Overcrowding on the route to the summit of Mount Everest is creating hazardous conditions for climbers who encounter hours-long waits. In the spring, multiple climbers died, sparking a debate on whether timetables or other restrictions should be created to limit the number of climbers and increase safety.
GlacierHub’s Video of the Week shows what the overcrowding looks like and contains testimonials from climbers on what it is like to experience crowded summiting firsthand.
From GlacierHub writer and environmentalist Tsechu Dolma: “China is hosting World Environment Day 2019, its mounting environmental crisis is endangering hundreds of millions and downstream nations, what happens on the Tibetan plateau has profound consequences on rest of Asia.”
Everest traffic jam blamed for climber deaths
From the New York Times: “Climbers were pushing and shoving to take selfies. The flat part of the summit, which he estimated at about the size of two Ping-Pong tables, was packed with 15 or 20 people. To get up there, he had to wait hours in a line, chest to chest, one puffy jacket after the next, on an icy, rocky ridge with a several-thousand foot drop.
This has been one of the deadliest climbing seasons on Everest, with at least 11 deaths. And at least some seem to have been avoidable.”
From Frontiers of Earth Science: “Kangerlussuaq Glacier is one of Greenland’s largest tidewater outlet glaciers, accounting for approximately 5% of all ice discharge from the Greenland ice sheet. In 2018 the Kangerlussuaq ice front reached its most retreated position since observations began in 1932. We determine the relationship between retreat and: (i) ice velocity; and (ii) surface elevation change, to assess the impact of the retreat on the glacier trunk. Between 2016 and 2018 the glacier retreated ∼5 km and brought the Kangerlussuaq ice front into a major (∼15 km long) overdeepening. Coincident with this retreat, the glacier thinned as a result of near-terminus acceleration in ice flow. The subglacial topography means that 2016–2018 terminus recession is likely to trigger a series of feedbacks between retreat, thinning, and glacier acceleration, leading to a rapid and high-magnitude increase in discharge and sea level rise contribution. Dynamic thinning may continue until the glacier reaches the upward sloping bed ∼10 km inland of its current position. Incorporating these non-linear processes into prognostic models of the ice sheet to 2100 and beyond will be critical for accurate forecasting of the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise.”
Rapper Lil Dicky released, just ahead of Earth Day, a celebrity-packed, animated music video for his NSFW single “Earth.”
The video opens with a view of the downtown Los Angeles skyline before cutting to news footage of recent wildfires in the western United States. A newscaster highlights the connection between rising temperatures and climate change. Next, a live-action scene depicts a group of kids kicking over a garbage-filled trash can and taunting Lil Dicky. As the rapper departs, he instructs the kids to pick up the garbage. “There’s an environmental crises right now, and you’re just going to litter on the street?” he says, adding, “Grow up.”
Among the garbage is a book, which one of kids picks up. Upon opening, it blooms into an animated trek around the world depicting a variety of animals threatened by ecological destruction and climate change.
Glaciers play a prominent role in the music video. Lil Dicky and pair of penguins slide down the face of an exit glacier. In one of the video’s closing scenes, Lil Dicky stands atop what appears to be Mount Everest, surrounded by the snow and ice-capped Himalayas.
Justin Bieber provides the voice for an animated baboon. Ariana Grande is a Zebra—Miley Cyrus, an elephant. Snoop Dog … a marijuana plant. Other celebrity performers include Halsey, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Brendon Urie, Wiz Khalifa, Adam Levine, Shawn Mendes, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The song’s chorus includes the simple lines: “We are the Earth. It is our planet. We are the Earth. It is our home.” While Lil Dicky’s video foregoes science or existential angst, it overflows with popular culture appeal. The video’s attracted 38 million views on YouTube and has been widely discussed in popular media, from Lil Dicky’s appearance on “Ellen” to coverage from NPR and the Jerusalem Post.
Proceeds from the song will go to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which supports projects that “build climate resiliency, protect vulnerable wildlife, and restore balance to threatened ecosystems and communities.”
“Nearly 300 mountaineers have died on the peak since the first ascent attempt and two-thirds of bodies are thought still to be buried in the snow and ice.
Bodies are being removed on the Chinese side of the mountain, to the north, as the spring climbing season starts.
More than 4,800 climbers have scaled the highest peak on Earth.
‘Because of global warming, the ice sheet and glaciers are fast melting and the dead bodies that remained buried all these years are now becoming exposed,’ said Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of [the] Nepal Mountaineering Association.
