Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

Avalanches ripped across the landscape. Colorful prayer flags draped between rocks and blocks of ice stood out in bright contrast as they whipped in the wind. Icicles over five meters long dripped into white and blue streams that rushed along smooth, rippled, cavernous walls of ice. Meanwhile, streams of aspiring climbers—I among them—fought gravity and thin air to summit some of the world’s highest mountains.

I recently returned to the US after almost three months—March to June 2019—visiting a tiny portion of the “Third Pole” in the Himalayas of Nepal as part of a scientific research expedition in the Hinku, Gokyo, and Khumbu Valleys in Sagamartha and Makalu Barun National Parks. Part of the expedition focused on collecting high-altitude snow samples on the summits and glaciated flanks of Mera, Lobuche, and 8,516-meter (27,940-foot) Lhotse—the fourth highest mountain on the planet. Other research components of the expedition included botanical surveys in the lower valleys and interviewing locals about subjects as diverse as park management, changes in glaciers, and shifting politics in the region—utilizing Nepali students as translators.

Prayer flags draped across the icefall sometimes mark hazardous or important points on the climbing route. (Source: Chris Dunn)
 

My role on the expedition was primarily as social scientist with a research focus on perceptions of glacier recession, particularly comparing those of scientists with the lived experience and traditional beliefs of park residents. One question I had was how scientific literacy intersects with traditional beliefs and the future implications this may have for conservation and park management—an extension of prior long-term studies. I also investigated how expeditions and journey narratives can be used as tools in communicating climate change, as well as science and environmental issues more broadly.

My research trip happened to coincide with two separate National Geographic expeditions in the area—one attempting an ascent of Lhotse South Face and the other, Everest. In Kathmandu, I interviewed various individuals, including staff of the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), who study, among many other things, Himalayan glaciers. At ICIMOD I spoke with a Nepali scientist who grew up in the Khumbu. Later in Kathmandu, I met a Sherpa owner of a trekking and climbing company, who also grew up in the Khumbu. Their dual perspectives as native residents of these areas and as scientists or business owners were extremely valuable. They provided specific details about the perceived risks of glacial lake outburst floods, long-term impacts of glacial loss on hydropower and drinking water, and how traditional conceptions of Sagamartha (Everest) and other mountains, lakes, and valleys as inhabited by gods, goddesses, and spirits might interact with scientific presentations of climate change and climate adaptation efforts.

An ice “mushroom” perched atop the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The Khumbu Icefall framed by a ring of ice. (Source: Chris Dunn)

In addition to my formal social science research aspirations, I participated in physical science data collection. Due to a variety of mishaps and illnesses, I was the sole member of the expedition to summit Mera and Lobuche, where I collected crucial snow samples, which, when processed, will reveal the quantity and origin of black carbon deposited on the glaciers. Black carbon accelerates the glacial mass loss already occurring due to climate change by reducing the albedo of glacier surfaces, thus absorbing more solar energy. My sample site on the summit of Mera tied the prior record for the highest elevation black carbon sampling site, which has been published in a formal paper (on the summit of Mera as it happens). This was soon broken however by samples collected on the summit push up Lhotse (though not yet published).

An ice “stalagmite” has formed at the base of an icicle over five meters long. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The author, Chris Dunn, collecting snow samples high on Mera Peak. (Source: Ramkaji Tiwari)

The expedition’s initial plans were to send two climbers to the summit of Everest and three to the summit of Lhotse. Once again, however, due to a variety of misfortunes, no Everest aspirants spent a night above Camp 2, leaving no one in position to attempt Everest. Only the expedition leader and I successfully summited Lhotse, as our third had to rescued by helicopter from Camp 2 due to bloody froth in his lungs—a clear symptom of high-altitude pulmonary edema. Our summit day began under a full moon and in the distance we watched a continuous line of headlamps crawling up Everest’s south summit.

Due to the slow process of acclimatization and some weather delays, I was able to spend an exceptionally long time at Everest Base Camp (EBC). Though it was a bit taxing, it gave me the unique opportunity to explore sections of the Khumbu Glacier around EBC that are rarely seen by otherwise occupied climbers and Nepali staff. I documented, through photography, short videos, and writing, the quickly disappearing ice formations in this area. In other words, I spent time with the glacier, getting to know and appreciate it at multiple levels—developing a deep aesthetic appreciation.

A rare cluster of nieves penitentes that the author spotted on the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)

I see my work here in part as a fledgling spinoff of photographer James Balog’s wonderful documentation of ice—the subject of the equally wonderful film Chasing Ice by Jeff Orlowski. I hope that my unique contributions include exploring little crevices that are missed by a wider view, creative writing, and an academic investigation into the scientific and indigenous cultural aspects of ice.

