Adventures at the Wild Edges of Our Dangerous, Changing Planet


By John All

By John Balzar

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John All has survived encounters with black mamba snakes, run-ins with wild jungle animals, and a brush with death in an icy tomb. No one knows the outer limits of our changing planet quite like him.

In May 2014, the mountaineer and scientist John All plunged into a crevasse in the Himalayas, a fall that all but killed him. He recorded a series of dramatic videos as he struggled to climb seven stories back up to the surface with a severely dislocated shoulder, internal bleeding, a battered face covered in blood, and fifteen broken bones–including six cracked vertebrae. The videos became a viral sensation, an urgent and gripping dispatch from one of the least-known extremes of the planet.

Yet this climb for his life is only the latest of John All’s adventures in some of Earth’s most hostile climates. He has also been chased by a wild hyena, scaled Everest, and narrowly missed being hit by an avalanche, all in pursuit of his true calling: the study of how we can master the challenge of our world’s changing climate. Icefall is a thrilling adventure story and a report from the extremes of the planet, taking you to collapsing Andean glaciers, hidden jungles in Honduras, and the highest points on Earth. In this gripping account, our changing climate is not a matter of politics; it’s a matter of life and death and the human will to survive and thrive in the face of it.




Chapter One

Alone on the Ice

On the morning of May 22, 2014, my plans were in tatters. For starters, I was supposed to be on the Everest massif, many days' travel east and south of Mount Himlung, where my tent was now staked on fresh snow at just over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). But I had been driven off by a climbing disaster, at the time the worst in the history of Everest. So I'd journeyed to this peak instead, known to serious mountaineers but not many others. I should have been in the company of the skilled, highly energized team I'd brought to the Himalaya on an expedition to collect evidence of the causes of climate change. But after the Everest disaster, their morale had taken a beating, a team member had a worrisome health problem, and for the moment they were scattered elsewhere. I was alone.

Finally, it was seriously late in the South Asian climbing season. Each day brought the dreaded monsoon closer—imminent weather that would up the odds for trouble as it approached, then instantly end any hope at all of reaching a mountain summit. The prudent move would have been to retreat for the year. But too much had been invested in this expedition. Sacrifices had been made, big ones. And our work was important, more so all the time. I was not ready to give up.

And besides: I had a spring morning to bask in. I was four miles high in the glory of the Himalaya. A benign sun reflected brightly off the ice. No wind to speak of. The white-tipped fangs of mountainous Nepal soared into the thin sky for as far as I could see, which was hundreds of square miles. I was thinking of coffee.

I wriggled out of my sleeping bag. I pulled on my boots and stepped out of the tent onto the small, flattish snowfield that I had chosen for Camp 2. Cold, bone-dry Himalayan air scalded the lining of my lungs. I grabbed a plastic garbage bag. Mountains are one of the few places on Earth where you must gather fresh water like you're berry picking. I'd fill the bag with powdery snow, melt the contents pan by pan on the camp stove, and brew. It was a tedious process, but it meant that the coffee would be all the more wonderful. While I was at it, I figured I'd get a head start on the day's scientific work and collect the morning snow and ice samples for our study. These too would have to be melted, then filtered and carefully stored so that we could later analyze the accumulated dust and ash and other residue of human industriousness from far-distant cities, farms, and mines. Bit by bit, when analyzed in the laboratory, these samples help us decipher the exact consequences of industrialization on the world's highest elevations, where climate change is under way in dramatic and, regrettably, life-threatening fashion.

Because I wouldn't be venturing far from the tent, I dressed "minimalist"—with just wind pants, a T-shirt, a light jacket, and thin gloves—no hat, no parka, no headlamp, no satellite phone. Just a quick jaunt out and back. Fill the garbage bag. Light the stove. Then, here on the roof of the world, await that splendid first sip of hot coffee.

Being alone on a Himalayan peak was unwise, and venturing by oneself onto the compressed, fissured, and perpetually moving ice of a glacier was manifestly dangerous, stupid even. I teach mountain safety, and I cannot imagine how many times I'd emphasized that fundamental lesson. You had to be skilled, knowledgeable, confident, smart, and lucky. In a place like this, anything less could kill you. This campsite had been methodically scouted. It was plainly the most stable area around. And I'd turned the prayer wheels at monasteries down lower as I trekked from Kathmandu.