‘We have brought down dead bodies of some mountaineers who died in recent years, but the old ones that remained buried are now coming out.'”
Greenland’s Jakobshavn is advancing, slowing, and thickening
From Nature Geoscience: “Jakobshavn Isbrae has been the single largest source of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet over the last 20 years. During that time, it has been retreating, accelerating, and thinning. Here we use airborne altimetry and satellite imagery to show that since 2016 Jakobshavn has been re-advancing, slowing, and thickening. We link these changes to concurrent cooling of ocean waters in Disko Bay that spill over into Ilulissat Icefjord. Ocean temperatures in the bay’s upper 250 [meters] have cooled to levels not seen since the mid 1980s. Observations and modeling trace the origins of this cooling to anomalous wintertime heat loss in the boundary current that circulates around the southern half of Greenland. Longer time series of ocean temperature, subglacial discharge, and glacier variability strongly suggest that ocean-induced melting at the front has continued to influence glacier dynamics after the disintegration of its floating tongue in 2003. We conclude that projections of Jakobshavn’s future contribution to sea-level rise that are based on glacier geometry are insufficient, and that accounting for external forcing is indispensable.”
Bridging Traditional Knowledge and Satellite Images in Bolivia
From Regional Environmental Change: “In the Andes, indigenous pastoral communities are confronting new challenges in managing mountain peatland pastures, locally called bofedales. Assessing land cover change using satellite images, vegetation survey, and local knowledge (i.e., traditional ecological knowledge) reveals the multi-faceted socio-ecological dimensions of bofedal change in Sajama National Park (PNS), Bolivia. Here, we present results from focus groups held in 2016 and 2017 to learn about the local knowledge of bofedales in five Aymara communities in PNS. Land cover maps, created from Landsat satellite imagery, provided a baseline reference of the decadal change of bofedales (1986, 1996, 2006, and 2016) and were field verified with vegetation sampling. At the park level, the land cover maps show a reduction of healthy bofedales (i.e., Juncaceae dominated peatland) cover from 33.8 km2 in 1986 to 21.7 km2 in 2016, and an increase in dry mixed grasses (e.g., Poaceae dominated land cover) from 5.1 km2 (1986) to 20.3 km2 (2016). Locals identify climate change, lack of irrigation, difficulty in water access, and loss of communal water management practices as key bofedal management challenges. Local improvement of bofedales was found in one community due to community-based irrigation efforts. Bridging knowledge of mountain land cover change helps to articulate the socio-ecological dimensions that influence local decision-making regarding bofedal management, and consideration of local actions that may be strengthened to support the sustainability of bofedales for local livelihoods in the context of climate change in the Andes.”
Pleistocene and Holocene Cirque Glaciation in the Western United States
From Nature: “Our [glacier chronology] demonstrates that each of the moraines originally interpreted as Neoglacial was deposited during the latest Pleistocene to earliest Holocene (between ~15 and 9 ka), indicating that, with the exception of some isolated locations, cirque glaciers in the western U.S. did not extend beyond their LIA limits during much, if not all, of the Holocene.”
“Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.”
“Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.
In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.”
Heavy Snowfall and the Threat of Avalanches in Switzerland
“In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.”
On May 16, 1975, Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,848 m. Tabei is also the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.
GlacierHub spoke with Helen Rolfe, co-author of “Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei,” a 2017 memoir published by Rocky Mountain Books that honors Tabei’s life experiences— inspiring readers to “Ganbatte,” a Japanese word used to encourage someone to “do your best.”
GlacierHub: While compiling ”Honouring High Places,” did you have any moments where you were particularly moved by Tabei’s words?
Helen Rolfe: Always. Tabei learned so many life lessons in the mountains that are easily shared in this book. The outstanding references for me are from when she was young and realized her deep passion for the mountains (Chapter 2: The Meaning of Mountains, climbing Nasu-dake), and on Everest, the shift in how she felt about equipment being left on the mountain— from a sense of comfort (Chapter 8: South Col) to action (end of Chapter 9: The Summit).
GH: What do you think was going through Tabei’s mind as she climbed to the top of Mount Everest?
HR: Tabei solely focused on the job at hand. Then, on the summit, a moment of gratitude and relief, then back to the necessity of climbing down safely.
GH: Through ”Honouring High Places,” readers learn the accounts of Junko Tabei, her physical and mental strength, and her passion for the environment. Please comment on her appreciation for mountain ecosystems.
