Spring has again returned to Nepal. Wildflowers are blooming about the mountains and plains. Rhododendrons and primroses paint the scene with colorful hues of purple, pink, red, and yellow, and soon summertime will bring strange alpine blossoms like the Hippolytia gossypina, with its golden flowers atop white-haired stalks. Autumn will be greeted by bright blue gentians along with the red and yellow changing leaves on the shrubs and trees. The flora of the Himalayas is unique as it has specially adapted to high elevations, bitterly cold winters, and a rainy summer monsoon season. The vegetation is also extremely diverse due to the rapid altitudinal changes in climate and soil conditions over short distances.
While Nepal is most known for its breathtaking views of glacial peaks, mountaineers quickly discover that undeniable beauty lies along the trails as well. The mountainsides will see few, if any tourists, this year due to the coronavirus, but still the beauty will persist. Luckily, there is now an app that allows users to virtually explore the wildflowers of the region. The app’s stunning photos and fun facts provide an escape during this crisis and will have you dreaming of planning a trip to Nepal.
Vegetation ecologist Elizabeth Byers started her plant-identification project with the intention of writing an old-fashioned field guide to flora in Sagarmatha National Park. However, after years of research, her book draft grew to over 600 pages — much too heavy for someone to carry in the field. Byers noticed that trekkers, guides, and locals living in the park all carried smartphones on their expeditions, so she began investigating flora apps.
“High Country Apps, aside from their great name, stands head and shoulders above any other plant identification apps that are currently available, in my opinion,” Byers said. “They have an intuitive, easy-to-use picture-based interface, a brilliant programmer (Katie Gibson), and a dedication to conservation that was a perfect fit with my vision for the project.” High Country Apps donates a portion of the app proceeds to the Flora of Nepal project, which is used to support field costs of Nepali students or to buy field equipment that will allow Nepali researchers to conduct botanical studies.
Wildflowers of Mount Everest is the product of Byers’ botanical research over the last seven years, often done while accompanying colleagues on glacier hazards expeditions. She has collected photos and scientific information for 557 subalpine and alpine species. Descriptions of plant lore, medicinal uses, elevation ranges, bloom periods, and even local names in various languages are available to users. While the geographic focus is on Sagarmatha National Park, most of these plants are also found throughout Nepal’s high elevation terrain. “Many of the species grow on recent glacial moraines or even right on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas.”
The app is designed as an educational tool for beginners as well as for expert botanists — anyone who wishes to learn the names and uses of plants in eastern Nepal. Byers told Nepali Times that, “Two things make this field guide special… First, the Sherpa elders who have graciously shared plant lore and stories to give us a glimpse of the cultural importance of each species. Second, the botanical experts from all over the world who have volunteered their knowledge to help us understand the unique and specially-adapted plants of Mount Everest.”
Byers selected the following glacier-related images from her app so that our GlacierHub readers can catch a glimpse of a few species of remarkable flora that grow directly on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers.
Wildflowers of Mount Everest can be downloaded from the App Store or from the Google Play Store for $7.99. The app will be periodically updated by the authors to include new species, photos, and other content at no additional charge to users. The app does not require an internet connection, so the guide will remain available no matter how remote your adventures. The following video demonstrates how to use the app.
Elizabeth A Byers is a vegetation ecologist studying rare plant species and climate change vulnerability of plants, with a special interest in subalpine and alpine ecosystems of eastern Nepal. She has been studying and photographing the flora of Nepal for nearly 40 years.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are limitless, reaching even the most remote corners of the Earth, including the Everest region, where the virus is inflicting cascading impacts upon mountain tourism and local well-being.
There exists a tiny airport at Lukla, a small town high in Nepal’s Himalayas, where tens of thousands of tourists come each year to begin their trek to the Everest base camp and who then go on to explore one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for this region. In 2018, about 1.2 million tourists visited Nepal, generating over $620 million for the country. Jiban Ghimire, a Kathmandu-based tour operator of Shangri-La Nepal TrekOne, told National Geographic that one tourist to Nepal supports eleven families, and Everest mountaineers alone contribute more than $300 million a year to the economy. But the airport has recently fallen silent.