I stretched, limbered up, and gulped deep breaths to raise my oxygen level. I looked higher up the mountain, and for a moment my thoughts drifted to the climbing route that would await us in a couple of days, after the remnants of my team returned here to Camp 2 from lower elevations. Ice cliffs directly above me meant we would have to pass to one side or the other. I pondered the choices. To my left and not very far above, I saw a flat area of snowpack that would provide a different vantage on the upcoming route. Plus, it was a perfect spot to gather snow samples and fill up the garbage bag.

I set out in that direction. One step… another. Another. I was not counting.

I took one step too many.

Vertigo. Blackness. So fast. Impossibly fast. My footing vanished. My face smashed into jagged ice. I disappeared into the guts of the glacier. Sliding. Bouncing.

There's no accounting for the shape of a glacial crevasse. It could be a simple narrowing V that pinned you in place before you reached the bottom. Or it could be an irregular crack that descended for a thousand feet. Or a small crack might open into a giant cavern. Honestly—how would you know? Until you fell in.

Smash. Pain.

I plummeted, but not straightaway downward. I crashed into one uneven, abrasive side of the hard ice, and then bounced into the other side and careened back. Crunch. The parallel sides of ice widened instead of narrowing. And wherever the bottom might be, it was farther down still. Way down. Down and down and down more, into blue-blackness deep in the heart of this ancient ice.

Automatically, I stabbed out with my right arm to break the fall with my ice axe. The only thing that broke was my arm, and my shoulder. I felt the bones snap. I tumbled and bounced off the granite-hard ice, one side to the other. I could not stop.

I was being battered to lumpy meat. I was picking up speed. Faster, and hopelessly faster still. Ten, twenty, maybe thirty miles an hour, gravity pulled me down. Four stories. Five. More. How far to the bottom? No telling. Did it matter? I was dying.

My velocity might have been increasing, but the old cliché turned out to be true: time slowed. Or perhaps my senses grew keener. Whichever. How, I somehow had time to wonder, could I have been so damn foolish?

All these years. So many expeditions. Now to die ignominiously, never found, buried inside a mountain of ice, all because I wanted a morning coffee and was careless and ventured out alone.

My side smashed into ice. Whomp. The sound was thunderous, but there was no one else to hear it. Then I wasn't falling anymore. I wasn't moving at all. Not even breathing. Death. My last thought was to recognize the end. How fitting.

No, wait. I struggled to inflate my lungs and regain breath. In the sudden quiet, the first sound I heard was myself moaning, a weak groan.

I wasn't dead. I felt intense pain. Pain meant I was alive.

A strange calm came over me for just an instant. Hope. Then reality. I gasped for breath. Oh shit, it hurt. I fought against fogginess. I needed to assess my situation. Just how bad were things?

In a word: bad. It took me a moment to understand that I had not reached the bottom of the crevasse. Far from it. I'd fallen seven stories down, to a spot just before the crack grew cavernous, where a jagged ice shelf had miraculously formed. I had landed on it, which had caused me brutal pain but was actually a blessing. It saved me from plunging deeper—endlessly deeper. I'll never know how far.

Lying sprawled on this ice protrusion as hard as concrete, I fought to breathe again.

Suddenly, I realized my feet were dangling over the edge. Vast and dark down there where the silence seemed all but overwhelming. I was keenly aware that not all of me was functioning. But there was no question that all of me was in agony. My survival instinct overrode the pain, and soon I pushed my foggy thoughts aside. My legs and one functioning arm should allow me to slowly push myself back onto the safest reach of the shelf. I tried to drive my crampons into the flinty ice. Slipping off this perch into that abyss would end the discussion.

I found myself positioned on my crushed shoulder and my right arm. Their only function seemed to be to give off shocking bolts of pain. I could not move that side of my body, or even turn my head to look in that direction. That fact told me just how badly I was injured. I was spitting blood, another unfavorable sign. It spread and froze, dirtying the ice in front of my throbbing face.

Maybe I would die after all. It would just take longer.

