It has been almost seventeen years since my feet touched terra firma at 11,450 feet elevation, on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet. My first time at “high” altitude was both exhilarating, and utterly terrifying. I was embarking on an adventure that was meant to be no nonsense research for my PhD studies, but unbeknownst to me would end up being so much more. In short, it would shake me to my core. It forever changed, at least in part, who I am as a scientist, a woman, and a person.
Let’s start with the science. If you know anything about geology you have probably heard of a little thing called plate tectonics. It is pretty much the unifying theory of how the Earth works, and explains such trivial things as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mountain formation…you get the picture. The basic idea is that the Earth’s rigid, outer shell, called the lithosphere, is broken into several large plates that move around and interact at their edges, kind of like big, moving puzzle pieces. At the plates’ edges, or boundaries, is where the action is! Rumbling earthquakes, explosive volcanic eruptions, and rocks being buckled, folded, and thrust toward the sky, all happen at plate boundaries. They are by and large the premier locales for geologic mayhem.
The Tibetan Plateau, covering an area of 965,000 square miles at an average elevation of over 15,000 feet (that’s 2,500,000 square kilometers and 4,572 meters, respectively, in geek speak) is the biggest, highest, bad-assest plateau on the planet. Tectonically speaking, Tibet is on the Eurasian side of the Indo-Asian collision, where two continents collide. This collision is famously responsible for the formation of the Himalayas. You know, the Himalayas – the highest mountains on Earth? Home to Mt. Everest? Yeah, those Himalayas. The Himalayas and Tibet are the result of processes related India smashing into Asia over 50 million years ago. By the way, India is still pushing her way into Asia to this day, making this place the ONE real-life, in real time, natural laboratory for continental collision. Needless to say, Tibet is a geologist’s playground, a dream come true for fieldwork.
Before I started my PhD at UCLA, I completed a masters degree at Vanderbilt University, under the kind and gentle tutelage of Dr. Calvin F. Miller. We did field work together in southern Nevada in a sweet little mountain range called the El Dorado Mountains. The highest peak, Ireteba, is just over 5,000 feet high (did I mention Mt. Everest sits at 29,028 feet, and the average elevation on the Tibetan plateau is 15,000 feet?). The El Dorado Wilderness covers roughly 40 square miles (121 square kilometers), and would basically look like a pimple on the ass of the great Himalayas. My perspective on fieldwork was quite limited pre-Tibetan plateau. Don’t get me wrong, the work I did in Nevada was fun, interesting, and a great learning experience. But I would not have called myself a seasoned field geologist after spending a total of about four weeks of my life, spread over several trips, in the El Dorados, camping at designated campgrounds with restrooms and showers, shopping for food at the local Vons, and just generally being a spoiled suburban girl with only a slight taste for adventure.
And then, there’s the science. The science of the Himalayas and Tibet is on a scale that is hard to explain. For those who study the geology of this place, a lifetime of work is still not enough to fully understand the mysteries. Many geologists have spent years, decades even, doing their best to unravel the primary question, “When did India collide with Eurasia?” Some of the first ideas date back to the 1920s. In the 1980s an age of about 55 million years ago was proposed as the timing of contact between the continent of India and the southern edge of Eurasia, and almost 40 years later the evidence still largely supports this age. But the intricacies of what went on before, during, and after collision are too numerous, and too complicated, to have yet been fully understood. Even the Earth’s climate was not immune to the effects of the growth of the Himalayas. In other words, for a geologist, Tibet is a compelling opportunity as well as a seemingly untenable problem. How can one little lady from upstate NY, land of no topography except that left behind by moving ice, contribute anything of scientific value to this vast, overwhelming, excessively complicated geologic puzzle? And how could I do it all while keeping up with the some of the brightest minds (and toughest bodies) in Tibetan geologic studies? I didn’t think I could.
After much debate between my advisor and the advisor of my fellow graduate students working in Tibet (who were both male), I was granted the opportunity to accompany them on their field expedition. Yes, that is what it felt like. Not that I was going to Tibet to conduct field studies of my own, but instead, more like, please don’t slow the guys down as they drag your sorry ass all over the Tibetan plateau. “If you get sick,” said their advisor, “they will send you back to Lhasa alone on a bus.” And the ever so confidence boosting, “Even big, strong guys get sick in Tibet.” I was convinced I would be the ball on the end of their chain, the molasses in their gas tank, the scarlet “A” emblazoned on their fleece jackets (“A” for asshole). I contemplated throwing in the towel, wiping the superficial smile off of my face, and revealing that I was petrified that I would die over there. Instead, I went.
The project had started out as me dating some rocks that had been collecting dust for six years in my advisor’s office. The rocks had been collected in 1992 from the Nyainqentanglha Range in southern Tibet. It is a bitch of a mountain range, with ice-covered peaks that reach over 19,000 feet elevation, and raging ice-fed rivers slicing through its northern and southern faces. It generates its own shitty weather, often spitting snow and rain out of its rugged canyons into the adjacent valley, with ferocity and no regard for a skinny girl’s desire to hike into its depths and unlock its secrets. I had surveyed geologic maps of the area prior to my journey, noting that they showed the range as basically one huge body of 50-60 million year old granite. Of course, the rocks I had been analyzing were apparently not tuned in to that story, and they revealed ages ranging from as old as 200 million years to as young as 8 million. This mountain range had hidden in it more than those who had mapped it from afar could have known.
In Tibet, my goal was to dig deeper into the story those rocks were beginning to tell. On my first trip, in 1999, I learned what it meant to abandon normal life and live in the field. I left civilization and all contact with my world back home and went off the grid for more than 100 days. It was a crash course in integrating mapping, large-scale observations, sampling, and physical ability. I began to see the beauty of big-picture science. Going from a map of a mountain range, to a fist-sized sample of rock from that mountain range, harvested with nothing but my own strength and a heavy rock hammer, to tiny crystals separated out of that rock sample, hand-picked under a microscope and mounted in epoxy, to age information zapped out of those crystals with a 20 micron diameter oxygen beam, telling us when those rocks were nothing but magma deep in the Earth – now THAT is the power of science. That is nothing short of miraculous. That is the result of hard-working people pursuing the advancement of knowledge. Being a part of that process made me feel like a real scientist. It was an education far beyond what a classroom can deliver. It changed the way I see the world.And, I didn’t get sick. (Well, not sick enough to slow anyone down). They didn’t have to send me back to Lhasa alone on a bus. And along the way, I learned a lot more than when those rocks had formed, and how that mountain range had grown, and how it all fit into the bigger picture of Tibetan tectonics. I learned about my own strength, and my own abilities (and lack thereof). Squatting on the side of a scree-covered slope, belly rumbling from hunger, rain pissing down on my soggy rain jacket, trying to locate myself on an unfamiliar topographic map, I found a side of me that I never knew existed. Like that old geologic map with only one age for the mountains, what I knew about myself up to then was only part of the story.