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

Video of the Week: Lil Dicky’s Animated Music Video, Earth

Glaciers Account for More Sea Level Rise Than Previously Thought

Video of the Week: Sherpa Rap

This Video of the Week, watch Tsangpa Sherpa perform Nga Sherpa Hyin, a rap about cultural pride, preservation of language and the importance of protecting culture. Tsangpa calls for parents, grandparents, sherpas, and the wider community to teach their language to children and youth in order to maintain their cultural heritage.

Though food and dress are part of what makes up a culture, they are not the only parts. In his rap, Tsangpa argues that culture is lost without language; language is what binds community and keeps it alive. Through language, Tsangpa finds a way to conserve cultural pride and heritage in a rapidly changing world.

Enjoy the video below. 


Discover more glacier news at GlacierHub:

Inside the Gut of the Patagonian Dragon

Journey Over Gobrin Glacier: Le Guin, Environmentalism and Science Fiction

The Future Disappearance of Quelccaya Ice Cap


High Altitude Himalayan Heroes Denied Summit Certificates

Two Sherpas standing atop Denali in Alaska
Two Sherpas on an international climbing expedition to Denali in Alaska (source: Wikimedia Commons).

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.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their historic ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

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 ClubSherpas 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.  

Sherpas at Home
A Sherpa family together at home (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

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 earthquake in 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.

Photo Friday: Images from ‘Sherpa’

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

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

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‘Sherpa’ Soars as Documentary of Life on Everest

In June of 2015, I watched Sherpa, a new Discovery Channel documentary, in my quiet living room in Seattle. I had never experienced anything like it before.

One of the sherpas in the film. Courtesy of Discovery.
The star of the film, Phurba Tashi Sherpa. Courtesy of Discovery.

Right afterwards, I felt that it was one of the best portrayals of the Sherpa story on the mountain I had seen. I thought that it captured the sentiment of the Sherpas, and the messiness at base camp, very well. It laid out everything for the audience to decide for themselves— what the costs, benefits and motivations of the people involved are. I felt that it was a well-researched, emotional, and beautiful gift that will aid in raising awareness about safety concerns on the mountain and fairness in the mountaineering industry in Nepal.

A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.
A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.

One year later, I have had some time to think about the documentary and watch it a few more times. The documentary follows Phurba Tashi, who has climbed Mt. Everest 21 times. Phurba’s next climb will make him a world record holder with the highest number of successful Everest ascents. Phurba Tashi’s captivating story of going to the mountain, and his family’s emotional reaction to it, always leaves me wishing there was a better occupational choice for many like him. The tears that roll on the face of Karma Doma, Phurba’s wife, reminds me of how cruel reality is for Sherpa women, who wait not knowing what their fates will be.

Going on an Everest expedition is not an easy choice, the documentary shows. Sherpa or not, one has to weigh their decision of going to the mountain against many factors. For Sherpas, sometimes, it might mean pretending to their families that there is no risk in what they do. For the mountaineering clients, it might mean investing every single penny to make their dream come true.

Sherpa soars in its presentation of the human story on the mountain. It shows the Sherpa mountain workers moving rocks to set up luxurious camps filled with books, a television set, and comfortable chairs. It also shows them singing and laughing, and then shaken and disturbed, following the tragic accident in Khumbu Icefall, in which 16 Sherpas died in 2014. The clients are also shown being excited, and jovial as they gear up for their ascent. After the tragic accident, the clients are shown being devastated by the loss and also finding out that they will not be climbing that year.

Mt. Everest. (Photo by phobus via Flickr)

The documentary captures frustration at Everest base camp, with some never-before-seen clips of a brawl that took place in 2013. It is this part of the film that makes many of my Sherpa friends uncomfortable. A relative told me after a screening in New York that the documentary was good, but if only it could leave the scene of Everest brawl out, it would have been better. At the 2015 Kathmandu Film Festival, a representative from the mountain workers said that the brawl as shown in the film was a biased depiction, which did not show the whole picture of how the Sherpas were mistreated leading up to the incident. This part of the documentary definitely leaves a bitter impression, and one has to wonder how this particular story embedded in the larger mountaineering mess could be told some other way.

Nevertheless, Sherpa is truly a gift for the Sherpas to have their story heard and seen like never before. Director Jennifer Peedom has created a magnificent documentary, with an exceptionally well-researched script. The film successfully raises the issue of fairness and safety on Mount Everest on a global scale.

Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is a post-doctoral fellow at the India China Institute of New School University.  Born in the Sherpa ethnic community in Nepal, she holds a PhD in anthropology from Washington State University. She has written about Nepal previously on GlacierHub in posts on earthquake recovery and glacier lake outburst floods

Spiritual Significance of Glacier Melt in Mountain Cultures

Glacier retreat, as an easily observable consequence of climate change, also embodies spiritual significance to local communities.  In some cases, local perceptions of glacier melt differ from that of the scientific community.

