By the time National Geographic Explorer Baker Perry returned to the United States after a few elementary-school years in the Andes, he had reached staggering heights for a boy his age. Bolivia’s secluded and glaciated Cordillera Real mountains were the backdrop to his childhood, and from 13,000 feet, a young Perry gained a point of view he would carry with him for a lifetime.
A trailblazing climate scientist and geography professor at Appalachian State University, Perry says his formative years in South America’s highlands helped shape the ethos of his research today—to understand weather and climate in the world’s most remote mountains, with local communities as his guide.
Over the years, Perry has led or co-led 23 research expeditions, including returns to Andean peaks and high-mountain Asia several times over. In 2019, Perry, together with fellow Explorer Tom Matthews and a team of Himalayan Sherpas led by Panuru Sherpa, installed five weather stations during a single expedition to Mount Everest. At 27,000 feet, on Everest’s “Balcony”, they planted the highest weather station in the world.
Two years later, the team reassembled to scale the top of the world again; this time to conduct maintenance on the stations, and replace one that had gone dark in 2020. The collapsed station’s successor is perched even higher on the mountain, on an outcrop known as Bishop Rock—a stone’s throw from Everest’s summit. Both efforts were organized as part of the National Geographic Society and Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Expeditions, which supports exploration of some of the Earth’s most extreme environments.
The reward for braving sub-freezing temperatures and the “death zone”— altitudes above 26,000 feet, where oxygen is too sparse to maintain human life—is getting to understand environments that have been studied little, yet bear tremendous impact on the world.
An estimated 1.6 billion people—more than 20 percent of the human population—are dependent on supply from snow and glacial melt stored in the world’s natural water towers. Data from expeditions like these help predict short-term forecasts, vital for climbers to elude unforeseen and deadly storms, and more broadly, provide new insights about the importance and vulnerability of high-mountains’ precious resources.
Rising global temperatures have triggered record ice retreats, and downstream demand is straining water resources. Questions still remain around how these systems work, and the degree of trouble they’re in, Perry explains.
He was astonished “at just how much we don't know about what's happening in the high mountains,” beginning in graduate school. Since, Perry has been working to fill these knowledge gaps, following a curiosity he’s had since he was a boy.
“I vaguely remember my parents saying I would get excited when the weatherman would come on and report from Mount Washington.” That was in his home in Portland, Maine, where snowfall, freezing temperatures, and precipitation made for severe winters that primed him for erratic weather in high places, including his early stint in the Andes.
Living in rural Peru and Bolivia as a kid, Perry became proficient in Spanish and well-acquainted with Aymara and Quechua, two regional Indigenous languages. He existed as a member of the community in South America’s dramatic mountain ranges; an American student among Native Andeans. At a young age, Perry absorbed what it meant to belong to this community, and the connection persisted even upon his return to the United States.
“I mean, there were some challenges,” Perry says, describing the process of reintegration. “I came into fourth grade with my woven hat and a wool bag and everybody’s like ‘This is rural, western North Carolina…who is this guy?’”
Perry identified with two worlds. He describes feeling “a little different” growing up, and perhaps unknowingly, was experiencing the symptoms of becoming a cultural bridge.
His latest research mission in July is a testament to his track record of community-building. Atop southern Peru’s Nevado Ausangate mountain, Perry and Matthews, with a team of elite female Bolivian climbers, known as “Cholitas Escaladoras;” fellow Explorer and Indigenous Peruvian biologist Ruthmery Pillco; Explorer Thomas Peschak and a broader team of local scientists and guides, installed the highest weather station in the tropical Andes.
Perry calls the experience “an embrace and celebration of Indigenous Andean culture and people. That was a really fun and rewarding part of the Ausangate expedition.”
“From a personal and professional” perspective, Perry says, the Indigenous representation and collaboration with communities and individuals he has come to know over the years made this expedition especially rewarding.
Sitting at over 20,000 feet, just below the summit of Peru’s highest peak, the station produces real-time meteorological data ranging from temperature, windspeed, and relative humidity to radiation and snow depth. Over time, the findings will help inform local governments and the scientific community on the degree of impact that climate change is having on this critical water tower.