HR: Chapter 9: The Summit. It’s all there. Another highlight of her passion for all mountains is that in addition to climbing Everest and the Seven Summits (first woman for both feats), she pursued climbing the highest point in every country in the world, no matter the elevation. While she did not succeed in stepping foot in every country, she climbed hundreds of peaks of all sizes.
GH: What sorts of additional information did you learn about Tabei through her husband’s and friends’ perspectives?
HR: That Tabei loved life, loved the outdoors, truly believed that nature and the outdoors is the key to healthy living, believes in national parks and preserved natural environments, that goal setting is crucial and that simply placing one foot in front of the other is the way to get started.
GH: To my understanding, you were never able to meet Junko Tabei. If you had the opportunity to speak with her now, what would you say?
HR: You are correct, I never met Junko, but I spent the month of April in Japan this past spring. I had the pleasure of retracing Junko’s early days in her childhood town of Miharu and at Nasu-dake. I enjoyed getting to know Junko’s husband, Masanobu, and family and close friends. It was the trip of a lifetime, and full circle for the writing of “Honouring High Places.”
If given the chance, I would share with Junko the same words I tell Masanobu and her family and friends: that it was a privilege to write her life story, and that I feel grateful to Junko and the Tabei family for trusting me to do so.
Writing this book was a beauty and a challenge, and I embraced every second that I put into it. There is only one first English telling of Junko’s story, and I had the honor of being the author involved. I am truly blessed. I am one of many that Junko has deeply inspired.
GH: Do you have any additional comments or thoughts about Tabei that you’d like GlacierHub readers to know?
HR: Junko’s story is an important part of mountaineering history. It allows the reader into the Japanese climbing culture that most North Americans know little about. Her achievements were certainly a step forward for women, and for humankind in general.
Her voice became one of environmental advocacy and mountain climbing for all… anything to get people active in the outdoors.
High above the sub-tropical forests and lush grasslands of Nepal, nestled between the scree and moraine from the glaciers of Mount Everest, plants are found braving the elements and surviving in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Rarely studied, these plants are key to solving the mysteries of plant growth at the world’s highest elevations.
For over 60 years, three plant specimens collected near a glacier during a 1952 Everest expedition sat unstudied at the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva in Switzerland. Research published last month in the journal Alpine Botany has unearthed these three specimens and details their identification as “novel taxa,” or new species.
The Swiss-led expedition that collected the specimens was one of two historical attempts to summit Mt. Everest and bring back plant samples. Its counterpart, a British-led expedition in 1935, collected two other high-altitude specimens. Together, at an elevation of well over 6,000 meters above sea level, these five specimens make up a collection of the highest vascular plants on Earth. No plants have ever been collected and identified at a higher elevation, the study notes.
According to the article, 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.”
During the time of the original collection, mountaineering was crucial to botanists in their quest for sampling biological data in high elevations, as there was no other way for scientists to acquire samples due to the harsh and dangerous conditions. Today it remains hard to identify the ecological conditions and physiological capacity of plants at the upper limits of their distribution. Elevation records alone cannot offer such information, and mountaineers do not extensively report on any of the surrounding conditions.
“Historical botanical data are very scarce but have an amazing potential to study changes of plant communities in altitude, especially facing global changes,” Cédric Dentant, the author of the study, told GlacierHub.
The importance of historical data is what led him to begin checking as many archives as possible over the years in an effort to find studies and reports of various expeditions. The Swiss expedition was the second in Nepal and well documented, so it was easy for Dentant to track down samples for his research.
“Actually, because of my request to study the 1952 Swiss expedition samples, the curators of the herbarium of the Geneva Botanical Conservatory rediscovered they had these samples,” Dentant admitted.
A botanist and alpinist who usually studies high-altitude plants in the European Alps, he ventured to the world of Himalayan flora when the opportunity arose.
Of the three specimens, Dentant was able to identify one as the previously-known species Arenaria bryophylla, which was encountered on scree and moraine (a mass of rock and sediment deposited by a glacier) on a cliff bordering the north side of the Khumba Glacier in Nepal. The glacier lies next to a key Everest climbing route. The mountaineers originally accessed the area from the south side of the glacier.
The other two specimens from the expedition ended up being entirely new species. Both were found in rock crevices. Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus and Androsace khumbuensis were classified using standard methods of herbarium taxonomy. The latter was named after the Khumbu Glacier, where it was also found.
