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Backstory: Science's glacial strides

A master of expeditionary research teaches how to take giant leaps for bits of knowledge.

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Professor Maynard Miller doesn't mince words. "This isn't a trip to Jamaica!" he growls. "This is an expedition!"

I'm about to board a helicopter bound for the Juneau Icefield, the enormous glacial mass that abuts the Alaskan capital. Dr. Miller, who knows the icefield better than anyone, is looking dubiously at my borrowed glacier gear, and his attitude suggests little faith in my longevity.

Sixty summers ago, when Miller was an ambitious young geologist just a few years out of Harvard, he and several companions began exploring the glaciers northeast of Juneau, navigating icy fissures and granite precipices in the name of science. He's returned to the icefield every summer since, leading as many as 52 college and high school science students on a 90-mile trek across the ice.

During their seven-week journey from rainy Juneau to western British Columbia, the students of the Juneau Icefield Research Program use crampons and climbing gear to cross yawning crevasses. They immerse themselves in glaciology, meteorology, and emergency medicine, and dedicate brawn and brains to ongoing research. They discover that even the most incremental scientific progress often requires immense effort and risk, and nearly superhuman patience.

"They're learning from nature screaming at them," Miller says of his students, his own voice rising in emphasis. "They're getting up in the morning, putting on their gear, and working until they're soaked through – until what they're learning begins to be real."

The screams of nature have long been a part of daily life for Miller. The University of Idaho professor emeritus is an accomplished alpinist – he was part of the 1963 team that put the first American atop Mount Everest – and he's known for feats of physical and intellectual endurance.

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