As I explored, I was struck by several recurring formations: countless and ever-transforming icicles, “mushrooms,” or small columns of ice capped by rocks; “snails,” which eerily resembled rock-shell-toting ice-creatures; intricately-textured and cracked spires, caves, and waves of ice; and the rare cluster of nieves penitentes—triangular blades of ice formed through sublimation. Each of these dwarfed by the great hanging and mountain glaciers surrounding EBC on all sides.

Avalanches—occasionally of awe-inspiring size and power—were numerous. One night at Camp 2, as I lay buried in my thick down sleeping bag, a nearby avalanche exploded downward at such volume that I was certain it would envelop me in the darkness. I resigned myself to my fate, which never came. Another avalanche roared outside my tent at Base Camp. I was later told by a National Geographic GIS specialist that it partially enveloped our camp in a cloud of snow. At least one client of our company was struck by the tail end of an avalanche, while a member of our expedition came within 10 meters of a different avalanche. It seems likely that the quantity and size of avalanches I witnessed was affected by climate change, part of a larger world-wide trend, well-documented in other regions.

A tiny portion of Everest Base Camp and the Khumbu Glacier illuminated under a full moon. (Source: Chris Dunn)

I spent nearly a month and a half camping right on top of a glacier. If not on a relatively thin layer of rock, as at EBC, then directly on the ice. The glacier would often creak, pop, and groan, especially at night as it expanded and contracted with changing temperatures. At Camp 2, I sometimes felt deep vibrations ripple into my body. On one occasion, I heard a pop right near my tent, followed by one after another moving off into the distance. By the end, my tent at EBC hung precariously from its high platform of ice and rock—undercut by melting and ready to fall.

I cherish the time I spent getting to know these glaciers at multiple levels—as an object of scientific inquiry and source of data, a nexus of traditional lifeways and beliefs, an aesthetic and sensual phenomenon, and an ever-changing, perilous obstacle for summiting one of the highest mountains on Earth. I hope that I will have future opportunities to come to know other glaciers in all these ways.

See more photos and a forthcoming essay about this expedition here.

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The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

Scaling Mount Everest is not for the faint-hearted. Located on the border of Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, with a summit of 29,035 feet. Its extreme elevation not only increases the chances of incurring frostbite for climbers, but also reduces their oxygen intake, which has potentially significant health impacts like pulmonary edema and blood embolisms.

Avalanches and icefalls are also among some of the more life-threatening dangers associated with mountaineering, and these risks may become greater with increased warming. As of May 2017, the official number of fatalities recorded is over 270 according to World Atlas, with avalanches as the leading cause of mortality. Unfortunately not all the bodies of those who perished have been retrieved, due to the harsh environment. Many have vanished amid the ice and snow.

A view of Everest from Base Camp One on the Tibet side of the mountain, where some bodies are appearing. BBC reporting was done mostly from Nepal. (Source: Global Panorama/Flickr)

One of the perverse impacts of climate change, however, is that these corpses, scattered across the Everest slopes and long thought unretrievable, are now seeing the light of day due to rising temperatures and melting ice. Movement of the Khumbu glacier, where many of the dead bodies are appearing, has also contributed to the recent exposures.  Expedition operators and mountaineers have reported coming across more and more dead bodies that are being exposed because of fast glacial melting and reduced levels of ice, according to the BBC.

The discovery of these bodies is good news for families that may have lost a loved one on Everest, but it also presents some challenges for officials when deciding on proper response to the situation. According to the article, dealing with dead bodies, both logistically and emotionally, is not an easy task. Families who learn of recovery are also faced with a formidable series of administrative procedures. For Nepal, handling of the bodies requires government agency involvement, and according to the article, getting that involvement has been a challenge.

Recovering bodies is also very dangerous and costly. Ash Tshering Sherpa, former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said that one of the most difficult recoveries was from nearby the mountain’s summit, where conditions are severe and unsafe for rescue teams. Experts estimate the cost to bring down dead bodies from the mountain, which could be between $40,000 and $80,000.

“Green Boots,” an Indian climber who died on the Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1996, has become a famous landmark for climbers. (Source: Maxwelljo40/Wikimedia Commons)

Sherry Ortner, a distinguished professor of anthropology at UCLA and author of Life and Death on Mt. Everest, said mountaineering practices in the Himalayas have changed dramatically over the years. Decades ago, Sherpas never climbed Everest because they believed certain gods lived there, and scaling the mountain was seen as a religious offence. However, mountaineering and assisting climbers has become a part of Sherpa economy today.

