Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Photo by Travis Corthouts

Everest October 12, 2012 by Suzi Taylor • Published 10/12/12

Montana students follow as MSU team climbs world's tallest mountain
Just as the Gallatin Valley was waking from its winter hibernation, a Montana State University geology professor and graduate student plunged back into the ice and snow, setting off on a quest that would take them halfway around the world and more than 20,000 feet above it. Bound for Everest--the tallest mountain in the world if measured from sea level to summit--the two were part of a team of athletes and journalists sponsored by The North Face and National Geographic. But they were also "accompanied" by more than 1,000 schoolchildren from throughout Montana through a special MSU partnership. As a result, students and teachers across the Big Sky state, via email and Facebook updates, hung on the expedition's every move as the team flew to Nepal, trekked to Base Camp and began studying the geology of the region--all while avalanches crashed around them, evacuation helicopters hovered overhead, and the imposing, wind-scoured Everest summit loomed far above.

Beginning the long climb
In the year leading up to his March 2012 departure, Dave Lageson, the MSU professor, had outlined a rigorous scientific research plan for Everest, including a study of the region's major geologic faults and the collection of rock samples from all areas of the mountain. Lageson also hoped to look for marine fossils at the summit--which had once been part of the long-vanished Tethys Ocean--and take a new GPS-based elevation of the peak.

An educator for more than three decades, Lageson also wanted to share the expedition with others. He contacted MSU's Extended University, which develops outreach programs for several research grants and centers on campus.

Lageson's idea was a perfect fit for a fledgling outreach effort called CLiMB (CLimate in My Backyard), which connects Montana classrooms with climate science research through Montana's National Science Foundation EPSCoR program.

Lageson and expedition leader Conrad Anker of Bozeman, a world-class climber who is an adviser to the MSU Leadership Institute, worked with Extended University staff to develop a package of lesson plans, online interactive lessons and educational videos. Anker coined the term "Everest Education Expedition," and Lageson recruited Travis Corthouts, an MSU earth sciences graduate student from Mohawk, Conn., to accompany the team to Everest and support the research and outreach efforts.

The group developed classroom kits full of equipment, including a GPS unit, digital thermometer, rock samples and other gear that would allow students to mimic the actions of the researchers. The MSU Foundation secured a grant from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation that helped 38 schools--ranging from one-room schools with just a handful of kids to some of the state's largest middle schools--embark on their own educational expedition.

"Reading about rock hammers, climbing ropes, time-lapse photography and pulse oximeters is great, but holding one in your hand, feeling the heft, carrying a heavy pack up a steep slope with your nose clamped as you struggle for oxygen really brings a different understanding," said Susan Luinstra, a teacher from Bynum whose small school of eight students followed the expedition. "To have resources at our fingertips that allowed the students to touch and experiment with actual scientific and mountaineering equipment gave a true sense of reality to the experience."

Everest-Montana E-connection
Throughout their 2 1/2 months on Everest, Lageson and Corthouts sent back photographs, videos and descriptions of Everest's rocks, glaciers and landscapes intermixed with detailed accounts of sacred ceremonies, hair-raising crevasse crossings, and the evacuation of a team member. Meanwhile, students back in Montana sent the climbers emails, drawings and questions about everything from granola bar choices to how Himalayan yaks are named.

"I enjoyed the questions from the kids," Corthouts said. "It's like there's a picture painted in their minds, how they think of the expedition. They were so interested in climbing and geology, I hope some of them will take it into their later years."

In addition to the classroom connection, the expedition's Facebook page gathered more than 1,100 fans worldwide, including people from Canada, Belgium, India, Australia and Iceland. Lageson posted a photo of the MSU Bobcats flag flying over Base Camp, which was widely shared and "liked," and the page's 1,000th fan--a mother of two from England--was rewarded with a Bobcats hat and T-shirt.

"In my opinion, the education and outreach aspects of this expedition were the most satisfying and fulfilling," Lageson said. "It was a tremendously successful collaboration between Montana State University and schools throughout Montana and the U.S."

Alex Drew, who participated as an eighth grader at St. Matthew's School in Kalispell, said the part about the project that stuck with him was simulating climbing Mount Everest by carrying a 10-pound backpack up and down the stairs while breathing through a straw to simulate the stress of high altitude and low oxygen on the human body.

"After doing this simulation, I saw and felt how strenuous this was to do," Drew said. "I have a new appreciation for what these climbers put themselves through physically to climb Mount Everest."

In June, seven of the expedition members summited Mount Everest, including Anker (who summited for his third time, this time without oxygen) and Kris Erickson, an MSU graduate, who then climbed Lhotse, an 8,000-meter peak, the next day. Corthouts relayed the news from his position at Base Camp, and Lageson, who was by then back in the U.S., helped spread the word in Montana.