I was panting like a sprinter. My dry gasping whistled in my ears. I would have guessed that I already used up my adrenaline reserves. But the gasps came faster when I realized I was not on a shelf after all, but on a block of loose ice that had fallen from above and wedged itself into the crevasse. Perhaps loosely wedged. Perhaps wedged only for the moment.

God, I wished I could take back that last step. Just that one. How different things would be. I'd be boiling water up there in the morning sun, and coffee would not be far off. I'd look across a snowfield and not even know of this hidden crevasse below.

Now I was destined to be entombed here in this glacier—to emerge frozen in the distant future for people to ponder: What happened to this corpse in a green nylon jacket?

I looked up. Way up. In the distance, a glimmering hole. Tiny. And another beside it. I could see a pinhole of sky. Life. Hope.

I listened. I was breathing now, but I didn't like what I heard. The gasps had become labored wheezes. Respiration was slowing.

That was the signal, the alarm. I heard it and I was not ready to quit. Not without a fight. I still had command over some parts of my body, didn't I? In between waves of nausea, I rocked a little, testing my weight against my injuries. The pain was as hot as a live wire. I kept rocking. One way and the other. Reaching out, pushing, pulling. Holding back whimpers and yelps. Grasping. Moving. Exploring what I could do.

I gave it everything. A lurch that took my breath, and I was sitting upright. At least I thought so. My head was spinning, so I was not completely sure. My breath once again came in ragged gasps. But I had proven one thing: I could move. It hurt like hell, but I was not paralyzed. I took a moment to look around and collect my thoughts.

An idea struck me. I should record the scene. It was what I did, the reason I was up here in the first place: good science. Collecting imagery had become second nature to me, the same as collecting samples and recording my location wherever I was. Imagery added dimension and perspective to the exchange of information, helping us understand our universe. Perhaps the imagery from down in this crevasse would survive somehow and students would learn from my terrible experience.

I was thinking, too, of my mom. I wanted her to understand what happened to me in the claustrophobic, cold space I occupied during these harsh hours. I didn't actually consider the details of how these images might survive and reach the surface for others to see if I could not make it myself. I was partly on autopilot, which was about all I had the strength for.

A jacket pocket held my camera, a Sony HX7—my favorite of seven I'd tested this trip. I reached for it with my good arm. There it was. To my surprise, my fingers on this one good hand still functioned. More surprising, so did the camera. I started with a couple of still photos, but they failed utterly to convey the situation.

I moved the dial to video, aimed the camera toward me selfie-style, pushed the shutter button and spoke. Blood and snot and snow were smeared across my face. But my mouth was another thing that worked.

"Well, I'm pretty well fucked," I said.

I talked my predicament over with myself. As I looked overhead, I saw that climbing straight up was impossible. The crevasse was too wide and too vertical, and I was not functioning at a skill level that would allow me to scale an overhanging seven-story wall of ice. My only option, also probably impossible, was to traverse to my right where the crevasse appeared to narrow, and where I might have a chance to "chimney" my way up, using my body to span the narrower distance, pushing myself upward off the two walls. From what I could see, I'd need to advance hundreds of feet in that direction for any chance at all of gaining the seventy vertical feet to the surface. It seemed hopeless. Such a difficult, risky ice climb would be demanding even if I were intact and at full strength.

So, what was the alternative? I tried to calculate how long it might take for rescue from above. My teammates would not be coming back up to Camp 2 until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest, possibly not till the day after. It was doubtful they could rescue me themselves, and probably—wisely—they wouldn't venture far searching for me. They might not even realize there was a problem until it got dark tomorrow night and I still hadn't come back.

I was shivering already. I wouldn't live through a single night down here when the sun went down and temperatures plunged.

My thoughts returned to the stark choice: Climb or die.

This fateful plunge into a crevasse, of course, didn't begin just a few minutes earlier, seven stories above me on the snowy surface of a Himlung glacier. It was a fifteen-year journey of adventure, of scientific quest, of loves gained and lost, of learning and teaching, of facing wild beasts and living wild days, of struggle, of delight, of venturing high in hopes of doing good. The route had led me to the top of Everest just four years earlier. And to the summits of great peaks in the South American Andes. I'd gone deep into a mysterious Central American rain forest, which scientists had not visited in decades. And to the savannahs of Africa. I'd rediscovered the lost glory of a people who used to live just across the Arizona border in Mexico but who paid an awful price for environmental change. My journeys led to creation of a new organization that mixed science and adventure in equal parts, building an understanding of climate changes in the fragile alpine reaches of the world's highest mountains.