She also told us that although finding dead bodies on Everest is nothing new, the issue now is the quantity of bodies, and how to handle the bodies with respect. “On the one hand, recovering bodies is very dangerous and difficult, and Sherpas risk their lives recovering dead bodies,” Ortner said. “On the other hand, the mountaineering practice is important for the economy, and some may be willing to recover a body for the income.”

The families want the bodies back and treated with respect, and the Sherpas would never treat the bodies with disrespect, added Ortner. The article points out that some bodies serve as landmarks for mountaineers, which may be disrespectful to the body and the families. Proper treatment of one who has passed varies from culture to culture. As Buddhists, Sherpas view cremation as the most respectful, and westerners may want to bury their dead.

Mountaineers often climb in groups for safety and support, sometimes accompanied by a member, or members, of the Sherpa community. (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr)

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, affiliated with the South Asia Center of University of Washington, shared similar sentiments. Sherpa also recently commented on the issue on a BBC Sounds program. She said the news was not particularly shocking, as the Sherpas have known about the bodies and melting snow for years. However, it’s starting a fresh conversation about proper management and disposal of the dead bodies from the mountain, and it calls out authorities to act.

Sherpa added that it’s important to remember Mount Everest holds a place in Sherpa religion—the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Miyo Langsangma resides there. “The issue here is that the dead bodies should be handled with care and respect each of them deserves to maintain the sanctity of the mountain,” she said. Sherpa also said that to the mountaineers, the bodies are more than just landmarks, and a serious mountaineer understands the dedication and sacrifice that comes along with the climb.

“For them [mountaineers], dead bodies tell stories of ambitions and accomplishments. They also remind them of the risks involved” said Sherpa.

May this news serve as a reminder to brave mountaineers to prepare and take proper precaution on their journeys to the top of Everest.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Living and Dying on the Glaciers of Everest

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Roundup: Deadly Glacier Calving & Groundbreaking Assessments

Calving Glacier Kills Tourist in Norway

From The Local Norway: “An Austrian man has been killed in Norway after a huge block of ice calved off the Nigardsbreen glacier, causing a shower of water and ice which threw him into the fast-flowing meltwater. The man […] had ignored the warning signs and crossed over a safety cordon to get closer to the glacier.”

Read more about the deadly incident here.

According to the story, the man had ignored warning signs and crossed a safety barrier to get closer to Nigardsbreen Glacier (Source: The Local Norway/Twitter).

 

Identifying the Highest Plants on Earth

From Alpine Botany: “Three specimens from the 1952 Everest expedition are reviewed and analyzed, bringing the number of species sharing the title of ‘highest known vascular plant’ from two to five… This taxonomic investigation contributes to our knowledge of the biogeography of Himalayan flora and opens the way for future field-based investigations of mechanisms limiting plant growth on the roof of the world.”

Check out more about this important discovery here.

Mt. Everest (Source: Wangpin Thondup/Flickr).

Shrinking Glaciers and Growing Lakes in Peruvian Andes

From Global and Planetary Change: “In the tropical Andes, current rates of glacier loss are investigated to some point but associated future extent of both vanishing glacier and forming lake areas and volumes are poorly explored… Our current baseline and future projections suggest that a decrease in glacier shrinkage is also followed by a slowdown in lake formation and particularly volume growth which might have already developed or occur in the near-future.”

See for yourself what this assessment determined here.

Image of Pastoruri Glacier, a vulnerable glacier in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Guillaume Weill/Flickr).

China’s Promotion of Everest Tourism

Mount Everest is the highest peak in the world, sitting at 29,029 feet, roughly 5.5 miles above sea level. Though the south side of Everest is located in Nepal, about 100 miles from Kathmandu, the north side of Everest lies within the Tibet Autonomous Region and is governed by China. Earlier this year, China finished construction on a paved road up to Everest’s north side base camp, bordering on a 14,000 foot elevation gain. This was the first step in a larger commercialization goal for the Chinese in Tibet. China has proposed commercializing the north side of Everest by 2019 in order to make the mountain more accessible, according to China Daily, China’s state-run English-language news site. With this move, China may further divide the Everest region, already struggling from political tensions and significant urbanization. China’s success in this venture will rest on the incorporation of approved standards of environmental, cultural and mountaineering practice.

China opened a new paved road to Mount Everest (Source: Mudanjiang Regional Forum).
China opened a new paved road to Mount Everest (Source: Mudanjiang Regional Forum).

Traditionally, Nepal has been the preferred route to Mt. Everest because of its political stability, slightly warmer climate, less severe elements and helicopter rescue capabilities, as well as government policies that offer access to the site. However, recent issues with overcrowding and growing litter on Everest’s south side has provided China with new opportunities to become more competitive in the mountaineering market, as pointed out by Tsechu Dolma, a Nepali and frequent contributor to GlacierHub. With this recent development, China hopes to bolster the local tourism and mountaineering industry in Tibet, which China claims would have positive impacts on local economies and accessibility. This includes plans for a 84,320 square meter mountaineering center in Gangkar worth $14.7 million (100 million yuan) that would contain hotels, restaurants, a mountaineering museum, a search-and-rescue base and other services.

