Kate and Mel in the Taklamakan desert. Suddenly, shockingly, marvelously, it appears I have acquired wings. Last night at the Explorers Club, they announced the winners of the 2010 "Women of Discovery" Awards from Wings WorldQuest. And the Field Research Award winner is...?!?!??!?!!! The award is in recognition of the research I've done exploring the relationship between transboundary conservation and conflict resolution, focusing on the Siachen glacier in Kashmir. Perks include a cash prize and a gala dinner in NYC in April. But above all, the award is a stamp of credibility that I hope to leverage into raising support for transboundary science and conservation as peace-building tools in the world's wildest places.

Wings WorldQuest "celebrates and supports extraordinary women explorers and promotes scientific exploration, education and conservation to inspire future generations." I first became involved with them in 2006, when my pal Mel and I carried the Wings WorldQuest Flag on a bike expedition along China's Silk Road. The organization has been a massive support and source of inspiration for me ever since, and I'm incredibly excited to get this award. Especially when the list of past Wings awardees is a roll call of my living heroes in adventure and exploration: chimpanzee conservationist Dame Jane Goodall; oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle; and polar explorers Liv Arneson and Ann Bancroft, just to name a few. Like them, I hope to lead a passionate, unconventional life, devoted to exploring our planet and doing what I can to save those swaths of it still untrammeled.

So, I reckon it's time to put these new wings to the test...

AuthorKate Harris
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Excerpt from Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life":

"Bring on the lions!" I cried.

But there were no lions. I spent every day in the company of one dog and one cat whose every gesture emphasized that this was a day throughout whose duration intelligent creatures intended to sleep. I would have to crank myself up.

To crank myself up I stood on a jack and ran myself up. I tightened myself like a bolt. I inserted myself in a vise-clamp and wound the handle till the pressure built. I drank coffee in titrated doses. It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist. There was a tiny range within which coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.

I pointed myself. I walked to the water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month. Only the coffee counted, and I knew it. It was boiled Colombian coffee: raw grounds brought just to boiling in cold water and stirred. Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday. What I wrote yesterday needed to be slowed down. I inserted words in one sentence and hazarded a new sentence. At once I noticed that I was writing--which, as the novelist Frederick Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a full-scale celebration.

On break, I usually read Conrad Aiken's poetry aloud. It was pure sound unencumbered by sense. If I ever caught a poem's sense by accident, I could never use that poem again. I often read the Senlin poems, and "Sea Holly." Some days I read part of any poetry anthology's index of first lines. The parallels sounded strong and suggestive. They could set me off, perhaps.

This morning, as on so many mornings, I lacked sufficient fuel for liftoff. I looked at the legal pad pages again. A new section must be begun in the book, and a place found to put it. I wrote four or five sentences on a gamble, smoked more to stimulate the brain or stop the heart, whichever came first, and reheated a fourth mug of coffee. After the first boiling, the grounds sink to the coffeepot's bottom. When you reheat it, you call it refried coffee. I already felt like the empty kettle on a hot burner, the thin kettle whose water had boiled away. The top of my stomach felt bruised or burned--was this how mustard gas tasted? I drank the fourth mug without looking at it, any more than you look at the needle in a doctor's hand.

Now, alas, I had cranked too far. I could no longer play the recorder; I would need a bugle. I would break a piano. What could I do around the cabin? There was no wood to split. There was something I needed to fix with a hacksaw, but I rejected the work as too fine. Why not adopt a baby, design a curriculum, go sailing?

-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

AuthorKate Harris

Nothing like a high-velocity faceplant into
a mud pit in the first 20 minutes of a ~3hr
xc mountain bike race to remind you why
you race bikes: out of love, not logic.

AuthorKate Harris

Back from Ladakh, now light-headed less from altitude and more from the reeling return to this “civilized” life, place, pace. Geoff and I spent two weeks hauling 50-pound+ packs over 5600m+ mountain passes in our quest to trek as close to the Siachen glacier as foreigners are permitted. Which, as it turns out, is not very close at all. But even from a disappointing distance, we managed to glean some intriguing perspectives on the Siachen conflict from porters, soldiers, and villagers. And we saw some sublime things and had some amazing (and occasionally harrowing) misadventures in the process. Nothing like hitching a seven-hour jeep ride with three raucous monks named Jigmet - yes, all of them - who cackled with glee while spinning doughnuts around prayer chortens, to remind you that life is short and strange and so worth savoring (should you survive the jeep ride).

Then we scoured the grit off our bodies and clothes to attend the Ladakh Gathering workshop in Leh, organized by The Himalayan Club and Rimo Expeditions. There we were were graced with the powerfully inspiring and enlightening company of Harish and Geeta Kapadia, Motup and Yangdu, Tom and Kathy Hornbein, Bernadette and Alan McDonald, John Porter, and many, many more – including present and former commanders of Indian troops on the Siachen glacier. The workshop was a massive success, with lectures on conservation and environment in the Himalaya from the perspectives of science, medicine, defense, climbing, and culture. I think we all left ignited, somewhat haunted, and yet full of hope and wonder. I sure did.

