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Climbing Mount Everest: Risking Life and Limb for Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a series by Ulyana Horodyskyj, a geologist who is trying to determine how airborne particles such as soot that settle on massive glaciers affect how fast the ice melts. In mid-April she and her team of scientists, volunteers and Sherpas were nearly at base camp on Mount Everest when a huge avalanche killed 16 Sherpas just above the camp. Horodyskyj had to cancel their planned climb and spent two weeks trying to negotiate with various governments to find a new mountain to probe. Hurrying to beat warming temperatures and monsoons that make climbing impossible, they ended up making a last-minute arrangement and scurrying out to collect the last of their data. One team member had a terrible accident, and barely got out alive.

The author on Mt. Himlung with her 50-pound daypack. (Credit: Jake St. Pierre)

Following the tragedy on Everest, our team of climbers and Sherpa support crew regrouped in Kathmandu to decide how to proceed. Given the vast amount of money invested into the project, it was important for us to try to salvage some of the work. After many negotiations, we were able to secure new climbing permits for Himlung, a 23,343-foot (7,126-meter) peak in central Nepal, on the border with Tibet.

Getting to the peak’s base camp required multiple legs of transport. The first was a seven-hour drive in a private vehicle from Kathmandu to a small town called Besisahar, followed by a bumpy eight-hour jeep ride to a small village called Koto. This involved some extremely cautious driving along narrow winding roads with thousand-foot drop-offs. The scenery was spectacular: lush green vegetation and majestic waterfalls.

From Koto we hired donkeys to carry our science and climbing gear to base camp, 25 miles away. We followed along on foot for two days, arriving at the village of Phu. This involved a lot of up and down, and for most of the way we trekked through giant gorges. As we neared Phu the terrain morphed into “badland” topography. It was incredibly windy the whole day and later started snowing. That night we learned that a local yak herder perished when he slipped off the trail. With 300-foot drop-offs, the danger is very real with even the slightest bit of rain or snow.

Given the bad weather, we took a day of rest at Phu and began planning our climbing strategy to maximize time for science up on the mountain while still beating the quickly approaching monsoon precipitation. The trek to base camp was another five miles from Phu, along glaciated terrain (though the ice was covered in debris, much like in the Khumbu Valley). Upon our arrival the Sherpas had already set up tents for sleeping, cooking and eating, and the donkeys had dropped off our personal gear. Even with this assistance, our daypacks were more than 30 pounds. Electronics are heavy and fragile, so they had to be carried on our backs.

Charging science gear with solar panels at camp.

Over the next week we acclimatized yet again to the thinner air, but having spent weeks up higher in the Khumbu Valley at Everest base camp, our lungs were strong. Climbing a peak like Himlung without extra support, we had to establish camps along the way. Camp 1 (around 17,500 feet) was made in the scree (rocks), near the ice, to afford better sleep; rocks are much warmer than ice. Camp 2 was established higher up in the snow and ice (around 19,500 feet). To get to the summit, we made one more camp – a touch-and-go kind of place since we didn’t want to linger up high for too long.

Our load carrying to Camps 1 and 2 went well, but admittedly were difficult, because we were hauling all our personal gear, group gear, climbing and science equipment, and food. It isn’t possible to climb in one push. Rather, from base camp we climbed to Camp 1 with a heavy load and dropped it off, and returned to base camp. Then we rested. The next day we carried the next load to Camp 1 and slept there. The procedure is the same for the higher camps. As we go higher the loads get lighter (gas is used up; food is eaten), but less oxygen still makes the gear feel pretty heavy.

The author and Jake St. Pierre on the Himlung icefall. Steep slopes and warming snow make climbing slow and dangerous.

We were able to collect snow samples from the camps in order to look at the concentration of black carbon and dust at different altitudes. The glacier was turning visibly darker every day as particles like soot fell on the snow and ice, where they heated up in the strong sun and continued to melt the snow and ice underneath. Mornings are usually the best times to climb. We couldn’t leave too early, though, because we were the only climbers on the mountain and had to find our own routes along the way. And even by 9 a.m., the snow underfoot was turning slushy and treacherous as the day warmed.

On May 19, John All, the expedition leader, was doing some route finding at the higher camp while the rest of us were lower down at base camp, gathering more group gear for our last high camp. The next day, while Jake St. Pierre and I were en route to Camp 2 with the extra gear, a helicopter flew right over of us. Hearing helicopters up this valley is quite rare, so we knew it wasn’t good news. Not knowing entirely what had happened, we turned around and pushed down to base camp for news. It turned out that John had fallen into a crevasse and sustained multiple broken bones and was recovering in Kathmandu. [Editor’s note: John All nearly died in his fall 70-feet down inside a narrow frozen prison. He took a dramatic and bloody video of himself at the bottom when he realized he might not get out, which can now be seen on his Facebook page.]

Helicopter coming in for a landing to rescue John All.

Learning this, Jake, David Byrne, Chris Cosgriff and I made a group decision to rope up together to Camp 2 and haul down all of the equipment that had been left up there (over 200 pounds) rather than continue on with a summit push for the final samples. It was the right decision, given multiple variables. New crevasses were opening up every day, because of the start of the melting season, and the route in the steep sections was turning to slush underfoot, which could easily lead to a thousand-foot fall down the slope. The risks were too high to continue on. Still, we got plenty of useful data along the various routes we covered.

Over the past two months we have encountered adversity and setbacks, some out of our control and others preventable. We mourned alongside the Sherpas after the tragic avalanche on Everest on April 18, which claimed the life of one of our Nepali team members, Asman Tamang. We supported each other, as teammates and friends, during the latest mishap on Himlung. Through it all, the science has continued. We hope the results, even though they will be a bit limited because we didn’t quite get to the altitudes we wanted, will provide valuable insights into how the top of the world is changing in a changing climate. And I hope to write a final update for you all soon.

Summit bid aborted, the author, Jake St Pierre, Silverfox Byrne and Chris Cosgriff worked together as a gear recovery crew to bring down over 200 pounds of equipment from the high camp following John All's evacuation off the mountain.

All images courtesy of the author.

Ulyana Horodyskyj About the Author: Ulyana Horodyskyj received a B.S. in earth science at Rice University and M.Sc. in planetary geology at Brown University. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in geosciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For the past few years, she has traveled to Nepal to study how glacial lakes evolve with time. She is currently spending a year abroad on a Fulbright scholarship and has expanded her project to study the effects of black carbon on snow melt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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