“These jobs should and would go to locals,” Jamie McGuinness, owner of  the small private trekking firm Project Himalaya, pointed out to GlacierHub, referring to the ethnic Tibetan population of the region. “With the approximate 5,000 meter altitude, other ethnic groups cannot handle living there. Initially, it could be that some of the locals would lose some business briefly; however, over time more income would be generated for everyone.”

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Everest base camp, Nepal (Source: Hendrik Terbeck/Creative Commons).

Increasing search-and-rescue capabilities would also help to reduce risks notorious to the mountain. Summiting attempts cater to a very small portion of the population capable of extreme athleticism. Despite climbers’ skill, Everest attempts still pose a great risk to all involved; in the case of Nepal, the local Sherpas  face higher risks due to increased exposure and the pressures associated with route preparation. Having an established mountaineering center could prove beneficial to tourists, and perhaps to guides as well, if the north side of Everest becomes the more preferred route for summiting attempts. Climbing risks can be reduced by having well-funded search-and-rescue teams. This might help reduce the risk of tragedies like the one in 2014 when an ice avalanche from the Khumbu glacier in Nepal claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas.

Having spent the last 25 years trekking through the Himalayas, McGuinness says, “Nepal is lucky that so many expeditions still climb from the obviously more dangerous icefall route, the price of which is roll-of-the-dice deaths. Climbing Everest from the north is significantly less dangerous, and the day of reckoning is coming within the next few years.” The switch needs to happen, McGuinness added, but whether Sherpas and guides climb from the north or from the south, they will still get paid.

Khumbu Glacier
Khumbu Glacier, Nepal (Source: Mahatma4711/ Creative Commons).

As climates continue to change, increased temperatures experienced in Nepal could expand dangers posed to climbers and the Sherpa guides. The Khumbu Glacier regularly releases large,  deadly ice chunks, which fall along climbing routes. The 2014 ice avalanche that killed the 16 Sherpas had a mass that was the size of a ten-story building. The Khumbu Glacier greatly increases the risks from summiting in Nepal, and these risks may only increase as climates continue to shift.

As McGuinness suggests, the dangers associated with climbing routes from the south side of Everest may start to become too great, causing a shift in preferred routes to summiting Everest. However, the north side is not without dangers, nor without glaciers. Tibet’s Mount Everest base camp currently sits below the terminal moraine (furthest point of advance of a glacier) of the Rongbuk Glacier. The Rongbuk Glacier is fed by two upper sections, the East Rongbuk Glacier and the West Rongbuk Glacier, which are also affected by climate change. According to McGuinness, these glaciers pose a lower risk for the mountaineers and guides attempting the ascent than the Khumbu Glacier. The establishment of a mountaineering center may make the climbing route more appealing to outside climbers, with increased technologies, improved capabilities to manage waste, and easier access to critical resources.

Rongbuk glacier, Tibet (Source: Gaurav Agrawal)
Rongbuk Glacier, Tibet (Source: Gaurav Agrawal/Creative Commons).

While the creation of a mountaineering center might certainly be beneficial to the mountaineering and tourism industry in the area, this commercialization would need to be considerate of the environment and culture it would be occupying. For Sherpas as for other indigenous communities of the region, the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of Everest are inextricably tied to deep-rooted religious beliefs. For example, before an ascent attempt from the north side, climbers pass Rongbuk Monastery, built in 1909 and currently the highest monastery in the world, home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns. Largely reduced to rubble during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s,  this site has seen significant rebuilding and restoration in recent decades. Disrespecting the local culture of Tibet could negate the positive impacts China hopes to achieve in the region.

Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet- home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns. (Source: Göran Höglund)
Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet: home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns (Source: Göran Höglund/Creative Commons).

China’s ability to respect the values and needs of the Tibetan people would be a positive step to helping heal a complicated history between the two countries. Tensions between China and Tibet have remained high since the 1950s. Large commercial projects could further these animosities by threatening sacred sites that have helped define the local culture of Tibet for centuries. China has the opportunity to work with local communities in Tibet to not only help them build sustainable infrastructure, but also to help improve the lives of the mountain peoples who have otherwise been historically disregarded.

McGuinness comments, “The commercialization of Everest is as inevitable as urbanization. It is a question of managing it with sensitivity and balancing commercial interests against local and environmental interests.” As shown by a recent restriction which China placed on the travel of its citizens to Nepal, geopolitical interests are also likely to be at play.