And speaking of wonder, there was Ladakh itself. What a strange and wild spell that land casts on me! The Greater Himalaya is a region in whose harsh indifference I find anchorage - and enchantment. Light sculpts the land into corrugations, contours, fantastic suggestions; light inscribes mountains with inscrutable runes. Night reveals skies stabbed with infinite sharp stars. The sky is a pincushion; against it, exultant, I am pinned. The very topography of those slopes and summits traces out the contours of my astonishment at being alive on this planet! As Ellen Meloy put it,

Sometimes the desert exhilarates me to the point of soaring. Other times I am so heartsick I cannot bear up against the despair, a palpable, aching longing. Longing for this wild beauty to last and for me never to die and no longer be able to feel, see, hear, taste, and breathe it. A yearning to die before the desert's wild heart is lost so I do not have to witness it. A longing to be a better person, for the world to be a better place, for us to truly measure up to this land, for this land not to be a battlefield of anger and greed. When these two opposing conditions, elation and despair, follow one another too quickly, the universe seems careless and precipitate. I soar, I crash, a squall of heat let loose in the ethos.

We are all squalls of heat loosed in the ethos. The question is, how best to harness that heat? How best to spend this one and only life? How we spend our days, says Annie Dillard, is how we spend our lives.

For me, the outcome of this latest India sojourn is a fiercely renewed determination to tighten the orbit of my days around the ideas, ideals, and places that most magnetize me. Ideas: wilderness conservation, exploration, advocacy, and aesthetics, and the imaginative articulation of the aforementioned. Ideals: living a lean, finely honed life devoted to the passionate defense and adventurous exploration of the landscapes I love. Places: mountains, deserts, icescapes and other far-flung and unsung wildernesses, particularly those straddling borders at high altitude or high latitude or best yet both.

So while it is a shock to be back in Boston, there is much work to be done, and scant time to waste. On November 16, I am giving a public lecture about scientific peacekeeping and Siachen at the Explorers Club in NYC. In early November, I'll be engaged in sessions on transboundary conservation at the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Mexico. Then in December, I'll be in Washington, D.C. for the Antarctic Treaty Summit, where I'll present a paper exploring the applicability of Antarctic Treaty principles to the Siachen glacier situation. In between I'll be slaving in the lab at MIT, and racing my bike. If I'm lucky, I might get some sleep sometime this year, or this lifetime. This one and only life, its days veined with iron, with silver and streaks of common mud.

AuthorKate Harris
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After a busy summer of bike racing and lab benchwork, tomorrow - er, later today - I hop on a plane destined for Delhi, where I will rendezvous with a fellow adventurer who also has mountains on his mind. Then we'll launch on another plane to Leh, a small city located at roughly 11,000 feet in Ladakh. To say I'm excited at the prospect of being flung into the foreign again is akin to saying the Himalaya are high, an understatement bordering on the ludicrous. On that note, I'm headed to India because of ludicrous borders, namely the disputed L.O.C. separating Indian- from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The Siachen glacier is awkwardly sandwiched between the two nations, a vast rampart of ice and rock and military posts (the glacier is a high-altitude battlefield currently under ceasefire.) Science and environmental conservation could potentially play a pivotal role in resolving conflict in this contested wilderness, and I'm headed to Ladakh to speak about the potential of science as a force for peace on Siachen (my grad thesis research) at a workshop organized by the Himalayan Club.

Why wilderness? Why care a whit about Siachen, a useless wasteland of snow, ice and stone? Because among other compelling reasons (scientific, environmental), and from a purely aesthetic perspective, in wildness is the preservation of the world (Thoreau). And because:

We would become nothing without deep and pressing country, places we can never name or possess. Our insides would weaken if we did not have such things. Our minds would become bitter and self-absorbed. I had many times tried to invent a valid argument for the preservation of wilderness and could never find it within the bounds of my language. But I knew that without these places we were risking ourselves as a species. We need these anchors in the land... If we didn't have places like these, we'd die without ever knowing we were dead.
-Craig Childs, Soul of Nowhere

So before Geoff and I participate in the workshop, we're trekking into deep and pressing country ourselves, seeking anchors in the land. Because as Ed Abbey so wisely advised:

Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast... a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.

Amen, Ed. Off we go.

AuthorKate Harris

Read all about our Silk Road adventures in the latest issue of WEND magazine, available on newsstands here starting in August. Just can't wait to get on the road again...


As young wannabe explorers who wish we inhabited a world where maps still bore blank spaces, the three of us have come to China to deliberately lose ourselves along the infamous yet geographically intangible Silk Road. For four months, we intend to live as nomads while exploring nearly 5,000 kilometers of China’s cracked and broken back roads, retracing an abridged section of this famed route through the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. And while Marco Polo relied on camels and caravans to get around, we have opted instead for the sovereign freedom of two wheels.

We wanted to experience a hint of how Marco must have felt confronting the unknown Silk Road, with its meanders and dead ends, its high passes and harsh deserts, its ancient villages and booming cities. This means intentionally disorienting ourselves in China’s faraway places and peoples, gulping down thin air for dinner and swallowing sand for dessert, and burning muscle to the bone with our pulses pounding to the rhythm of altitude, adrenaline and life itself along the storied Silk Road...


AuthorKate Harris