Interestingly, Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus had axillary stems, which the other varieties do not have. This “may represent an adaptation to the plant’s extreme habitat,” according to the article, since the stems “anchor the plant in the unstable substrate and may protect the base of the stem from freezing.”
As Dentant stated, in regard to the drive to produce scientific knowledge, “describing what is beyond the word ‘biodiversity’ is very challenging.” Today, he believes climate change may bring a renewed interest from mountaineers in collecting organisms for scientific purposes.
He explained that since mountaineers must grapple with climate change as the mountain environments change and adapt their techniques, this leaves them open to talking about related issues.
“They turn out to be more concerned about these incredible organisms and may try to help in gathering samples,” Dentant said.
Such efforts would help shed light on these under-studied species and leave open the possibility for the title of the highest vascular plant on Earth to be reclaimed once again.
A Sherpa guide has died and a foreign climber was injured following an avalanche on Mount Ama Dablam in east Nepal in late November. The avalanche was triggered by a 5.4 magnitude earthquake that occurred east of Kathmandu and nearly 11 miles west of Namche Bazar in Nepal at approximately 5:20 a.m. local time.
Lapka Thundu Sherpa, a resident of Pangboche, Solukhumbu district, and British surgeon Ciaran Hill were climbing Ama Dablam as a pair when the earthquake struck. They were reportedly only a meter apart, heading for the summit above Camp 3, over 20,669 ft., when pieces of ice dislodged during the shaking, according to Tim Mosedale, leader of the 13-member expedition.
Ama Dablam is one of the world’s most formidable and breathtaking peaks, sitting just east of Mount Everest at an elevation of 22,624 ft. Nicknamed the “Matterhorn of the Himalayas,” Ama Dablam is a prominent landmark of the Khumbu Valley for those trekking to Everest’s base camp. The mountain is well known for its hanging glacier, named the Dablam, due to its resemblance to the sacred dablam or pendant worn by Sherpa women.
Despite its aesthetic beauty, tragedy is all-too-familiar at Ama Dablam. In 2006, six climbers were killed when an avalanche impacted Camp 3 on the Southwest Ridge. In that accident, three foreigners and three Sherpa guides were killed when a serac (a pinnacle or ridge of ice on the surface of a glacier) from the Dablam glacier descended on the climbers’ tents in the early morning hours of November 13. Since then, the Dablam has become increasingly unstable, with further notable collapse in 2008.
Climbers of Ama Dablam typically summit via the Southwest Ridge, settling in at Camp 3 before the final ascent, although this route has recently been under review due to the changing nature of the glacier, which sits above and to the right of Camp 3. It is not clear whether the recent tragedy was from glacial ice breaking off, but according to Jeffrey Kargel, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona who had hiked near the mountain this past October, a treacherous-looking piece of ice was visible nearby the glacier.
“There’s some ice ready to fall,” Kargel recalls saying to his hiking companion, a trekking CEO. It was a chunk of ice right near Camp 3. Although the ice Kargel noticed might not have been the same chunk of ice involved in the deadly November ice fall, Kargel emphasized that ice falls on the Himalayan peaks are a common natural occurrence.
“My feeling is that these chunks of ice and snow are coming down all of the time. They have to come down,” said Kargel to GlacierHub. “You can see how precarious they are, perched on the side and summit of the mountain.”
This sentiment, and the feeling that the tragedy in November was natural and unavoidable, was echoed by the surviving climbers involved in the avalanche on Ama Dablam.
“I think it’s important for me to say that from my perspective it was clearly just one of those freak occurrences that could not have been predicted or avoided,” said Mr. Hill in a statement. He was ultimately saved by a long line helicopter rescue operation. “There’s no one to blame.”
Hill credited his own survival to the “flawless” response of the helicopter and ground crew. He suffered broken bones in the right hand, ribs and base of his back but is expected to recover from his injuries. Thundu Sherpa, on the other hand, suffered a fatal head injury from the falling ice, according to Mosedale, the expedition’s leader. Thundu Sherpa is survived by a wife and two children, ages 8 and 14.
“This was a tragic accident as a result of an act of nature,” added Mosedale in a statement on Facebook. “We are surrounded by an amazing panorama of massive mountains, and when the earthquake happened, there weren’t multiple avalanches and landslides. There was one incident, and our team was sadly involved.”
Typically, it is the spring melting season that presents the most dangerous time for avalanches on the mountain. Ice and snow accumulate on the peak during colder periods, but once the spring melting season hits, the wet ice begins to slip.
