By John Palka — Posted April 3, 2016
During the first week of September in 2015, I found myself on Mt. Rainier after a lapse of altogether too many years. Yvonne and I were there on a family excursion with our younger daughter, our son-in-law, and their teenage daughter. Three generations, walking the trails around Paradise. Four, really, because we visited the meadow in which we had scattered the ashes of Yvonne’s mountain-loving Swiss parents nearly three decades earlier.
We set out from the visitor center at Paradise (5,400 feet), hiking on the Skyline Trail that takes you up another 1,700 feet, and then back down by a different route. Altogether it’s only a 5.5 mile loop, but in many places the trail is so steep that rough rock steps have been put in place to help hikers and reduce erosion. As we walked, especially in the vicinity of Panorama Point, I grew nostalgic. Partly this was a reaction to the memory of years gone by, when this would have been a casual stroll for me, not a challenge that required the use of two hiking poles. What most emerged in my awareness, however, were memories of treasured friendships with colleagues at the university, and how these intertwined over the years with our shared pursuit of science and love of the mountains. These memories were so powerful that sentences describing them started forming my mind even as we walked the miles downhill back to the parking lot. I started to write not long after we got home. Here, I offer you the results of these ruminations.
The story starts during my early years at the University of Washington (UW), and centers on a group of four friends, all members of the Zoology Department. We called ourselves ZOOM—the Zoology Order of Old Mountaineers. “Old” had a very specific meaning for us—we would be careful enough in the mountains to grow old together! Let me tell you something about our group.
My introduction to ZOOM was through John Edwards, my very first friend at the UW. I met John when I came to Seattle for my job interview back in 1967. We discovered that we were doing experiments on the same organism, the house cricket, I on the functioning of the visual system and John on the regeneration after injury of some wind- and touch-sensitive organs (the cerci) that form sort of a tail. Even though we were approaching different questions, and working on different parts of the animal, we quickly recognized how our experiments could be brought together: we would study the functioning of the visual system after damage and regeneration. We started what would prove to be a collaboration of three decades by airmailing our experimental animals back and forth while I was still at Rice University in Houston.
Bob Pinter was my second friend at the UW. I met him in 1969, a couple of months after our family arrived in Seattle, through a shared interest in vision. Bob was an electrical engineer, and the two of us collaborated on an array of experiments that took advantage of our very different backgrounds by combining physiological studies with mathematical analysis. We worked in my lab, which was loaded with electronic equipment. The two of us sometimes felt like astronauts while sitting in the dark before our glowing consoles, turning knobs and pushing switches!
The last member of ZOOM was Gerold Schubiger, a crusty Swiss who had learned to climb while serving in the Swiss army. He and his wife Margrit worked on the development of Drosophila, the fruitfly made famous as the subject of many pioneering discoveries in genetics. Shortly after the Schubigers arrived in Seattle, Margrit joined my lab as a research associate, and helped to train all of my graduate students from that time on. She formed an intellectual bridge that enabled my students, focusing on neuroscience, to take advantage of the expertise in genetics that was the staple of Gerold’s lab.
Clearly we members of ZOOM had quite different backgrounds (neuroscience, engineering, and genetics), yet we collaborated on research projects and in the training of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. We shared a love of biological investigation, especially of the functioning and development of sensory systems. We maintained our individual labs and lab groups, but our doors were always open and students could find intellectual and technical support in any of our labs—or, indeed, anywhere else in the department.
Scientists have a reputation of being solitary and introverted, their labs functioning as isolated silos and their teams driven by competition. Of course there is introversion, separation, and competition. Not all scientists are collaborators and friends. But what I am trying to describe to you here is, I believe, the bigger truth about the world of science. Scientists enter their fields because they are fascinated by nature and they are incorrigibly curious. As most people do, scientists enjoy the company and collaboration of others like themselves. And, scientists have interests and passions ranging far beyond their academic specialties.
John, Bob, Gerold, and I combined forces in various ways to advance our research and train our students. The heart of ZOOM, however, was what the acronym stood for, mountaineering. The most impassioned among us was John, who came from a land of mountains—New Zealand—and was an outstanding climber. He was a member of the first team to successfully climb Alaska’s Mt. McKinley (now Denali) in winter, a heroic adventure chronicled in the book Minus 148 Degrees, still in print more than 25 years after publication.
ZOOM’s adventures were far less grueling, but challenging nevertheless. They took place, for the most part, in the springtime on Mt. Rainier. On a day chosen for good weather we would drive to the parking area at Paradise, use the public restroom (access to which was through a tunnel excavated into a bank of snow fifteen feet or more high), and strap on our backcountry skis. These were stiff, wooden contraptions with old-style cable bindings to hold our hiking boots, and with World War II surplus climbing skins strapped to the bottoms to keep us from slipping while we trudged uphill. We would set out for Panorama Point, 1,500 feet above us. When the going got too steep, we would disengage from the skis, strap them to our backpacks, and scramble uphill on foot. Eventually we made it to the top of the ridge, put our skis back on, and skied another 2,000 feet uphill to Camp Muir, the climbing shelter at 10,000 feet that is used by summiters to rest before setting out at 1 a.m. for their final climb.
John was an alpine ecologist as well as a neuroscientist, and as we climbed he called to our attention some of the remarkable cold-weather life around us, which he had studied on mountains around the world. For example, there were the wingless grylloblattids, odd creatures that look like a cross between crickets and cockroaches but are placed by biologists into their own distinctive group. Not only do they lack wings, but their eyes are reduced or altogether absent, and they navigate their environment principally via the sensory receptors on their antennae and cerci. They prefer temperatures close to freezing, and the temperatures that we find comfortable usually kill them. If it gets too cold, however, they make their way into protected crevices. If they intrigue you, you can read more about them here: https://www.cals.ncsu.edu/course/ent425/library/compendium/grylloblattodea.html.
We would lunch at Camp Muir, remove our climbing skins, and set out on the long trip back, 4,500 feet down to Paradise. Skiing on the ridge was reasonably gentle, but not all that easy because the snow formed crusty ridges—sastrugi—due to the ever-present sharp wind. Our skis chattered terribly, and we had to ski carefully. We were always grateful for clear weather, for when there is a whiteout (and they are frequent on Mt. Rainier), it’s easy to go a few degrees off course and end up in the adjacent valley with no easy way out, or even go over a cliff. Finally, there was the steep descent from Panorama Point, requiring us once again to take off our skis and plunge-step down more than a thousand feet before the terrain leveled out again. This was high adventure, and we did it a number of times.
All of us survived our mountain adventures, but I am the only member of ZOOM still alive. Bob died 15 years ago of a brain aneurysm. He was 64. John died in 2012 of cancer at the age of 80. Yvonne and I were with him just two days before his passing. And Gerold died later the same year, also of cancer. He was 76.
So, these are the memories that came flooding back to me as we walked down from Panorama Point last September, memories of wonderful times in the mountains as well as in our labs. And this is the story of the Zoology Order of Old Mountaineers. Today, only I remain. Not even Zoology exists any more. Just after I retired in 2002, the UW Zoology Department merged with Botany to form a new, thoroughly integrated Biology Department in which animal and plant scientists jointly explore the wonders of the natural world. I no longer know all of the faculty, but I would bet that the tradition of collaboration is alive and well, and that students still take full advantage of the open doors that their professors maintain as a matter of principle.
NOTE: To protect Mt. Rainier, the National Park Service requires a permit to scatter ashes on the mountain. The form can be submitted online: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/upload/ashes-web-site-bulletin-2011.pdf