Then one lousy, lonely step too far.

Risk, though, is unavoidable in this business. Yes, I could have managed the danger better. But not exempted myself from it. Mountains are perilous places. And there are no reliable shortcuts for science up here. To fully understand what is happening on a mountain, you have to scale it, touch it, measure it. A satellite can convey details of, say, the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. But only a mountaineer can get up there and bring back tangible evidence of what is occurring—what particulates, for instance, are being deposited on glaciers to hasten melting? And where have they come from? That evidence needs to be collected again and again, year after year, to accurately calibrate the extent and pace of climate change.

But let's take a step back. Why study mountains in the first place?

You can roll the whole thing up into a single word: water.

Mountains are the world's water towers.

Air currents are thrust aloft as they travel over mountains. Naturally, the air grows cooler along the way. This releases moisture. That is because cold air can hold less water than an equal volume of warmer air. The result of this lifting and cooling and moisture release is called orographic precipitation. Generally speaking, the higher air has to travel to pass over a mountain range, the more precipitation is produced. Up in these lofty reaches, precipitation is stored in vast quantities in the form of glaciers, snow, and alpine lakes. These are the birthplaces of the rivers that provide the hydrologic lifeblood for a large portion of humanity. Wet or dry years for the 22 million people of coastal Southern California are not determined by how much rain falls on Los Angeles or San Diego, but by the depth of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the north and east. In just the same way, a huge section of Asia depends on water originating in Himalayan glaciers and snowfields—up here on peaks like Himlung. In South America, the eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru serve as headwaters for the world's greatest river system, the Amazon.

In addition to being water catchments on which entire cultures and peoples depend, these mountains provide gradients of soils, temperatures, precipitation, and ecological conditions in very compact geography. Moving upward in elevation means that in a compact space, the same environmental changes occur as those that will happen during long-distance travel from the tropics toward one pole or the other. That makes them handy terrain for the study of climate change. Beyond that, there is ample empirical evidence that environmental transformation as a consequence of climatic change is greatest at higher latitudes and elevations—where life is most fragile.

In short, mountains are our crystal ball. Understand them, and you get a glimpse of the planet's future.

We now know there are grave issues at hand. Accelerating environmental disruption has been visible all around us for some time. And complex challenges and social adjustments await us if we are to successfully adapt. The information that mountains can provide is crucial to our survival as a species.

Of course, these mighty peaks are also life-and-death places. For a few of us, the skill required to explore them, the exotic and extreme danger of doing so, and the scientific reward make them impossible to resist.

For all those reasons, I have spent much of my adult life in quest of evidence from all over the world to help fill in some of the scientific blank spots. If we had started this in-depth process in the mountains even forty years ago, we would understand our planet far better than we do today, and we could begin to think more concretely about what those adaptations might look like. It frustrates and saddens me that we've instead embarked on a decades'-long debate about whether climate change is happening, even as the ice melts beneath our feet.

Still, we should take heart from the spreading signs of global awareness—the recognition of both the facts and the impending uncertainties of climate change. Yes, there has been plenty of backlash along the way, but forward-looking political leaders continue to push for mandated reductions in carbon emissions as a step to slow atmospheric warming. The time has come for our leaders to devote equal energy to devising large-scale strategies for adapting to environmental alterations caused by shifts in climate—the next frontier.

To my mind, if I might borrow a crude trope, science is the headlamp that will help us find our way forward.

For the moment, though, my pathfinding challenge was hardly so ambitious. I was alone in the Himalayas, four miles up and seven stories down. Broken. Stuck. And a long way from anything like a headlamp.

Chapter Two


Just a few weeks earlier, I'd been far from Himlung, pumped full of starting-line adrenaline, looking out across one of the starkest, most exciting mountain locales on the planet. I had arrived in Nepal to lead a team of five Western climbers and ten Nepalis headed for the roof of the world to gather research data. Our destination was the Everest massif—a mountain mass with several distinct peaks, including Lhotse, Nuptse, and Changtse. Our target was Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain on Earth and sister peak to Everest.