“In November, things would have been very hard and frozen. So you can disregard melting as a factor,” Kargel said. “Obviously it was the shaking. It is not hard to imagine that an earthquake is going to set off ice collapses. We saw that with the Gorkha Earthquake and Everest avalanches. The earthquake happened to affect ice that was poised to collapse anyway. Steep peaks and slopes have ice all of the time that is ready to come down.”
Often, glaciers of the Himalayas are relatively protected from earthquakes because the bulk of glaciers sit on valley floors, according to Kargel. The waves get absorbed and scattered before reaching the glaciers, particularly during shallow earthquakes when waves come in at acute angles relative to the surface. The peaks, on the other hand, get shaken up quite a bit during seismic events.
“If there are hanging glacier masses on the peaks, like on Aba Dablam, they can come down,” said Kargel. “Most times, this ice comes down harmlessly. It makes an avalanche, but there is nobody there.”
Otherwise, the risks are often well within the climber’s control, according to Mosedale. For instance, if it is snowing, the climbers know that avalanches will occur and the risk will be high for the 24 hours following the snow fall or longer if there is a huge dump of snow. “So we will steer clear and stay off the mountain or limit activity to safe areas,” Mosedale told GlacierHub. “But accidents can still occur that are beyond our control, as happened last November. This was an accident that couldn’t be foreseen and was completely out of the blue.”
When tragedy occurred, the team was about half way through the expedition, according to Mosedale. Thundu and Ciaran were making the first summit push. The remainder of the team were at Base Camp waiting to go to Camp 1 that day and the day after. “The client who was with Thundu was very well acclimatized, and they were going ahead of the rest of the team,” Mosedale explained to GlacierHub.
Mosedale, a 51-year old guide from Keswick, Cumbria, and a five-time Everest summitteer, made it clear that he did not want to hear negative commentary about the loss of the Sherpa guide during his expedition.
“I would prefer not to receive any comments to the effect that a climbing Sherpa has died whilst Westerners are pursuing their dreams,” said Mosedale in a statement on Facebook. “Ama Dablam is a climber’s mountain and all the people in my team are suitably well qualified by experience to be here. The climbing Sherpas are not being used and abused in the duties that they perform, they are proud of the work that they do and have worked for my Sirdar for many, many years, forming a close knit team… Five minutes either way and it would have just been a close call.”
“Sometimes the luck is just not there,” added Kargel. “This is true for scientific expeditions as well. I have had some narrow escapes from avalanches. It happens in the mountains. Sherpa guides know the chunks of ice that are unstable and make their best assessment. They know it is dangerous.”
It is clear that for some time, at least, Thundu Sherpa did attempt to avoid the dangers of the mountains, taking leave from porting to train as a watchmaker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He returned to Nepal in 2012 to co-own Kobold Watch Company Nepal (Pvt.) Ltd., alongside fellow Sherpa guide Namgel and friend Michael Kobold.
The idea for the watch subsidiary in Nepal was first proposed by Kobold, a German-born watchmaker who was indebted to the two guides for saving his wife’s life during a summit of Mount Everest, according to Elizabeth Doerr of Forbes. Kobold hoped to give the two Sherpas safer opportunities beyond the mountain. However, when the 2015 Nepal earthquake struck, hopes were dashed as the earthquake destroyed the watch company. Following the collapse of the enterprise, Thundu Sherpa headed back to work on the mountains.
“Of slight build, endowed with a quiet voice and an unfailingly humble demeanor, Thundu was nonetheless considered a giant among his peers — the exclusive club of Nepali mountain guides,” wrote Michael Kobold in a tribute to his friend Thundu in the Nepali Times. Thundu began his journey to high altitude porter as a kitchen boy and later became a cook on expeditions, according to Kobold.
“Thundu had a very gentle persona but was incredibly strong and talented in the mountains,” added Mosedale, in conversation with Glacierhub. “He had a great attention to detail, and because he had worked so often with Westerners, he had a very good understanding of what they usually required. Some Sherpas are very strong but don’t get the social differences, whereas Thundu had that extra level of understanding which made him stand out.”
