e was perched atop a 19,700-foot glacier deep in the Himalayas, collecting snow and ice samples for research on climate change. With no warning, the 6-inch crust gave way under his weight and sent him tumbling into a hidden fissure below.
In May 2014, John All found himself more than 7,000 miles away from the safety of WKU fighting for his life on a glacial ice shelf more than 70 feet below the opening of an icy crevasse in Nepal.
“I knew right then what happened,” he said. “I knew I was dead.”
A few months later he was sitting comfortably in his office chair — safe and sound in Bowling Green.
All, an associate professor of geography, could hardly remember the last time his body was completely free of active frostbite.
“It’s the fingers and toes that go first,” All said.
Snow and ice samples collected from Mount Himlung were analyzed for dust and contaminants that All and his team used to track the effects of agricultural burning on glaciers in Nepal. Because most farmers in developing countries did not have tractors and high-tech machinery to clear their farmlands, they burned whatever was left between seasons.
All’s team used the glaciers’ colors to track their growth over time. The color of a glacier depended on the amount of dust that fell from agricultural burning, which in turn determined the glacier’s size and stability.
All’s team took this ground information and correlated it to satellite data, matching the color they observed to the color that the satellite imagery showed. This enabled the team to track the growth or deterioration of glaciers over time.
With a doctorate in geography and global climate change and a juris doctorate in international environmental law, All was a proponent for climate awareness and environmental conservation. He taught university courses in environmental law, ethics and planning.
La Grange graduate student Chandler Santos said she saw the professor as a great role model. At first, Santos described All as “stubborn” when it came to his tenacity for climate change research, but she eventually decided that the term “driven” better suited him.
“He’s a survivor,” Santos said. “He’s very strong. I guess he is a stubborn man too, but he was going to live one way or another. He just pushed through it.”
All’s experience pulled him to the line between life and death. Stranded 70 feet below the ice and snow, he was possibly nearing the end of his life.
It was his stubbornness that helped him survive.
“This isn’t impossible,” All said. “I told myself I just really have to focus. That’s what climbing does — it teaches you tunnel vision. There’s only one thing happening here, and I have to get out.”
These are the same words of wisdom All preached to the freshman student body at MASTER Plan convocation in August. As students filed in, the lights went down and jumbo screens atop Diddle Arena lit up with the point-of-view footage All made as he planned his escape.
“Obviously everyone knows me now,” All said. “It’s so easy when you’re a college freshman to get wrapped up in everything and think it’s the end of the world. It’s really not. A lot of these kids got to learn that from the video.”
After 11 broken bones — including six ribs and three vertebrae — fierce stomach wounds, a bruised eye and a serious case of frostbite, All could not be stopped, despite criticism regarding his safety and judgment during the venture. In the end, he was satisfied that the ordeal brought more attention to the environmental issues at play.
While he had a trip planned to Peru just over a year after the accident, All was hesitant to commit to any future climbs. He kept a low profile after his recovery by spending a fair amount of time pursuing a renewed focus in local sustainability and environmental causes.
“When I came here nine years ago, I tried starting an Earth Day festival,” he said. “Everybody sort of laughed at that. Nowadays, I see a group in Bowling Green who truly cares about the environment, and they do more than just talk.”
University photographer Clinton Lewis was among that group. He befriended All during trips to Peru with the American Climber Science Program — which All founded — and he was a regular volunteer with the Bowling Green Riverfront Foundation.
“Having him back was definitely a relief,” Lewis said. “He is one of the most dedicated people I know. To most people, [climate change] is all too big and complex to understand, but there’s something remarkable about the way John can distill a complex science and the way our planet works to layfolk. He’s brilliant.”
With pressure mounting for All to return to Everest and collect the data his team could not get to, he had choices to make.
“So I’ll choose between extreme mountaineering, moderate mountaineering or local sustainability,” All said. “You’ve got to take [a] risk to do some things. If being on that glacier was safe, everybody would have been doing it. In this case, I had to take a little more [of a] risk than normal. At the same time, you’re still far more likely to die in a car accident than anything else.”