In a new paper, Elizabeth Allison of the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, looks at three instances of glacial decline in sacred mountain landscapes—in the Peruvian Andes, the Nepalese Himalayas, and the Meili Snow Mountains of Yunnan, China — and observes how different cosmologies provide different accounts of the rapidly melting ice. She found that the ways in which communities perceive glacier melt also affects the way these communities interact with their traditions and with glaciers themselves. Her work suggests the value of broadening the discussions of climate change in modern urban societies as well, by showing the depth of human engagement with the natural world–and, more broadly, by showing that people everywhere seek meaning from nature.

Huayhuash Trek in Peru, courtesy of AllOverThePlanet/Flickr
Huayhuash Trek in Peru, courtesy of AllOverThePlanet/Flickr

The Peruvian Andes

In the Peruvian Andes, the local residents, the Quechua, believe that the declining glacier is associated with the departure of the mountain god. In their worldview, the mountain gods bestow vitality on plants and animals and are thus  worshipped as a manifestation of Mother Earth.

The local residents have long observed the recession of the mountain glaciers. They believe that their mountain gods have always had white ponchos, but some of their ponchos have brown stripes now. It is a mystery to the Quechua what they have done to irritate the mountain god who is limiting water flow.

Concern for the declining glaciers has led to changes in local rituals and customs. Strict regulations have been in effect to prevent anyone from removing ice, and only small bottles of meltwater are allowed to be collected. Guards are also positioned at the edge of the glacier. Pilgrims who used to light candles while seeking answers for their concerns along the edge of the glaciers have started to use smaller candles to preserve the glacier.

Furthermore, local prophecy predicted future calamity when the world will end after the glacier is gone. Local people believe when the glacier disappears, wind will blow everything away and a new epoch will thus begin.

Nagarkot , in the Nepalese Himalayas, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Flickr
Nagarkot , in the Nepalese Himalayas, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Flickr

The Nepalese Himalayas

In the Himalayas, it is believed that gods reside on mountaintops to distance themselves from the filth of human life. Sherpas, like the Quechua, sometimes link the decline of mountain glaciers to gods or deities.

Some of them see it as a moral reprimand by the gods due to the departure from traditional lifestyle to new lifestyles that generate pollution. Some Sherpas invoke both scientific and religious interpretations to explain melting glaciers, including changing weather variability, weakening belief in gods and spirits, etc.

In Tibetan Buddhist societies of Nepal, Ladakh, and Bhutan, activities that upset the boundaries between social groups or substances, including cooking or eating garlic and onions, burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, can be the source of physical or spiritual pollution.

Local residents are trying to prevent the pollution of mountain peaks in fear of releasing the fury of mountain gods.

Meili Xue Shan or Mainri Snow Mountains, courtesy of Kevin Poh/Flickr
Meili Xue Shan or Mainri Snow Mountains, courtesy of Kevin Poh/Flickr

Meili Snow Mountain Range

The Mingyong Glacier below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in Northwest Yunnan, China, is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. From 2002 to 2004, the Mingyong Glacier retreated around 110 meters, and a total of 2.3 kilometers from 1870 to 2004, according to local stories.

A local Buddhist monk suggested that the glacier retreat resulted from insufficient devotion on the part of Buddhists, because outside visitors failed to demonstrate highly reverent behavior around the holy mountain. Others blame the use of electricity and increasing material greed.


Allison believes that the local interpretations that blame lack of reverence for glacier decline reflect larger social, political, and scientific trends that have provided anthropogenic conditions for glacier recession.

Glacial decline, as Allison suggested, is not only a physical and observable process caused by climate change, but also has bearing on how local people understand themselves and interpret the environment they rely upon. Different values stem from different experiences of the landscapes, which reflect the implications of climate change.


UN looks to locals for climate solutions

When attacking a problem as complex and diverse as climate change, sometimes the best way is from the ground up. Bringing indigenous communities, including those near glacier in high mountain regions, into the discussion is the new tactic discussed at a September 24 meeting at the United Nations Development Programme in New York during Climate Week. With many heads of state present at the UN headquarters two blocks away, security was tight.

Tight security outside the United Nations (photo: Ben Orlove)
Tight security outside the United Nations (photo: Ben Orlove)

The event, “Building Indigenous Knowledge into Climate Change Assessments: A Roundtable Discussion,” was sponsored by UNESCO. It drew together nearly two dozen representatives from international agencies, NGOs, indigenous communities and universities. Its goal was to increase the presence of indigenous knowledge in climate assessments, and to use this knowledge to promote effective adaptation efforts. The meeting built on two key statements in the Summary for Policy-makers of Working Group II of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: that “including indigenous peoples’ holistic views of community and environment are a major resource for adapting to climate change” and that these views “have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts.”

