A Day in the Science of Life: Hiking up a Mountain

The article below, by Nathan Battersby, was posted on Labfundr on January 31st 2018. The original article can be found here.

Late last year, I found myself at the base of Sulphur Mountain, a popular hike in Banff National Park, Alberta. I was a few hours away from crossing “climb a mountain” off my bucket-list, and more than a few sore muscles. The hike itself was a great experience for me, but as a scientist, I couldn’t help but appreciate the science I found along the way. A common perspective in today’s world is that scientists do the science, and everyone else just does… well… life! But I’m going to take you on a journey to explore how life and science are one in the same, starting with a trek up a mountain. And so begins, A Day in the Science of Life.


Given that this was a “first” for my friend and I, we weren’t sure what to expect. It didn’t take long for us to find out what we were in for… back and forth, back and forth, following paths that mountaineers would refer to as “switchbacks”. After the first couple of switches, we were confronted with our first bit of science, in the form of a challenge: asthma. This disease affects both of us, and may have spiked for numerous reasons. The first of which is the lower air pressure at higher altitudes. Both ourselves and our previous generations have lived at lower altitudes, so with less air being present higher up, our lungs don’t absorb enough oxygen, and need to work a bit harder. In addition, the increased heart-rate associated with hiking uphill also makes the lungs work harder, especially in cold, dry air. Each of these factors contributed the constriction of the airways, sparking asthma in the both of us, which we resolved with prescribed medication.


As we ascended higher up the mountainside, we began to really appreciate why one might climb a mountain in the first place — the views! It didn’t take long for us to observe the wonder that is Mount Rundle, one of the more popular mountains near Banff. The higher we hiked, the better the view became, such that looking at the same mountain range for 3 hours was surprisingly even more awe-inspiring with every glance. Something we noticed in this view was a blue/grey haze between us and Mount Rundle. This made us contemplate why we couldn’t quite get a clear, pristine view of the mountain range, despite nothing blocking our view. After some recollections of high school science, I recognized the factor in play here: the contents of the air. Despite the fact that air is typically considered completely transparent, grand views like this make you realize… air absorbs light too! In particular, water vapour and dust particles absorbed the majority of the light that fought its way through the air from the mountain to my eyes. This is a similar phenomenon to what makes the sky above us appear blue (which is actually predominantly light bouncing off of the oxygen and nitrogen gas that makes up the majority of what we call “air”), and also makes the view of Earth from space a very hazy blue. This experience made me really appreciate the fact that I was looking through the “atmosphere” (particularly the troposphere), and gave me a deeper understanding of the Earth. This was definitely a “SCIENCE!” moment for me.


Further up the mountain, we revisited thoughts about the path we had been following thus far… switchback after switchback. In total, the hike contained 28 of them, each one being a mini-checkpoint. My friend and I had a conversation about this, stemming from the fact that it became somewhat annoying to go back and forth constantly, as it feels like it would have taken all day to get to the top, compared to a more direct route. Naturally, our minds wandered to the science behind it. So let’s break it down a bit… The elevation gain of the Sulphur Mountain hike is 700 metres (the mountain itself has an elevation of 2281 metres, but the hike began somewhat higher up than the town of Banff, which was already 1383 metres above sea level).

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So, if we tried to ascend the 700 metres directly across the 1442 metres between the two points on a map, it would have been a very steep 1602 metre path (thanks to the Pythagorean theorem for that calculation, and the ones to follow). That’s 44 metres of altitude gained for every 100 metres of trail (equivalent to the height of a 13 story building) — definitely more of a climb. In terms of energy, we would have expended a significantly higher amount of energy to ascend to the top, and given our state of fitness, that was much more than our bodies could accomplish. Instead, we followed a 5500 metre path, which you can imagine divided the ascension to only 13 metres of altitude gain for every 100 metres of trail (equivalent to a 4 story building). Now that sounds a lot more manageable to me! After understanding the science behind the switchback, we grew a new appreciation for them, and no further complaining ensued.

As we approached the summit of Sulphur, we were able to see further in the distance, taking in a view over the peaks of countless other mountains, and the valleys below. There was something distinctly different here, and it was about to show us what it was capable of… the weather. In mountain country, one of the first things you notice is the altered movement of clouds. Some clouds move as normal, cruising above the peaks. Others are seemingly stuck! When they approach the mountain fast from one side, and start dumping their moisture, they can’t seem to escape once they reach the opposite side of the peak, and move no further. So over the course of our hike, it was a sunny day with clouds here and there in the distance, but nothing that would affect us — or so we thought. Once we reached the summit, we took in the beautiful views of the mountains on the West side of Sulphur Mountain. To our surprise, we observed clouds as far as the eye could see, putting a grey blanket over the mountains. Even more surprising, the view to the North-West showed signs of clouds approaching us over the valley! At the time, there was very little concern, but within minutes of reaching the summit, the clouds were upon us.


Suddenly, blasts of cold air came through, and it began to snow, blizzard style! This phenomenon occurred due to moist warm wind rushing across the valleys at the head of the blanket of clouds, then rising up the side of Sulphur Mountain, rapidly cooling down, forming a “surprise” cloud. Following the pass of the flash snow, we managed to catch some spectacular views of the mountains to the west, to find that they, too, were now covered in snow! Remember the mountain feature I mentioned earlier, how they trap clouds around them? Now we could really see that process in action, as we observed remnants of the clouds being trapped above various points of the valley — but it gets better. We were about to see this process up close and personal. Eventually we were reaching the end of our mountain adventure, and headed back to the Eastern slope to begin our descent — only to find that the “surprise” cloud never left! There it was, restricting our view to a few hundred metres in any direction, for the most part of the gondola ride down. The clouds were the most wondrous science we discovered during this mountain journey, providing beautiful views, and more than a few surprises!

From health to climate, a hike up a mountain showed me how science really is present every step of the way. As someone who is driven to figure out how things work, seeing and understanding the processes around me makes life so much more exciting. What science do you see in your life? How do scientific processes affect you, and your daily experiences? I would love to hear about a day in the science of your life in the comments below, and stay tuned for more days in the science of my life!

About the Author


Nathan Battersby is a co-founding Partner of IdeaMosaic Inc., a public science engagement company that works with scientists and science-based organizations to connect research to the public. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from Ryerson University, and his life goal is to change the public perception of science.


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