We gathered on April 9 and headed to acclimatize at Everest Base Camp on the south, or Nepal side, of the massif, not far below the Khumbu Icefall, an ugly passage on the glacier of the same name. For a short interval each spring, this landscape of ice and sharp rock becomes home to a bustling burg built out of nylon and aluminum: a tent city, erected by a community of adventurers and thrill seekers, paid guides and Sherpas. People from all over the world—my tribe, as it were—convene here, climbers bound for Everest as well as the other peaks of the massif and countless trekkers who have come to see the great towering mountain close up. Whether this is the trekker's ultimate goal or the mountaineer's starting point, people who pitch their tents here feel special. Because they are special. Base Camp is at 5,200 meters (17,060 feet)—nearly 25 percent higher than the tallest mountain summit in the continental United States. It requires resolve and conditioning, time and money, just to get here. When we arrived for this expedition, the air was dry and frigid and breezes carried unexpected smells of baked goods, the hissing noises of camp stoves, the babble of conversation, and the keyboard clicking of people posting to Facebook. Look Mom, I'm here.

From Base Camp, it is a vertical rise of nearly two miles to the summit of Lhotse, which stands just 332 meters (1,089 feet) lower than Everest. Our plan was to systematically sample the dust in high-altitude snow and ice as we climbed. This fine, grayish material provides the means to measure the environmental effects of distant human enterprises. Commonly called "black carbon," this soot is the particulate residue of fossil fuel air pollution, surface mining, agriculture, and wildfires. As this anthropogenic dust accumulates on snowfields and glaciers, they grow darker, and therefore more heat absorptive. That hastens melting and runoff of stored water. The results include greater flooding potential downstream or higher likelihood of crop-killing summer droughts. Behold: climate change.

Our team was traveling under the banner of the American Climber Science Program (ACSP), originally created under the auspices of the American Alpine Club. The Program is an assemblage of mountaineers who are also ecologists, physicists, atmospheric scientists, biologists, glaciologists, geologists, physicians, and toxicologists—men and women uniquely trained to climb high into the mountains and precisely measure what is happening. We believed that our range of scientific skills would allow for a holistic analysis of how people and ecosystems are coping, or might have to cope, as a consequence of climate change. Such a strategy was new, and I was filled with optimism for what we could accomplish by merging our talents.

Our team for the expedition: Ulyana Horodyskyj was a PhD student from the University of Colorado who had been living in Nepal for a year doing her dissertation research examining the lakes that form on the surface of glaciers and in the scree as glaciers melt. When I met her a year earlier during an expedition in Peru, we had talked about an expedition to Lhotse. From that seed, the idea blossomed into focus as an important scientific and personal objective, and I set out to make it reality. Jake St. Pierre was a police officer from New Hampshire, also a climber, and the owner of a gym. Because a Himalayan expedition required an extended time commitment, Jake had little choice but to turn in his badge and resign from the force if he wanted to join us. It was a life choice to leave a career behind. But he exuded enthusiasm about the adventure and had decided to trust his future to fate. Because of his great physical strength and desire to learn to cross into the fabled "death zone"—those few places on Earth that soar higher than the benchmark 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), where mountaineers know that the fatality rate is highest—he volunteered to be our mule, carrying heavy loads of scientific equipment up the mountain. David Byrne was an architect who lived in Seattle and taught mountain safety classes as a volunteer. He had joined the American Climber Science Program Expedition in Peru the year before as safety officer. He had considerable climbing experience and, like Jake, dreamed of piercing the "death zone." He, too, quit his job in order to join the expedition. His plans were to climb with us and then look for employment as an expedition safety officer in Antarctica and other exotic locales. Dave talked his good friend and longtime climbing partner, Chris Cosgriff, of Seattle, into taking early retirement from his job as an engineer at Lockheed and joining the expedition. We were thrilled to have two team members with such good general mountaineering knowledge and climbing experience. We were also lucky because of the commitment that the team showed in sacrificing jobs or starting new phases in their lives to answer the call of the high Himalaya.