The animated discussions lasted well over three hours. The meeting was chaired by Douglas Nakashima, the chief of the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme of UNESCO and Minnie Degawan, a member of the Kankanaey Igorot indigenous community of the Philippines and a Senior Advisor of the World Wildlife Fund Forest and Climate Initiative. Nakashima opened with a thoughtful review of the involvement of indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge in the IPCC and the UNFCCC over the last 10 years, and of the efforts of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, a network of indigenous peoples who engage with the UNFCCC, to expand this role.

A September 24 discussion of the indigenous communities in Asia. (photo: Ben Orlove)
A September 24 discussion of the indigenous communities in Asia. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Discussions focused on indigenous knowledge about climate change, the ways that indigenous peoples bring their knowledge into adaptation, and an exploration of the opportunities and barriers to fuller incorporation of this knowledge into global climate assessments. The issue of indigenous youth came up again and again, with the concern for assuring continuity of strong indigenous communities on their lands. They included detailed case studies of different communities and of international organizations. Of the nine speakers, five were representatives of indigenous communities, principally from Southeast Asia and North America. Indigenous people formed a majority of the discussants and commentators as well.

A discussion of international indigenous initiatives. (photo: Ben Orlove)
A discussion of international indigenous initiatives. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I spoke on communities around glaciers, including indigenous Quechua-speakers in Peru and Sherpas in Nepal. I reflected on the ways that some groupings of peoples and regions—glacier regions, the Arctic, low-lying islands—are relatively new to the United Nations, reflecting the growing awareness of climate impacts. I drew on several posts in GlacierHub, including the introduction of greenhouses to a region in Nepal, a discussion of waste management in a national park in Peru, and conflicts over the governance of mountaineering in Nepal. These stories dovetailed with other accounts at the meeting, which also examined the way that the integration of local knowledge into projects was linked to local control over land as well, and addressed the power inequalities within and between countries.

Columbia University professor Ben Orlove speaking at the UNESCO workshop (photo: Carla Roncoli)
Columbia University professor Ben Orlove speaking at the UNESCO workshop (photo: Carla Roncoli)

People spoke with intensity and listened to each other closely, providing many comments and drawing out comparisons across disparate cases. The discussion became fast-paced after Youba Sokona, the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III on Mitigation, offered an overview of the process of writing assessment reports with a focus on the potential for greater incorporation of indigenous knowledge. The group came up with several recommendations—still under discussion—for concrete future steps, leading up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Paris in December 2015.

Presentation on IPCC process by Youba Sokona, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III (photo: Ben Orlove)
Presentation on IPCC process by Youba Sokona, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III (photo: Ben Orlove)


Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/22/14

Tibetan glaciers have shrunk by 15 percent

“The study attributes the retreat of glaciers and thawing of frozen earth to global warming, suggesting a significant impact on the water security of the subcontinent. Rivers such as the Brahmaputra have their source on the Tibetan plateau, where it flows as the Yarlung Zangbo before turning at “the great bend” and entering India.”

Read the Hindu Times article here.

Nepalese mountain communities fear melting glaciers and flooding

“‘I lost my grandchild and daughter to a huge landslide,’ 80-year old Dorje Sherpa said in the remote Dingboche village, lying at an altitude of nearly 5,000m. Nearly 14 years ago, they were crushed by a huge landslide caused by flooding from a glacial lake in nearby Amadablam mountain.”

Read the IRIN Asia story here.

New book looks at vanishing glacier’s impact on America

“As world temperatures soar, public outcry has focused on the threat to polar ice sheets and sea ice. Yet there is another impact of global warming—one much closer to home—that spells trouble for Americans: the extinction of alpine glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. The epicenter of the crisis is Glacier National Park, Montana, whose peaks once held one-hundred-and-fifty glaciers. Only twenty-five survive. The park provides a window into the future of climate impacts for mountain ranges around the globe.”

Read an excerpt from Christopher White’s “The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Melting Glaciers” here.


In wake of Everest deaths, many groups push for reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flooded with memories in Nepal

Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)
Trail in Pharak. (Pasang Sherpa)

I was born and raised in Kathmandu but Monzo has always been the place I call home. Monzo is where my paternal grandmother spent all of her life tending our fields and looking after our ancestral home. Monzo is also the place where my father was born and raised until he left for Kathmandu to attend school. I visited Monzo with my brothers every year during our school breaks.