The team also collected snow samples to test for microplastics and different water isotopes.
“We took samples for the microplastics analysis about a meter down, and then about two meters down. This vertical profile has not really been done before,” Perry explains. If microplastics are detected, they are likely carried by winds from far distances. Isotopes in snow pack could also give scientists clues about the region’s climate history, which will help long-term weather predictions and resource management.
“Really, our hope is that the station will directly improve projections of the future ice extent on Ausangate and neighboring peaks, which will then allow for much better determination of water resource availability for communities downstream,” Perry says.
There’s also an interest in following the flow to the Amazon. Ongoing deforestation and climate change have proved a disaster for weather patterns, with studies in the Brazilian rainforest demonstrating a connection between loss of land cover and reduced rainfall. Consequently, scientists wonder how important the contribution from the Amazon is to precipitation at high elevations. Perry explains. “That's a really important question that we want to try and answer as well.”
Ausangate builds upon another installation at elevation. In 2021, Perry together with Matthews, co-led a team up the Chilean mountain of Tupungato to position a weather station just below the dormant volcano’s summit, making it the Southern and Western Hemispheres’ highest weather station. Both missions were organized as part of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative and together will help provide insights into extreme climate at the highest elevations in the Andes, and the future of the mountains’ critical water supply.
The two expeditions bore unique hurdles. Perry and his team were hit by a severe ground blizzard while scaling the Chilean mountains. And though Tupungato bests Ausangate in height by around 600 feet, Perry says the latter was much more technically challenging.
Even for an expert climber, a 650-foot stretch at 70–80 degrees, or nearly vertical, was a challenge.
“There are short sections of the Khumbu ice fall going up Everest that are like that, but this was continuous,” Perry remembers. And once the 138-pound station and installation gear was carried to the top, there was the weather to consider.
In contrast to Tupungato, Everest, or Canada’s Mount Logan, Ausangate’s summit has no exposed rock due to less wind and heavier snowfall. “Everything gets buried,” Perry says.
“We actually had to dig nearly ten feet down to set the center masts. Then, because it snows so much, we had to make sure the instruments were seven to nine feet above the snow surface,” he recalls. Without a ladder, a Peruvian colleague stood on Perry’s back to get the job done.
On other mountains, the combination of roaring winds and freezing temperatures poses problems. Batteries fail when solar panels get buried by snow or encased by rime ice, shutting the whole system down. The remoteness of these peaks means maintenance journeys cannot happen quickly. Altitude sickness can cause setbacks, so climbers must account for time to acclimate. In general, when working in the world’s highest places, “you can’t just fly in and fly out,” Perry notes.
Other work waits for him after each descent. Perry, a professor, father, and husband, maintains that striking a balance between the field and home requires intention. For more than three of the eight months elapsed this year, he has been away. “It’s hard,” he admits.
His time is spread thin, but he fulfills his duties by staying creative. Sometimes he files students’ final grades from a tent at basecamp. To stay in summiting shape while at home, he takes his gym to his kids’ activities.
“They have weekend soccer tournaments. I’ll take the bike with me, with the trainer, and sit on the sideline and pedal,” Perry laughs. “Initially my daughter’s like ‘Oh no. You’re not going to do that.’” She got used to it. In the six to nine months leading up to a big expedition, he spends 15–20 hours a week training. His safety hinges on it.
For Perry, the hours of preparation and the long, risky journeys are worth the reward. He brings his real-world experience directly to the classroom, and guides his students into the field on study abroad trips. Instilling a sense of adventure and exploration in young people, he says, is “a highlight” of what he does professionally.
His personal ties to the Andean community also keep him going.
“A lot goes back to the time that as a kid I spent in the Andes. Certainly by studying there and building relationships with people you become more invested,” Perry reiterates.
“These people are in a sense extended family members and friends. There’s a sense of responsibility to continue the science...to continue to operate the stations as long as we can because we’re trying to build capacity and inspire people.”
Baker Perry is participating in the National Geographic Society Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition—a two-year series of scientific studies spanning the entire Amazon River Basin, supported by Rolex as part of its Perpetual Planet initiative. Learn more about the expedition.
ABOUT THE WRITER
For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.