We had selected Lhotse, rather than Everest itself, because of simple economics. Everest was only marginally taller, but because of its popularity and cachet, it cost up to five times more to attempt, per climber, counting fees and other expenses. In day-to-day terms, Everest costs one year's salary for a newly minted lawyer and was beyond the reach of ordinary wage earners. On this expedition, such a premium price tag was too much by far. Someday, and soon I hope, the American Climber Science Program will not be restrained by financial limitations. But this year, we had only a small amount of funding from the National Science Foundation. And we were fortunate to have a chance at such a mighty and famed peak as Lhotse—hardly a consolation prize. Climbers on both peaks followed the Everest route upward a good deal of the way, including the spectacular "Lhotse face" of the massif, before peeling off to the south. We would not lack for opportunities to collect important data samples and, at the same time, increase our team's mountaineering skills—both goals essential to building the ACSP. And I, for one, was quite happy to face a new and challenging summit in a familiar locale.

I had summited Everest itself once before, on the north, or Tibetan side, so I understood the many ordeals that awaited our team, and the other mountaineers gathering at Base Camp. Or at least I thought I did. But seeking to understand and measure climate change in these fragile and hostile environs also meant exposing ourselves directly to the dangerous consequences of climate change. Fatal consequences, as it turned out.

On April 18, at about 6:45 a.m., a colossal boom echoed through the Khumbu Glacier valley as a block of ice the size of an office building, a huge serac, broke away from the high shoulder of Everest and thundered into the already dangerous Khumbu Icefall just above us. The ground trembled and then shook as a tsunami of powder snow and ground-up chunks of ice scoured down the mountain. Twenty-five men, most of them native Sherpas, were immediately buried in tons of jagged ice and compacted snow. Sixteen of them died.


  • "[John All is] a badass for science." -Adam Frank, NPR
  • "John All treads the delicate knife-edge between adventure and climate science in this gripping account of his work in some of the world's most dangerous and remote places. He makes a passionate and powerful case for human adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change. His optimism, from someone who has been there and done that, comes across loud and clear. In this book, climate change is not just politics-it's avalanches and huge snakes and getting lost in the desert. This book will make you see it in a new light."
    --Brian Fagan, distinguished emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of The Great Warming
  • "[John All] is one part climate scientist and two parts extreme mountaineer, with insights into what it's like to work at the exciting-and sometimes dangerous-intersection between the pursuit of knowledge and the hunt for adventure."
    --Nate Blakeslee, author of Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town
  • "Sure, some science happens in labs, with devices and machines. But data is in the world, where scientists interact with it, where they dig it out. Humanity, if it is looking to survive the next century in anything approaching its current state, needs more data to survive, especially data from places that are themselves rare: deserts, glaciers, mountains, still-impenetrable forests. It's giving nothing away to say that somehow John All, a mountain-climbing data forager extraordinaire, survives, despite all odds. Which offers humanity some hope, stuck as it is in a dark, life-on-earth-threatening place."
    --Robert Sullivan, author of The Meadowlands and My American Revolution
  • "John All's passion for adventure is matched only by his sharp insight and deep knowledge of environmental science. This important book tells the story of one man's crusade-through jungles, over mountains, and deep into the ice-to bring about change that could save millions of lives."
    --Carlos Buhler, winner of the American Alpine Club's Underhill Award for mountaineering

On Sale
Mar 14, 2017
Page Count
248 pages

John All

About the Author

John All is a Research Professor of mountain environmental science at Western Washington University. His research around the world has been funded by groups that include the National Science Foundation, USAID, the CDC, and the Fulbright Foundation. He is executive director of the American Climber Science Program, an organization of citizen scientists who have the ability to climb the world’s tallest peaks and use these expeditions to gather crucial data on the changing climate. John is a Lifetime Fellow of the Explorers Club in New York City, a certified paraglider pilot, rescue diver, a rugby and volleyball champion, and he spent several years with search and rescue teams prior to becoming a professor.

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John Balzar

About the Author

John Balzar is the author of “Yukon Alone: The World’s Toughest Adventure Race,” named a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. His magazine work has been collected in anthologies including, “Wild Stories: The Best of Men’s Journal.” A veteran newspaper journalist, he was awarded the Scripps-Howard Ernie Pyle Prize for human interest storytelling. He has sailed across the Pacific, worked as a river Boatman in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and holds NOAA Science Diver certification.

Learn more about this author