In January, the government of Nepal created the Visit Nepal 2020 initiative. Devoted to bolstering tourism to the country, its goal was to attract two million visitors this year. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism in the Everest region has taken a drastic hit. To keep both tourists and their own people safe, the government of Nepal decided in mid-March to cancel all trekking and climbing permits, suspending the flow of tourists to the airport which normally receives 60 flights per day during peak season (autumn).
Mingma Sherpa, director of Nepal’s Seven Summit Treks, told The Guardian: “No doubt our business will suffer, but who will be responsible if the virus spreads on the mountain? The mountain is not moving anywhere. People can come and climb next year.” However, porters, guides, and guesthouse owners are experiencing great troubles with the halt in income. Lhakpa Tshiring Sherpa, who manages Lukla’s Hiker’s Inn, told The Guardian, “Everyone is suffering, but for hoteliers, it’s been a double hit. We stockpile everything in advance as it is very costly to buy and transport foodstuffs during the peak season. It’s cost me a fortune. What do I do with it now?”
Nepal has closed its borders, shut down international travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and postponed the Visit Nepal 2020 promotion. Consequences are profound.
Kathryn March is a Graduate Professor of Anthropology and Professor Emerita of Feminist/Gender/Sexuality Studies and Public Affairs at Cornell University. Since 1973 she has worked and even spent time living with indigenous Tibeto-origin peoples in the Himalayas––such as the Sherpa and Tamang––on questions of gender, social justice and change. She told GlacierHub in an email, “You have to understand how precarious the Nepalese economy already is.”
Since the Middle Ages, Nepal has been dependent on subsistence agriculture and trade. During European colonization, Nepal remained independent and isolated. “By the time of Indian independence and the Cold War, Nepal’s backwardness seemed quaint and, even, romantic. Efforts at economic and political development were, however, largely unsuccessful and Nepal entered the 21st century in a crisis,” March wrote. She explained that today’s statistics do not fairly represent “the stagnation of the agricultural sector, the absence of other meaningful sectors, and the dependence upon foreign employment.”
“In this context, tourism is an extremely attractive option,” March wrote. She noted that tourism, most notably high-end mountaineering, generally benefits the tourism middle-men and seldom benefits local economies. Local cooperative and community-based eco-tourism, which March advocates for, barely occurs. “In general, decision-making and profits stay closer to the top of that pyramid, both internationally and at the capitol city,” March wrote; “…Nevertheless, in the absence of other local opportunities, [tourism] is very appealing.”
While tourists are a huge source of revenue to the region, they also bring with them obstacles like overcrowding, trash and pollution. Just last year, several climbers died on their trek up Mount Everest as hours-long waits caused them to endure hazardous conditions. These conditions sparked debate on whether timetables or other restrictions should be created to limit the number of climbers and increase safety. Overcrowding also threatens the safety of the guides.
Moreover, as more infrastructure is built in the region to handle the increasing capacity of tourists, the pristine nature of the mountains is becoming ever more endangered. In 2016, China built a road that winds 4,200 meters up the slope of Mount Everest to the base camp. Bloomberg wrote, “What’s bad for Nepal will likely turn out to be a boon for tourists. Instead of fencing off Everest as a pristine wilderness, much as the U.S. has done with its national parks, China is approaching the Himalayas as the Europeans have the Alps.” This new “gateway to the Himalayas” only adds to the overcrowding, trash and pollution issues.
With the onset of the pandemic, the tourist-based income to the region fell sharply, but some of the problems obviously receded as well. Now, there is less risk for guides as no treks are being taken, there is less pollution and no overcrowding because tourists have fled. However, it is not a permanent solution. The same problems will return when the pandemic is over unless revisions to the current tourism industry are made.