On Everest, there has been much talk of changing the primary course that climbers take up the mountain following multiple tragic mountaineering disasters and deaths of Sherpas in recent years. A similar discussion may need to take place on Ama Dablam, which has become increasingly popular, dangerous and overcrowded by climbers in the autumn months, according to notable American mountaineer Alan Arnette of alanarnette.com. Arnette is a 2011 Everest summiter and the oldest American to summit K2. When asked whether he would personally summit Ama Dablam again following an expedition in 2000, Arnette cited the risks given the recent instability of the Dablam. “No. It is too dangerous given the avalanches off the Dablam. While climbers summited in 2008, many did not given the new difficulties,” he said. “A modification was put in during the fall of 2008 which takes the route further to the right of the Dablam. This somewhat avoids the avalanche danger but now is over steep blue ice making the summit bid more difficult. As of 2012, teams continue to climb without serious incident but many choose to bypass Camp 3 and have a very, very long day from Camp 2 to the summit.”
A key to reducing chances of tragedy seems to be making sure that climbers don’t sleep or rest below unstable ice masses when an earthquake hits, but the difficulty obviously lies in predicting the earthquake. “The truth is, you really can’t predict an earthquake,” said Kargel. “As climbers, they know that avalanches happen frequently. Maybe infrequently enough that people are still willing to take the risk. The danger doesn’t mean that climbers should stop climbing or that Sherpa guides should stop their work. But obviously these mountains are very dangerous and these deaths are going to occur regularly. It is an unfortunate aspect of this pursuit by human beings to conquer peaks.”
From Bloomberg: “Earlier this year, China opened a new paved road that winds 14,000 feet up the slope [of Mount Everest] and stops at the base camp parking lot. Plans are in the works to build an international mountaineering center, complete with hotels, restaurants, training facilities, and search-and-rescue services. There will even be a museum… 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… And if China sticks to it, it may well become the world’s new gateway to the Himalayas.”
Interested in learning more? Read the latest news here.
Implications for the Subglacial Microbiome
From Microbial Ecology: “Glaciers have recently been recognized as ecosystems comprised of several distinct habitats: a sunlit and oxygenated glacial surface, glacial ice, and a dark, mostly anoxic [absence of oxygen] glacial bed. Surface meltwaters annually flood the subglacial sediments by means of drainage channels. Glacial surfaces host aquatic microhabitats called cryoconite holes, regarded as ‘hot spots’ of microbial abundance and activity, largely contributing to the meltwaters’ bacterial diversity. This study presents an investigation of cryoconite hole anaerobes [organisms that live without air] and discusses their possible impact on subglacial microbial communities.”
From PLOS ONE: “Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that terminate in and calve icebergs into the ocean. In addition to the influence that tidewater glaciers have on physical and chemical oceanography, floating icebergs serve as habitat for marine animals such as harbor seals. The availability and spatial distribution of glacier ice in the fjords is likely a key environmental variable that influences the abundance and distribution of selected marine mammals… Given the predicted changes in glacier habitat, there is a need for the development of methods that could be broadly applied to quantify changes in available ice habitat in tidewater glacier fjords. We present a case study to describe a novel method that uses object-based image analysis (OBIA) to classify floating glacier ice in a tidewater glacier fjord from high-resolution aerial digital imagery.”
Sarah Jane Pell, a researcher at the Exertion Games Lab at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia and a self-described artist-adventurer, initially planned to climb Mount Everest in April 2015 to document her experiences with high-definition 360-degree video and record artistic expressions on the summit. She hoped to provide human-computer interaction designers with initial research on how to embrace adventure. As part of the Exertion Games Lab, which focuses on exploring the role of games in order to design better interactive experiences, Pell is particularly interested in human movement and performing arts.
She was initially hired at RMIT as a visiting researcher to explore digital systems supporting performance for underwater play. She chose Mount Everest as an extreme location for her field work, but she never expected to have her journey interrupted by a powerful earthquake that struck Nepal a few weeks into her trek. Pell then reoriented her research based on her experiences during her expedition to focus on technology’s role in adventure.
On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the region just before noon local time, killing eighteen climbers on Everest and more than 8,000 across Nepal, while displacing another 2.8 million people, according to a Washington Post article written by Annie Gowen.
A few weeks before the earthquake, Pell had arrived in Lukla Airport and begun her ten-day trek to Everest Base camp. Due to an unforeseen incident with her climber’s permit days before the earthquake, Pell had left Everest, traveling to Kathmandu to resolve the issue before returning to Everest Base Camp (EBC). She was on the fourth floor of her hotel in the capital when the earthquake struck. She survived, and in the days after the disaster, documented what she experienced through personal video. She returned home to Australia a few weeks later, where she evaluated her own personal journey with adventure technology.
