, as director of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Ice Core Lab, she has led glacial ice studies across Canada's Arctic and Rocky Mountains, including expeditions to the Columbia Icefield and to the uninhabited Axel Heiberg Island in Nunavut.
Climbing has been a lifelong love affair for Criscitiello, who grew up in eastern Massachusetts and spent her childhood among the mountains, chasing the highest peaks in New England and beyond. Mountaineering has shaped her career, leading her to work as both a climbing ranger in national parks and a guide on expeditions to some of the world’s tallest mountains, including the Himalayas. Her love for nature at elevation is also what drives her work as a scientist, Criscitiello says.
“I think falling in love both with winter and also mountains from a very young age is what ignited all of it for me.” Criscitiello says, speaking from Mount Logan's summit plateau as part of the Society's Explorer Classroom education program. “It came from just exploring and adventuring in these places that ultimately I wanted to understand better.”
These adventures to frozen heights have cemented Criscitiello’s position as a leader in glaciology and a role model for aspiring mountaineers, especially young women who may not feel that there is a place for them in the high-altitude climbing world – something Criscitiello herself has experienced.
“I think I struggled a lot with being surrounded only by men,” says Criscitiello. “My confidence and strength, everything [was] questioned, just simply based on me showing up and seeing that I'm a petite female.”
Criscitiello took her responsibility as a mentor for youth to new heights in 2015. In collaboration with fellow Explorer Erin Pettit’s Inspiring Girls Expeditions program, she co-founded Girls* on Ice Canada, offering students tuition-free summer wilderness expeditions to some of Canada’s most remote alpine places. As the program’s director, Criscitiello works with a team of scientists and mountain guides—all of them women—and hopes to empower girls to pursue careers in climbing and science.
“The higher you [climb], the less women you see,” Criscitiello says. To women in mountaineering who feel they don’t fit in, she offers encouragement. “We belong everywhere.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
For the National Geographic Society: Elisabeth Hadjis is a 2022 intern at the Society.