Mount Everest isn’t the only landmark that had, until the recent pandemic, seen an increase in tourism. Because most tourism to Nepal occurs in the spring and autumn when the weather is better for mountaineering and sightseeing, Visit Nepal 2020 wanted to explore ways to also attract visitors in the winter when numbers typically fall. With the theme of #Nepalforallseasons, the campaign landed on the idea of hosting open lake sports, as this is popular in the Western World.
However, opening new spaces to tourism brings cultural tensions between those who wish to increase tourism revenue and those who wish to protect their sacred, cultural sites.
At an average altitude of 4,700 meters above sea level, the Gokyo Lakes form the world’s highest freshwater lake system. Its six main pools are located in northeastern Nepal, in the snow-capped mountains of Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for “Everest”) National Park, which is also home to four of the world’s seven highest mountains, including Mount Everest. The lakes are fed by meltwater from the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest glacier in the Himalayas. In 2007, the Gokyo Lakes and their surrounding thirty-square-miles of wetlands were classified as a Ramsar site of international importance due to their pristine condition and the habitat they provide for rare species of flora and fauna.
On Valentines’ Day, Gokyo Lake III near Nepal’s Everest Base Camp was the site of a sensational sporting event hosted by Visit Nepal 2020, a governmental initiative devoted to bolstering tourism to Nepal. The event was directed toward winter enthusiasts and included a friendly ice hockey match and ice skating performances from international athletes, including former olympians from the US, Canada, India, and Russia.
Not everyone was on board with this campaign. In a February 25 articleAljazeera wrote, “as figure skaters jumped and twirled in midair, the audience hooted in delight, oblivious to the chaos behind the scenes.” The event was criticized by the indigenous Sherpa community because the six Gokyo Lakes, of which this one is a part, are deeply sacred to the Buddhists and Hindus alike.
In the Himalayas, high altitude lakes and glacial lakes are usually seen as sacred spots where religious people of different faiths, including many shamans, can go and have a direct connection with the gods. They believe that, like the mountains, the lake is home to spiritual beings, and they make regular offerings to these beings. If these places are disrespected and polluted, either spiritually or physically, it is thought that trouble will come to the village.
Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, a retired researcher at Sagarmatha National Park and indigenous of the region, stated in a Facebook post: “Development of additional infrastructure and services associated with active sports will threaten the integrity of the Ramsar Site which is already suffering from visual and sewage pollution. Why can’t we save the few natural areas in our country as national heritage where the norms of ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’ would continue to apply?”
“The Western Tamang communities — of Rasuwa, Nuwakot, & Dhading — as well as the Sherpa communities of Solu that I know best have long and often troubled relations as minority Buddhist populations in a dominant Hindu state history,” March wrote. Much of the nation’s funds go toward Hindu projects, “even though Buddhist sites in Nepal such as Lumbini, where the historical Buddha was born, have considerable tourist and pilgrimage potential, in addition to their importance to Nepalese Buddhists.”
“In general,” March added, “especially with the resurgent interest in Buddhism in major tourist-sending countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and the US, it has been my experience that tourism often provides much-needed income for Buddhist sites, as long as the tourists know that they are important sites. Therein lies the rub, of course. Many local sacred sites are not apparent to the tourists who pass through, so they get used as campsites or toilet sites, which is clearly not appropriate.”
The question is how to integrate tourism in these areas in a way that is culturally sensitive. The temporary removal of tourists due to the pandemic may offer a much-needed chance for Nepalese tourist communities to regroup and reimagine their unique enterprise.
US Figure Skater Laura Kottlowski practicing before the event on Gokyo Lake, 15,720 ft.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 toChina 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 over96,000 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 Shrestha. Locally, 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 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 byJapanese,British andAmerican 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 drained10 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.”
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 in2001. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
As POTUS once again oversteps his bounds, Ohio knows every carnation is a monument to our own William McKinley. -John pic.twitter.com/GvQfqnIKOh
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!”
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.
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 dynastyin 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.
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.
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.
Now: MoCTCA Minister Bhim Acharya listening & commenting on issues & suggestions raised by mountaineering workers. pic.twitter.com/IB94veWPUN
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.
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.
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.