Pell describes how technology helped and hindered her during her trek in her recent article.
Throughout her journey on Everest, Pell had field-tested various adventure technology, including both high-tech equipment, such as wearable biofeedback systems, and low-tech equipment, such as “non-smart” phones. She sought to understand how that technology interacted with the extreme environment of Mount Everest. For example, she used technology like her Jawbone fitness tracker to help her prepare physically for the climb, and to monitor her progress and preparedness.
Pell was even able to record with her phone the moments after the quake, as she and others were waiting for inevitable aftershocks. One of the more surprising experiences she had was discovering how smart technology failed her due to limited connectivity and power. Instead, she had to depend on lower-tech solutions. For example, she was only able to get reception from a 2G phone and observed local people stringing up plastic bags of water above their stoves in order to detect aftershocks, which would produce ripples in the water. Despite the fact that earthquake-related apps exist, Pell was not able to use them due to the lack of Internet and power.
Pell’s trek on Mount Everest, and the events that occurred post-earthquake, presented her with both straightforward and unexpected ways to interact with and depend on technology. Based on her first-hand experience, she and Mueller explored two dimensions of the relationship between technology design and adventure within their paper. Pell and Mueller defined one type that supports the instrumental and experiential components of adventure, or in other words, how technology can be used to measure and document adventure. The second type supports the expected and unexpected components of adventure.
The first dimension helps to achieve goals and to monitor and improve performance, such as Pell’s Jawbone, which helped her track her physical training in preparation for her trek, and also to create a deeper engagement with the environment, as she did with her camera. The second dimension explores the idea that technology typically plays expected roles, like using a camera to document experiences, but that it can also can play unexpected roles in adventure. For example, as Pell was evacuating the hotel in which she was staying during the earthquake, she used her laptop to shield herself from falling debris. The use of her computer was hardly one she anticipated.
Pell and Mueller further introduce four roles that technology can play during an adventure: coach, rescuer, documentarian, and mentor. The roles of coach and documentarian both fall into the expected technology categories, where the coach role provides structured guidance and the documentarian role helps support the experiential aspects of adventure. Pell’s apps served as her coach in her training, and her camera served the role of documentarian on Everest.
On the unexpected side of technology, they describe the roles of rescuer and mentor. In the most dire of circumstances, technology serving the role of rescuer can provide emergency services to help the adventurer survive. Meanwhile, technology that plays the role of a mentor supports the adventurer by helping her to reflect on her experience and what she learned from it.
Pell hopes to apply her personal account on Everest and subsequent research to other situations, including future game design for her research lab Exertion Games Lab. She and Mueller see the important connection and influence that human-computer interaction can have in supporting active lifestyles. Pell recently applied her research on technology and adventure as the Simulation Astronaut for the European Commission Project MOONWALK.
When asked about plans to attempt to summit Everest again, Pell commented in her interview that she is preparing to undertake an experiment in another extreme environment at an even higher altitude: a NASA Noctilucent Cloud Imaging and Tomography Experiment in Suborbital Space, as the first Artist-Astronaut candidate. She hopes to continue to design new ways to use media and communications technologies for communicating the experience of the performance in another extreme environment.
The beauty and mystique of Mt. Everest has never ceased to capture the world’s imagination, inspiring climbers from all over the globe to test their fitness on the iconic mountain’s south face. For some, reaching the planet’s paramount point is a conquest, one made more enticing by Everest’s unrelenting media attention and its recent commercial availability to Western climbers. For others, especially local Sherpas, the mountain and its growing presence in the adventure tourism industry represents one of few opportunities for seasonal income and food on the family dinner table.
The latest chapter in the long history of climbing on Mount Everest has ended in conflict, provoked by the Nepalese government’s failure to provide Sherpas with summit certificates. Without certificates to verify successful summits on high altitude peaks, the Sherpas’ ability to financially benefit from climbing expeditions on local mountains may be dramatically reduced.
In isolated Himalayan mountain towns, the economic stimulus provided by large climbing expeditions can be dramatic, offering Sherpas the opportunity to work alongside international alpinists in hauling gear, fixing ropes and offering all-around support in strenuous high-altitude environments. The average yearly income in Nepal is $691, according to the United Nations data library, meaning that porters who may earn between $2500 and $5000 in a climbing season are making a major fiscal contribution to their families. Even so, this contribution comes at a steep price, with porters facing major safety risks associated with mountaineering.
