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That Girl: Carolyn Stwertka

Carolyn Stwertka is a nerd. A Ph.D candidate studying ice physics at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering, she analyzes data and examines 60,000-year-old ice cores at the Army Corps of Engineer’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover, N.H. Last summer, she was at a similar facility in Fairbanks, Alaska when she learned that she was on the cover of the September issue of Backcountry. “I was like, ‘This is a dream come true,’” she says. “Not only am I in school studying physics and snow, but I’m on the cover of a ski magazine.”

Carolyn Stwertka on the September 2013 cover. [Photo] Tobias McPhee

Carolyn Stwertka on the September 2013 cover. [Photo] Tobias McPhee

Stwertka, 28, seems more like a skier than a scientist. In the back of her Subaru you can find her brown lab, Kona, and a few pairs of skis, and she wears a down jacket and fur-hooded vest while strolling through winding hallways between walk-in freezers at the Army Corps lab. She’s here to study how atmospheric conditions cause snow to melt on the Greenland ice sheet. “It doesn’t sound sexy,” she says. “I need to come up with a way for it to sound sexier.” As she begins explaining albedo, radiation and metamorphic states, her voice increases in pitch, her hands start to wave, and the inner science geek shows through.

“I make the nerdiest comments all the time,” she says. “People roll their eyes and laugh.” But she’s used to it. She grew up around science, and skiing too.

Both of Carolyn’s parents are scientists at Kodak. “I grew up doing experiments and playing with cameras,” she says. But it wasn’t just cameras and science that her parents exposed her to. They put her on skis around age 5 at Powder Mills Park and, later, Bristol Mountain, near their Rochester, N.Y. home. By 11, she was racing, and once she hit high school, she structured her schedule around skiing—and studying. “I took all the hard classes, like AP Physics, so I’d be done at 11 a.m., and I’d go train and then do homework,” she says. “I didn’t really have a life besides skiing.”

Stwertka at the Dartmouth Cold Lab. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Stwertka at the Hanover Cold Lab. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

Rather than go straight to college, Carolyn deferred her first semester at Middlebury College to ski in Jackson. That’s when, she says, she skied actual powder for the first time: “It was this experience that I’d never felt before, being a racer from the East.” She took an avalanche class, and that helped her realize how intertwined snow and physics could be. “That was part of this powder-skiing, big-mountain, snow-study physics experiment,” she says, brown eyes glowing widely. “I got to Middlebury, and was like, ‘I’m studying physics. That’s it!’”

Between earning a physics degree and studying nanoskill electronics (at Harvard, on the side), she ran sleds for the student-run ski patrol at Middlebury Snow Bowl. She got into the backcountry then, too, first hiking for turns on Mt. Mansfield, Vt. late in her senior year. “We skied [the Teardrop] and graduated two weeks later,” she recalls. “Since I started in February, I graduated in February, and got to ski down [the Snow Bowl] with caps and gowns.”

Like many Vermont-educated skiers, Carolyn moved to Jackson post grad where she joined Snow King ski patrol. She followed that up by teaching mathematics at High Mountain Institute in Leadville, Colo., then entered into a graduate program in meteorology at the University of Utah. While skiing the Wasatch, she skied alongside pros, Dartmouth grads and photographers like Jim Harris and Tobias McPhee. “We met on a hut trip in the Sawtooths,” Tobias says. “Her energy is contagious, and her excitement comes out in whatever she’s doing. We shot a ton together last year, and she really pushed me.”

On that same hut trip, Carolyn met another friend whose father later suggested that she join the Dartmouth program and Cold Lab in Hanover. So now she’s back in the East, examining ice cores and studying for epic, 24-hour engineering exams. “My way of thinking about it is, I got to maximize my time skiing in the West, and I’m here now to work on this,” she says, conceding that she won’t ski too much this winter. “Skiing is always going to be there, but this is the decision I made—this is my chance.”

Still, there will probably be opportunities to squeak in turns after research expeditions to Greenland or Alaska. Between breathless explanations of climate feedback loops and the American Climber Science Program she helped organize in Peru, she pauses. “Do things you love,” she says, “and you’ll end up in places where you want to be.”

This story was originally published in the January 2014 issue of Backcountry Magazine. Follow Carolyn’s research and travels at coldregionscience.wordpress.com.

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