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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Drilling into a Himalayan Glacier

This article was originally published on EGU Blogs on July 28, 2017.

How water travels through and beneath the interior of debris-covered glaciers is poorly understood, partly because it can be difficult to access these glaciers at all, never mind explore their interiors. Find out how these aspects can be investigated by drilling holes all the way through the ice.

Hydrological Features of Debris-Covered Glaciers

Fig.1: Drilling a borehole on Khumbu Glacier, Nepal Himalaya (Source: Katie Miles/EGU Blogs).

Debris-covered glaciers can have a range of hydrological features that do not usually appear on clean-ice valley glaciers, such as surface (supraglacial) ponds. These features are produced as a result of the variable melting that occurs across the glacier surface, depending on the thickness of the debris layer on the surface. Melting is reduced where the debris layer is thick (e.g. near the terminus), which leads to mass loss primarily by thinning, rather than terminus retreat like clean-ice glaciers (read more about this process in this previous EGU blog post). This produces a low-gradient surface covered by hummocks and depressions in which ponds can form, often with steep bare ice faces (ice cliffs) surrounding them.

The occurrence of ice cliffs and ponds also affects the surface melt rate, as glacier ice in/on/under these features melts considerably faster (up to 10 and 7 times more, respectively) than that of the debris-covered areas surrounding them (Sakai et al., 2000). Consequently, these hydrological features are an important contributing factor to the general trend of surface lowering of debris-covered glaciers (Bolch et al., 2012).

As a result, most hydrological research on debris-covered glaciers to date has focused on the (more accessible) supraglacial hydrological environment, as well as measuring the proglacial discharge of meltwater from these glaciers, which is a vital water resource for millions of people (Pritchard, 2017). Below the debris-covered surface of these glaciers, next-to-nothing is known about their hydrology; do drainage networks exist within (englacial) or beneath (subglacial) these glaciers, can they exist, and how can they be observed in such challenging environments?

Fig. 2: A relict englacial feature in the centre of an ice cliff on Khumbu Glacier (looking downglacier), through which the associated supraglacial pond is thought to have drained in the past (Source: Evan & Katie Miles/EGU Blogs).

A limited amount of direct research has been carried out in attempt to answer some of these questions, such as speleological techniques to investigate shallow englacial systems on a few glaciers (e.g. Gulley and Benn, 2007; Narama et al., 2017). However, all other inferences of subsurface drainage through debris-covered glaciers have come from hydrogeochemical analyses of water samples taken from the proglacial environment (e.g. Hasnain and Thayyen, 1994) or interpretation of observed glacier dynamics from satellite imagery (e.g. Quincey et al., 2009). While relict englacial features can be observed on the surface of many debris-covered glaciers (Figure 2), studying these systems while they are still active is more difficult.

 

Hot-Water Drilling to Investigate Subsurface Hydrology

One way in which potential hydrological systems beneath the surface of debris-covered glaciers can be investigated is through the use of hot-water drilling, as was carried out on Khumbu Glacier, Nepal Himalaya this year by the EverDrill team. A converted car pressure-washer was used to produce a small jet of hot, pressurized water, which was sent through a spool of hose into the drill stem to melt the ice below as it was slowly lowered into the glacier. The result (if all went well!) was a borehole 10-15 cm in width, that penetrated the ice all the way to the glacier bed (Figure 3). During the field campaign, we managed to drill 13 boreholes at three different drill sites across Khumbu Glacier, ranging in length from 12 to 155 meters.

Fig. 3: A borehole drilled into Khumbu Glacier during the EverDrill field season in Spring 2017. The borehole was approximately 10 cm in width (Source: Katie Miles/EGU Blogs).

Once the borehole has been drilled, it can be used to investigate the hydrology of the glacier in a number of ways. If the water level suddenly drops while drilling is in progress, it is possible that the borehole has cut through an englacial conduit, through which the excess drill water has drained. If it drops at the base of a borehole drilled to the bed, it can be assumed that some form of subglacial drainage network exists at the base of the glacier, and the excess water drained through this system. Such features can be examined further through the use of an optical televiewer (360 degree camera that is lowered slowly through the length of the borehole, taking hundreds of images to give a complete picture of the internal surface of the borehole), or by installing a variety of sensors along the hole’s length to collect various types of data.

During the EverDrill fieldwork in Spring 2017, we televiewed three of the drilled boreholes. These boreholes were then instrumented with sensors to measure the temperature of the ice and, where the boreholes reached the bed, a subglacial probe to measure electrical conductivity, temperature, water pressure and suspended sediment concentration (turbidity). We have left these probes in the boreholes, so that we have measurements both through our field season and additionally through the monsoon summer months. This will allow us to see whether any subsurface hydrological drainage systems develop when there is an additional source of water contributing to the melting of these glaciers.

We will return in October to collect this data, and hopefully find out a little more about the englacial and subglacial drainage systems of this debris-covered glacier!

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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.

 

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