 

Military intervention at Nepal’s fastest growing glacial lake

Ten kilometres south of Mount Everest lies Nepal’s “fastest-growing glacier lake”— Imja Tsho. In March 2016, acting to mitigate potential threats the lake might pose to over 96,000 people downriver, the Nepalese Army began installing syphons to lower the water level by 10 feet (3 m).

The army’s engineering department, commissioned by Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), is now conducting “the highest altitude disaster risk mitigation work ever performed by any army in the world,” according Lt Col Bharat Lal ShresthaLocally, the remediation will bolster the confidence of flood-prone communities, and is likely to assuage fears of downstream developers, which have been concerns elsewhere in the region.

The soldiers can only work two to three hours a day, due to the thin air, and strain of working at 16,400 feet (5,000 m). The project aims to safeguard lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure throughout Solukhumbu District — home to Mount Everest and the major religious site of Tengboche Monastery — as well as further downstream.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) — the world’s largest fund addressing environmental issues — are financing the US$7.2 million remedial works at Imja Tsho,  often cited as an especially dangerous lake. This has been reinforced by local perceptions and its proximity to Everest’s trekking routes.

Imja Tsho and the surrounding Everest region (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated)
Imja Tsho and the surrounding Everest region (Source: NASA Earth Observatory, annotated by Sam Inglis, GlacierHub)

A report by the  BBC in June 2016 claimed that the 2015 Gorkha earthquakes “may further have destabilised” the lake. However, the results of ’Rapid Reconnaissance Surveys’ made public in December 2015 revealed “[Imja] showed no indication of earthquake damage when viewed either by satellite or by a helicopter.

The UNDP and GEF’s selection of Imja pivots on a single study by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) from 2011, which defies much of the preceding and independent research on the lake. ICIMOD is an intergovernmental agency headquartered in Kathmandu, researching Nepal’s glaciers and mountains hazards and also involved  in the current engineering works.

Studies by Japanese, British and American teams concluded that the surrounding topography shelters Imja from mass movements. ICIMOD deprioritized Imja’s status. Their 2011 national report stated, “[despite] the apparently alarming rate of [Imja Tsho’s] expansion…the danger of outburst came to be regarded as far less than originally expected.” Concurring with the international researchers, they also ruled out the possibility of a GLOF-triggering ice avalanche as ”[not] very likely.”

The lead authors of the 2011 study subsequently gave compelling evidence in 2015 for remediation at another glacial lake — Thulagi Tsho. Narendra Raj Khanal and six colleagues from ICIMOD revealed Thulagi posed a “high risk.” Over 164,000 people would be directly impacted by a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), with a further 2 million indirectly exposed — four times the number at Imja. Threats to hydropower facilities were a key concern highlighted by UNDP and GEF. However, there are six hydropower projects below Thulagi, and one below Imja.

Imja is being drained 10 feet (3 m) over 4 years — costing nearly US$7 per gallon. However, research led by the University of Texas has shown that this minor reduction would have a negligible impact on a GLOF. Daene McKinney and Alton Byers also stated that it offered an insignificant “3 percent risk reduction.”

Imja Tsho presently covers 135 ha (1.35 km2), holding nearly 20 billion gallons (75.2 million m3) of meltwater — enough water to meet all New York State’s water needs for nearly two and a half days. It is fed by Imja Glacier, which has wasted 1.4 miles (2.2 km) over less than 40 years. Imja Glacier has “exhibited the largest loss rate in the Khumbu region,” according to research by the University of Texas and The Mountain Institute.

The evolution of Imja Tsho from 1976-2016 (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)
The evolution of Imja Tsho from 1976-2016 (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)

Nepal began inventorying its glaciers and glacial lakes in earnest in 1999 — “after global warming had become a sexy topic,” claimed independent observer Seth Sicroff. ICIMOD publishing the findings in 2001. They detected 2,323 glacial lakes, classifying twenty — less than one percent —as “potentially dangerous.”

GLOFs, which typically occur when a dam barring a glacial lake fails, gained greater attention as a point of investigations in the 1980s, following a catastrophic outburst at Dig Tsho. At the “request” of Khumbu residents, German geoscientists Wolfgang Grabs and Joerg Hanisch travelled to the Everest region in 1993 to study local glacial hazards, and establish an hazard assessment criteria. They speculated that syphoning water, and lowering the level by 16.4 feet (5 m) could “stabilize” lake against overtopping surge waves pouring over the dam.

The syphon was first adopted at Tsho Rolpa — Nepal’s largest glacial lake — in May 1995. By 1998, following 4 years of investigations, Professor John Reynolds — then-chief technical adviser on glacial lakes to the Nepalese government — designated it the “most dangerous glacial lake in Nepal.”