From my village in Monzo in the Sherpa region in northeastern Nepal, we need to walk at least a day, depending on how fast we go, to get close to the glaciers higher up in the mountains. Because we can’t see the glaciers until we get closer to them, we don’t talk much about them. But we sometimes talk about glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

In 1985, the year I was born, a high mountain lake, Dig Tsho, flooded. Although the flood came long time ago, I know about it from the stories I have heard throughout the years. My father always talked about it as we passed through the scars from landslides and the places where there were once villages, including my maternal grandmother’s natal village.

Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Khumbu. (Pasang Sherpa)

Often times, growing up, I would hear my grandparents say that some things are nomdok (inviting misfortune). Talking about bad experiences like the Dig Tsho GLOF was definitely one of them. It destroyed houses and fields, took lives and caused great distress. So, talking about GLOFs is not the most appropriate cultural thing to do from my grandparents’ perspective. But it is my hope that having conversations about them will let us prepare for an uncertain hazard-prone world of changing climate and bring us good karma in the long run.

After finishing high school in Nepal, I left the country to continue my education. Several years later, I returned to the Sherpa region to conduct research for my dissertation at an American university. During that time, I asked my aunt—actually a friend of my parents from Monzo who I called “aunt” –whether I could interview her about her experience with the Dig Tsho flood. She agreed to talk with me, but at first did not remember the event. She had not spoken about the big flood with anyone for many years, because it had happened far in the past, and there was no need to recall those stressful moments of her life. But when I persisted in asking about the big flood that came many years ago when she was young, she opened up. She was with her mother in their potato field weeding the bean plants when she heard loud noises that sounded like the thunder that lightning produces.

Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)
Rock painting in Pharek. (Pasang Sherpa)

She said, “I remember the villagers calling us to come up and see what was going on on the other side of the Dudh Koshi [the major river in the region]…It was like a movie. People were running up the hill as the water below engulfed trees and rocks…so fast.”

Unlike other villages in Pharak in the central part of the Sherpa territory, Monzo is not close to the Dudh Koshi, which is fed by the mountain glaciers up north including Dig Tsho to the left and Imja Tsho to the right. So, my aunt and her family were safe but they were terrified by the experience. After the flood, her family and neighbors took shelter under a giant rock and stayed for several hours. Under the rock, they cooked potatoes, shared tales of what they saw and heard. They returned home only when the night came.

Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)
Planting potatoes. (Pasang Sherpa)

Nowadays, many people in the Sherpa region talk about the potential Imja GLOF. We have heard about the expanding Imja Tsho and the destruction it could cause to our villages. Most of this information comes to our villages from the media, the scientists and NGO sponsored projects that organize workshops there. When there is heavy monsoon rain, my maternal grandmother and her children, my uncles and aunts, worry about the rising water levels in the river. They live in Thumbuk, a village below Monzo, which is close to the river. The discussions about Imja Tsho flooding that have now spread throughout the villages leave the villagers more with a sense of dread than with a feeling of preparation.

Several years ago, my uncle and his wife found themselves running for their lives along with other villagers after they received a phone call from their friends in a different village that told them the Imja Tsho was flooding. This was later found to be a rumor spread by some people from Khumbu, a much higher Sherpa area close to the Imja Tsho. They were alarmed by a recent information-sharing workshop that discussed the potential Imja GLOF and showed its likely path of destruction, including several middle-elevation Pharak villages that would be directly affected. Among the people who fled was a young mother with her newborn child. They found refuge in their wet potato field on that cold, rainy night. The great discomfort that they experienced brought to mind my grandparents’ concern that talking about misfortune was nomdok. Even well-intentioned discussions can create misunderstanding, confusion and fear, and lead to harm that might otherwise be avoided.

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


Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/01/14
Pemba (2nd from left) and his brothers fresh from a carry to Camp 3 (at 23,500 feet) and back to Everest Base Camp in 2003. A conference to reform the mountain guide industry has just finished following an April 2014 avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa guides. (Didrik Johnck/Flickr)

Climate Change adaptation and disaster risk reduction

“As the frequency of disasters is increasing, and more people and properties are at risk, it is time to exploit the natural resource in a way that we can contribute to reduce the global warming. Effective disaster management measures should be taken, and mass awareness, institutional mainstreaming, and integration of DRR into development are to be ensured at all level. ”


Read more here.

Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes


“The development objective Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes Project for Andean Countries is to contribute to strengthening the resilience of local ecosystems and economies to the impacts of glacier retreat in the Tropical Andes, through the implementation of specific pilot adaptation activities that illustrate the costs and benefits of adaptation.”


Read more here.


Preliminary outputs of Mountaineering Worker’s Workshop


“Following the tragic loss of 16 Nepali mountaineering workers during the Mt. Everest avalanche on 18 April 2014, there has been a clear need for reflection and reform in Nepal’s mountaineering industry.”


Read more here.