Despite being an integral part of Mt. Everest’s climbing history since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953, Sherpas who successfully summited the peak during the 2016 climbing season were denied summit certificates by the Nepalese Tourism Ministry. In an interview with Tshering Paldourche, a Sherpa from Khumjung, Nepal, he indicated that Sherpas have never been denied summit certificates before the 2015-2016 climbing season.
The controversy over denied summit certificates stems from the Nepalese government’s sudden refusal to recognize the Sherpas as members of international climbing expeditions, prohibiting Sherpas from qualifying for a certificate. The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism’s Mountaineering Expedition Regulation, introduced in 2002, states that “the Ministry shall provide a certificate of mountaineering expedition to the mountaineering expedition team and the member of such team for successful mountaineering expedition in the format as prescribed in schedule 13.” Sherpas lost the privilege of receiving summit certificates during the 2015-2016 climbing season under the schedule 13 rules because they were not officially classified as members of the expedition team.
Even though Sherpas are an integral part of most successful summit bids, many failed to pay permit fees on Everest last year, which disqualified them as official members of a mountaineering expedition team. Because Sherpas are natives and are working on high-altitude peaks, they’re not required to pay permit fees, meaning that they were left vulnerable following the government’s refusal to supply certificates. Although receiving a summit document often serves as a trophy of sorts for international climbers, for Sherpas the validation means job security and the opportunity to provide a better life for their families.
According to the Himalayan Club, Sherpas in search of work who had migrated from Nepal to Darjeeling, West Bengal, offered much of the assistance to Western mountaineers in the early to mid-1900’s. By utilizing summit records and employer’s references, Sherpas were able to develop official resumes to aid in securing employment with future expeditions. In 1928, the Himalayan Club developed a formal method of documenting Sherpas’ climbing records which allowed those with experience to find work with incoming foreign expeditions. Today, without certificates and thus an official record of high altitude summits, Sherpas must deal with the possibility of this longstanding system simply falling apart.
Sherpa Tshering Paldourche commented “to work with a new company we need proof of a climbing certificate [and] if we don’t have that, then it’s difficult to join other new companies.” Given the long association between climbing and Sherpas, the idea that the Nepalese government is not supporting local porters is perplexing. The Ministry of Tourism failed to comment on questions from GlacierHub regarding the reasoning behind introducing the legislation that prevented Sherpas from receiving summit certificates. The Ministry also failed to answer whether or not a motion to appeal the legislation was underway.
In recent years, with trends pushing toward increased commercialization of the world’s highest peaks, climbing expeditions are in more need for experienced porters than ever before. In 2013, nearly 4 times as many climbers reached the top of Mount Everest as in 1995, according to Richard Salisbury at the Himalayan Database. This increase equates to more climbers on the mountain, more permit fees and more revenue generated from tourist flow than in the past.
Revisions to permit regulations in the Royalties for Foreign Climbers document enacted on January 1st, 2015 ultimately increased the individual cost for a permit, and thus increased the cost of expeditions in some cases by as much as $5000 per person. With the money from foreign teams climbing 6500 meter (and taller) peaks, a question remains regarding who gets the privilege of capitalizing upon the growth of high altitude mountain tourism. The current state of affairs does not favor the Sherpa community despite their critical role in shouldering the burden of increased high altitude traffic.
Despite the certificate conflict becoming a new issue, previous climbing seasons on Everest have hardly been problem free. The 2014 climbing season on Everest came to an early halt following an avalanche in the Golden Gate area that killed sixteen Sherpas who were working to establish fixed ropes and ladders at crevasse crossings. The following season, a 7.8 magnitude earthquakein April resulted in large avalanches on Everest killing numerous Sherpas and international climbers alike.
Around 350 to 450 Sherpas work above base camp in an average climbing season, according to the Himalayan Database, meaning multiple seasons with such tragic losses represent a staggering mortality rate for the risk-taking porters on the high mountain. When factoring in the 2015-2016 issues with summit certificates, the last few years on the world’s highest peak have seen the hardworking Sherpa climbers marginalized and left in harm’s way in the wake of unpredictable natural disasters.
Thinking of the future, Sherpa Tshering stated that the issue of being denied a summit certificate on Everest “will change my mind negatively climbing mountains.” Given the extremely dangerous nature of working on 6500 meter+ peaks, the denial of summit documentation for sherpas like Tshering may dramatically affect the nature of Himalayan mountain tourism in the near future, with some Sherpas refusing to assist international climbing partners until their rights are recognized.