A repeat of the 1985 GLOF has long been feared in Rolwaling Valley — a mere 6 miles (10 km) east of Dig Tsho. The DHM projected Tsho Rolpa could release of over 8 billion gallons (30 million m3) of meltwater — threefold the volume of 1985 GLOF, and equivalent to the volumes of 12,000 olympic swimming pools. Over 10,000 local inhabitants, and US$22 million-worth of infrastructure and property as far as 62 miles (100 km) down-valley, were thought to be threatened.

In 2013, a Japanese research team revealed that the “potential flood volume” at Tsho Rolpa has tripled, and is now closer to 23.6 billion gallons (89.6 million m3).

By July 2000, a 13 foot (4 m) US$3.1 million spillway had been constructed, reducing the water level by 9-13 feet (3-4 m). Reynolds recommended that engineering works be continued until the lake level was 49-65 feet (15-20 m) below its 1998 level. Five DHM experts and Reynolds co-authored a paper emphasising, “While the lowering of the lake level by [9.8 feet] 3 m [was] expected to reduce the risk of GLOF, it is not a permanent solution.” Their explicit intention was to continue lowering in the “near future,” as soon as funds were allocated for disaster mitigation in Nepal.

Sluice gate at Tsho Rolpa (Source: Brian Collins/USGS)
Sluice gate at Tsho Rolpa (Source: Brian Collins/USGS)

Funds were never found and, in the early 2000s, Maoist insurgents infiltrated the area. They dismantled Tsho Rolpa’s ‘Community-Based Early Warning System’ (CBEWS) in 2002. It was not until 2012 — a decade after the insurgence had been quelled — that replacements were pledged. The CBEWS was expected to be back online in early 2016.

A misplaced “trust in western technology” resulted in locals complacently believing there was “no further danger,” according to anthropologist Dr Janice Sacherer of the University of Maryland. This sentiment persists, and no further work has been budgeted for Tsho Rolpa in the near future. This is largely attributable to the limited funds available to the DHM, who receive a bulk of their funding from international NGOs, aid agencies and foreign governments.

It has been long been hoped that funds would be diverted to counter the immediate threat posed by Tsho Rolpa. The UNDP’s 2013 technical report stated 141,911 people within 62 miles (100 km) of Tsho Rolpa are exposed to the direct impacts of a GLOF, compared to the 96,767 living 75 miles (120 km) below Imja Tsho. However, the UNDP report justifies its decision to focus on Imja by revealing that the economic toll through lost revenue at Imja would be US$8.98 billion — nearly four times that downstream of Tsho Rolpa.

In 2007, under-development of the Rolwaling Valley was attributed, at least in part, to the omnipresent threat of a massive GLOF.

With a US$7.2 million price-tag, a military cohort that can only work a few hours a day, other sites requiring more immediate attention, and the syphoning method being deemed a “Band-Aid solution,” only time will tell if the money and effort expended on Imja Tsho were warranted.

Photo Friday: Images from ‘Sherpa’

Pasang Sherpa, a member of the Sherpa community of Nepal, wrote a review of the new documentary Sherpa earlier this week for GlacierHub. She called it, “one of the best portrayals of the Sherpa story on the mountain I had seen.” Directed by Jennifer Peedom, the documentary tells the story of how the climbing industry has changed life for Sherpas, who attach spiritual significance to Everest and yet also rely on it for work. The film also covers a major accident that took place in 2014 in the Khumbu Icefall, in which 16 mountain expedition workers, a majority of them ethnic Sherpas, died.  Sherpa aired at several film festivals last year and recently was broadcast on Discovery.

More information on the film, including “inside look” clips, can be found at the film’s website. Peedom shares her views on the relationship between the climbing industry and Sherpas, and the crew discusses challenges such as working at high altitude. The following photos from the film are courtesy of Discovery.

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Mt. McKinley’s Name Changed Back to Denali

Denali (source: National Park Service)
Denali (source: National Park Service)

United States President Barack Obama announced this week he would officially change the name of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, back to Denali, the original Native American name for the mountain.

Mount McKinley was named after Republican President William McKinley more than a century ago, but the name Denali has older roots in the language of the Athabascan people of Alaska. The name means “the high one,” or “the great one.” Denali’s summit reaches 5,500 metres and is covered by five large glaciers.

Disputes over the mountain’s name began in the 1970’s when the Alaskan legislature requested that the mountain’s official name be changed back to Denali. A stalemate was reached in 1980, when, as a compromise, McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain’s name remained unchanged. Now, 40 years later, the renaming remains controversial. Though many Alaskans celebrate the name change, politicians from Ohio — President McKinley’s home state — are not happy. In a tweet, Ohio Governor John Kasich said Obama had “overstepped his bounds.”

