If you’ve been longing for a change of scenery, you couldn’t go further, higher and colder than Mount Everest. This July, National Geographic (DStv 181) will be taking us inside two Everest expeditions, allowing us to enjoy everything but the frostbite and altitude sickness.
We spoke to glaciologist Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development about his experiences with one of the expeditions.
Tenzing’s grandfather, Kanchha Sherpa, is the last surviving member of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s 1953 British Expedition, which was the first recorded successful attempt to reach Everest’s peak. Kanchha was one of the essential porters who made the journey possible. Today, his grandson studies how the glaciers in the Kush-Himalayan region are responding to climate change. He’s hoping that his research will help settlements in the mountain region prepare for the effects of climate change, particularly with regards to glacial hazards. One billion people live downstream of Everest’s glaciers, and they need to know what will happen to their water as the glacier retreats – and whether their villages are in danger of flooding.
What was your role in the expedition?
I was a member of the glaciological team, so my primary focus was on understanding how much is melting, especially on the lower part of the glacier.
How did you prepare for the expedition?
Any kind of scientific expedition requires a lot of preparation, especially with the literature you need to read through. And then there is a lot of site planning to do and all those logistical things that come along. In my case, I needed sites where I was going to do measurements, so I used Google Maps and Google Earth and other satellite images to plan out my study area.
And because we were going into a really rough area, everything has to be carried by hand. Even if you have sophisticated instruments and really heavy instruments, you need to customise them so that it’s much easier for people to carry them and it’s much easier for transport. And this is just a simple thing, but we had a big ice drill. It is usually very difficult to carry and we have had long site bags, but this time I used a keyboard bag and customised it and prepared it to carry the drill. That was one of the most useful things in my particular research – that I used a keyboard bag to keep my scientific instruments in. It worked!
What was different from your expectations?
When you prepare remotely you have a specific set of goals to make, but when you go on the site, it’s not what you’d expect. The site that I’d originally selected for making my measurements was not as ideal as it could have been. It’s one thing to see the satellite images remotely, but when you go right there it’s a lot different. We had to spend two days walking around the glacier to just find an ideal site. The glacier is very hummocky, there are a lot of rocks, a lot of ice sheets, a lot of ponds. And I didn’t expect that there would be so many people at that time. Doing science alongside a lot of people watching you? (Tenzing laughs) That’s not as ideal as you want.
This was a big team of scientists for the expedition. Who were you most excited to meet personally?
That’s a tough question because there were a lot of scientists and everyone there was revered in their own field and they had accomplished so much. I had heard and read about them, and with some of them I had read their scientific papers as well and I guess I don’t have a particular person. The most intriguing part for me was the interdisciplinary aspect of it. There were so many people from so many different aspects of science. Everyone has their own exciting story to tell. If you’re looking at a rock, it’s telling a geologist one story, and a biologist has a different story, so that was what I really liked. The same glacier could be seen from different points of view and tell different kinds of stories.
What did you connect over at Base Camp?
We spent a lot of time in the dining tent because that’s where the heater is, that’s where the food is and that’s where you get to charge your mobile phone. You’re staying at base camp for one month and it gives you a special bond with the people who’ve been there because you’ve been through a lot. You don’t have distractions like your work calling in or your family. It's the same routine and the same people every day. In a way it gets interesting and it helps to create a bond as well. There was a lot of chatting around. Everyone gets to know each other. Once you are there, you are cut off from the world you come from. Everyone has just the people beside them to talk to.
Because there were a lot of researchers there, they have been all over the world. Some have been to Antarctica, and I actually wanted to go to Antarctica to study the ice sheets because I’ve never been there, and it has a fascination for me. So I loved hearing stories about Antarctica, and what it is like there and seeing pictures of Antarctica and the penguins! The stories about the ice sheets were very, very interesting to me because that is one of my dream places to go.
What kind of data are you most looking forward to seeing from your research?
One of the most interesting things is that once you go about 5,500 to 6,000 metres, there haven’t been any studies done. When you’re talking about glaciers, the most important factor is the melt from these glaciers: how much water is coming off it, how much is melting. That is what feeds the rivers and everything. We need to understand what actually is going on within these glaciers to anticipate or forecast any melt that will come from these glaciers.
Higher than 6,000 metres, there hasn't been any study done. There haven’t been weather stations kept at this scale, and this level and at that altitude. Every study that has ever been done in that region has been extrapolated from weather station data at the lower altitudes, and it might not capture the whole picture or all the processes that are going on. Now they’re measuring in real time and footage in high resolution. That is one of the most fascinating things: to see what actually happens up there. Is it melting? Does it melt up there? That’s one of the questions.
How did you feel when you found out that the weather station scientists from your expedition got stuck in traffic at The Balcony on the way to the summit?
That was intriguing news but also quite sad to hear. At that high altitude when oxygen is quite low and you are stuck there for quite long, it’s dangerous. It’s sad to see that people literally lost their lives just because there was a delay and a long line (of climbers, waiting to reach the summit).
Nepal is primarily dependent on tourism so much of the income for the country comes from tourism, so there isn’t a managed way of controlling the number of mountaineers, the number of tourists coming into the country. It requires proper managed inflow of the tourists and that needs to be looked at on a local government scale. For people who are dependent on tourism, the more inflow of tourists is better, but then you see the effects of that.
It was also partly the weather as well because you need a specific kind of weather to climb Mount Everest to summit, and at the time there were a lot of disturbances, due to which everybody got crunched into a small weather window. I can’t say much because it’s not the best scenario for Mount Everest. Hearing that and hearing how people lost their lives is quite sad.
We’ve had a test case for no tourism this year, though with COVID-19 shutting down all tourism to the mountain. How has the pandemic been impacting your research and your community?
This pandemic has hit us hard, especially because Nepal was gearing up for the tourism year 2020. This 2020 was supposed to be a big tourism year, they had invested a lot. Economically the country has been hit hard by this pandemic
Looking at my view and how my work has been impacted? As professionals who work on glaciers, we have to go to the field at least twice a year, because it requires constant measurement and constant data retrieval. But this year we have had to cancel all of our field trips due to the pandemic and many of our plans got cancelled, so it’s been quite a setback. Having said that, most of our work is done through our laptops so I have been able to get some work done, but it’s the field work that has been left out.
Regarding my family, they are up in the mountains right now in Namche Bazaar, and they have also been impacted hard. Namche Bazaar is dependent on tourism, but right now there are no tourists coming in. In a way that has had a different impact. People have started coming together, people are starting to socialise and started farming and many other activities and in a way it’s a good aspect of this pandemic. But there are a lot of drawbacks as well.
For now, Everest’s peaks are quiet and empty again side from the wind blows as it blows snow over human traces. Tenzing and all the scientists from the expedition are back home analysing their data. And climbers around the world have to tune into these 2 documentaries for a glimpse of Everest’s grey slopes and dazzling blue skies.