Even though the climbers summited near midnight Montana time, teachers reported texting and emailing their students at that late hour so they could know the status immediately.

"Climbing Everest is always amazing, but knowing a thousand kids were hanging on our every steps made it all that more meaningful," Anker said. "As a climber, I feel passionate about sharing what I experience with kids and hopefully inspire them to learn more about science and our natural world."

"The chance to connect with these kids and teachers was powerful," Lageson said. "All in all, it made the experience so much more meaningful to me. The overall success of this aspect of the expedition is owed largely to the hard-working staff in MSU's Extended University and the teachers across Montana who enthusiastically participated in the adventure with their student. Without their support and participation, this would have never happened."

"My students intensely loved this experience," wrote one Montana teacher at the conclusion of the project. "Our way of understanding physiology, geology, culture, climate change, environmental effects and human values are forever changed."

"It was one of those programs that will influence them for the rest of their lives!" wrote another teacher.

"The students could not stop talking about this project and felt so empowered with the knowledge and materials they used," wrote a third teacher. "The learning will not stop, it is just beginning."

Videos, photos and all the educational resources from the Everest Education Expedition are available at

At Anderson School in rural Bozeman, teacher Laurie Kinna read her sixth graders a poem that MSU professor Dave Lageson composed one night in his tent at Everest Base Camp while listening to the glacier creak and groan beneath him. Inspired by Lageson's poem, "The Yeti," Kinna's class wrote their own pieces, which they shared with the climbers via email and with other participating classes on the Everest Web site. Some poems--like Lageson's--speculated on the existence of the mythical Yeti. Others were deeply emotional as students described their own sacred places, quests and observations of nature. The Anderson School poems are online at

Teacher Tracy Wirak turned the arrival of the Everest Education Expedition Kit into its own activity, as each student pulled an item out of the bag and then worked to identify each tool they were holding and its purpose. Wirak, an outdoor enthusiast, also brought in some of her own climbing gear for the students to view.

To get more students at Napi Elementary involved, Wirak's class posed as news reporters and visited the younger grades with Everest pictures, YouTube videos and hand-written summaries of the climbers and their experiences. Several students completed a time-lapse photography project for the school science fair using the time-lapse cameras included in the kits, which are like those used to study the movements of glaciers on Everest. Wirak helped the students study scale by using molding dough to create models of Mount Everest, Granite Peak (Montana's tallest mountain) and Chief Mountain, a nearby site that is sacred to the Blackfeet Tribe.

As students studied Himalayan culture and learned how difficult it is for children to go to school, they raised money for the American Himalayan Foundation through a penny drive and bake sale.

Each day in Bynum, Susan Luinstra's class of eight students gathered around the computer to check for new videos and photos while following the team's progress up the mountain.

Luinstra called upon parents to complement the MSU Everest information. One father, an experienced mountaineer, discussed the preparation, risk and commitment involved in climbing. He also told the class about his decision to give up extreme sports after falling into a crevasse on Denali and fearing he would never see his family again. Another parent, who had been an outfitter leading tourists into the wilderness of the Rocky Mountain Front, brought in saddles, packs and panniers. The class discussed the relationship that Sherpa guides have with Everest visitors. And, a local artist came to school to display her felted wool creations and helped the students research Tibetan and Nepalese wool art.

Myrna Matulevich and her middle schoolers at St. Matthew's School kicked off the Everest Education Expedition with "Walking in Climbers' Boots," an activity that had students climbing the school stairs while breathing only through a straw in order to simulate low oxygen levels.

Toward the end of the expedition and school year, Matulevich and her sixth graders hiked in Lone Pine State Park where the class set up stations representing prominent locations on Everest. The class trekked through the stations taking GPS measurements along the way and writing in journals to remember their trip to Mount Everest.

"We consider ourselves the first entire sixth grade class to summit Everest," Matulevich said.

Powder River/Carter Counties
In rural southeast Montana, four small schools banded together to share a kit and the Everest experience. Teacher Tedi Jo Williams from tiny Biddle School--population two (one first grader and one third grader)--planted the rock samples sent in the MSU kit around the school grounds, and the students found them with a GPS unit, just like the researchers did on Everest. The students also trekked up one of their local high points, Monument Hill. The Everest Education Expedition Kit also traveled to Spring Creek School in Powderville, where the school's three students and their teacher, Shawna Elizabeth Williams, tested their waterproof geology journal and pen under the sprinkler. Neighboring students in Hammond rock-climbed with their teacher, Lynnette Wolff, at Medicine Rocks State Park. Near the end of the journey, the schools and their fellow students from South Stacy School gathered for a Mount Everest Day.