In defense of Obama’s decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said President McKinley had never visited Alaska, adding that the deceased president had no connection to the mountain. Native Americans across the country have applauded the decision.

“Yes, we are truly excited about it- it’s a long time coming since Alaskans have wanted the change for  a long time,” Malinda Chase, from the Association of Interior Native Educators, told GlacierHub. “On the home front, it’s a definite celebration for our People, our Languages, and the ever-present guiding strength of our Ancestors, whom I’m sure will be celebrating in all their glory in the early morning sunlight shining on the high and stunning peaks of our wondrous Denali!”

First publication of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (source: University of South Carolina library)
First publication of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (source: University of South Carolina library)

Other major glaciated peaks have also had their indigenous names restored. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in East Africa, had a German name, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze (Emperor William Peak) from 1889 to 1918, the date at the end of World War I when German East Africa became the British colony of Tanganyika, though some Germans kept using the name until 1964, when the colony, together with the island of Zanzibar, became the independent country of Tanzania. Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” first published in Esquire Magazine in 1936, may have contributed to removing any lingering attachment to the mountain’s German, rather than its KiSwahili, name.

Aoraki-mount-cook-header-image
Commemorative New Zealand dollar (source: NZ Post)

New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook, was given a double name in 1998, Aoroki/Mount Cook, placing the indigenous  Maori  name first.  This decision came after some decades of negotiation, in which the indigenous groups of southern New Zealand pressed their land claims under nineteenth century treaties. A commemorative non-circulating dollar coin was issued some years later.

And some mountains have names which remain unresolved. Mount Everest is known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan, and many have pressed to eliminate the colonial name. The highest peak in Tajikistan seems unlikely to retain its principal Soviet name, Pik Kommunizma, or its alternate Soviet name, Mount Stalin, but several others names are in use, including  Garmo and Ismoil Somoni, the latter being a leader of a 9th and 10th century dynasty in the region. The complex topography and difficult access of the Pamir Range contribute to the multiplicity of names which individual mountains receive.  

Nonetheless, a number of glacier-covered mountains around the world continue to be internationally known by the name given by colonial explorers. It seems likely that they will join Denali and Kilimanjaro in shaking off their colonial names–names used, it must be remembered, for only a small fraction of the history of human settlement in these mountains, or, at least, like Aoraki/Mount Cook, their double, hybrid status could be acknowledged.

In wake of Everest deaths, many groups push for reform

A funeral procession in Kathmandu for one of the Sherpas killed in an April avalanche on Mount Everest. (photo: Nepal Mountaineering Association)
A funeral procession in Kathmandu for one of the Sherpas killed in an April avalanche on Mount Everest. (photo: Nepal Mountaineering Association)

A major workshop late last month represents a significant change in the debates about climbing expeditions on Mount Everest, with significance across the Himalayas and beyond.

The “Participatory Workshop on Roles, Responsibilities & Rights of Mountaineering Workers,” held on 29 and 30 August in Kathmandu, emerged from the unsettled outcome of the tragic accident of 18 April 2014, when 16 Nepalese guides were killed at the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest. The spot is well-known as a particularly dangerous part of the route to the summit. It goes over an area in which a glacier descends a cliff so steep that the ice cannot flow smoothly, but rather becomes divided by criss-crossing crevasses into segments, many as large as big houses,which can break off and come crashing down. In essence, an icefall is to a glacier what a waterfall is to a liquid river. Everest contains many other challenges to climbers, including thin air, long ascents and changeable weather, but this icefall is particularly treacherous. Only thirteen of the bodies were recovered before weather conditions caused the cancellation of the search for the others. The guides were predominantly Sherpa, members of a Himalayan ethnic group with longstanding ties to the mountain, who have provided the core guides since the earliest expeditions of the 1920s.

The Khumbu Icefall is a notoriously dangerous part of Mount Everest. Sixteen Nepalese guides died here on April 18 in one of the worst accidents in the mountain's history. (source: Mahatma4711)
The Khumbu Icefall is a notoriously dangerous part of Mount Everest. Sixteen Nepalese guides died here on April 18 in one of the worst accidents in the mountain’s history. (source: Mahatma4711)

Some were offended that the government offered only scanty compensation to the families of the victims, barely enough to pay for the funerals. The major climbing organization, Nepal Mountaineering Association, also reacted negatively. The government lobbied to make sure that the climbing season—and the flow of valuable foreign revenue that it brings—would continue. In sum, the incident revealed once again the strong economic and cultural divisions that have long plagued the climbing expeditions, in which wealthy foreigners make large payments to the Nepalese government and to climbing firms, while the local guides, who face life-threatening risks as they traverse the dangerous terrain year after year, receive low pay. The divisions are not as extreme as they were decades ago, when the guides called the foreigners “sahib” and were treated as personal servants. Most foreign climbers now treat the guides with personal respect, and some of the guides have opened climbing firms and equipment companies themselves. Nonetheless, the work is very dangerous; hundreds have died on the mountain. The pay remains poor, and the guides are repeatedly sent into the most dangerous conditions to prepare the trail for the foreigner tourists.

On 21 April, eight of the victims were brought to Kathmandu and were cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony. The following day, the Sherpa guides stated that they would cancel their participation in climbs for the rest of the 2014 season, to show respect to the victims and to the long history of dangerous, under-compensated mountaineering work. The large majority, though not all, foreign climbers were in agreement with this decision, even though it put into suspension several hundred climbing permits, each of them worth about $10,000. In response, the Nepalese government provided additional payments to the families of the victims, although these were still insufficient, considering the living costs in Kathmandu.

A funeral procession on April 21 in Kathmandu for one of the guides killed a few days before in an avalanche. (source: Nepal Mountaineering Association)
Monks at funeral on April 21 in Kathmandu for the guides killed a few days before in an avalanche”. (source: Nepal Mountaineering Association)

The August workshop was hosted and facilitated by Mountain Spirit (MS), a Nepali NGO working for the mountain peoples, and supported by the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association (NNMGA), the Nepal Mountain Instructors Association (NMIA), Khumjung School Alumni Association (KSAA) representing the graduates of a school founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, and the Sherpa Adventure Gear clothing company. The 40 participants at this workshop represented mountaineering workers from 8 different mountain districts with a range of experiences, from some who had newly entered the profession to others whose mountaineering careers began in the 1970s. The mountaineering workers were recognized as a key group whose presence in discussing, drafting, reviewing, and implementing new policies and procedures would be necessary for the continued development and progress of the mountaineering industry. The workshop called for a reconsideration of payment to the guides, insurance and safety conditions. Proposals were aired to provide training for guides whose injuries prevent them from climbing. Participants suggested that the government should select regional officers with strong local ties and mountaineering background to provide liaison to link the government agencies with Sherpa guides and their communities. The issue of search and rescue operations remained the subject of contention, since the government has been more willing to mobilize efforts to rescue foreigners than Nepalese, and since guides do not receive insurance to pay for their rescue in the case of accidents.

A workshop in August by many climbing organizations hopes to prevent disasters like the one on the Khumbu Icefall in April. (source: Mahatma 4711)
A workshop in August by many climbing organizations hopes to prevent disasters like the one on the Khumbu Icefall in April. (source: Mahatma 4711)

The proposals from the workshop were presented to the audience that included expedition operators and government representatives on the second day. Also in attendance was the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, whose agency issues climbing permits for the highest peaks in the Nepalese Himalayas including Everest. Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, an advisor to the Mountain Spirit, addressed the audience. He highlighted that MS, a small local organization, is putting its effort and membership fees to support this important discussion of ways to make Nepal’s mountaineering tourism more sustainable and just.

The meeting was in some ways inconclusive. A government official remarked, “Like lovers who can’t speak what is in their heart, we aren’t open in discussions and regret it once we go home.” However, there were some positive outcomes. In particular, the mountaineering workers were more visible and more widely heard than in earlier discussions. The framework of discussions of safety and insurance has shifted. The two-day workshop is expected to lead productive discussions of how to make mountaineering in Nepal more safe, sustainable and equitable, and to promote a full representation of mountaineering workers’ experiences, perspectives, and concerns in future discussions. These points are discussed more fully in the press release issued after the conference.

This workshop demonstrates the great power that glaciers and mountains exercise on the human imagination. For decades, Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world has been managed as if two groups had special authority there: the wealthy adventurers who claim that they, as representatives of all humanity, should be able to travel there, and the Nepalese officials, who speak in the name of a government that claims sovereignty over the routes to the peak. In addition to the mountaineering workers, the workshop represents a recognition of a third group, the Sherpas, in whose traditional territory the mountain lies and whose knowledge, experience and, historically, hard labor has been essential for the completion of ascents. It may also come to represent an opportunity for reflection and renegotiation for people in other mountain regions as well.

For a thoughtful account of the accident on Everest, see this account.

For other accounts of dangers in the Himalayas of Nepal, see this story of floods and this story of droughts. For further discussion of tensions between government-managed tourism and local communities, see this post on Peru.

This guest post was written by Ben Orlove and anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa of Penn State.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter.