Is Mt. Everest Unsafe To Climb This Year?

Mt. EverestAt 8848 meters (29,029 feet) in height, Mt. Everest is a significant challenge for climbers even under the best of conditions. Thin air, the threat of altitude sickness and physically exhausting technical challenges are commonplace on the mountain, which has seen more than its fair share of fatalities over the years. But unusual weather conditions this spring may make climbing Everest more unsafe than ever and those conditions have even prompted one of the largest commercial climbing companies to cancel all attempts on the summit this year.

Yesterday Himalayan Expeditions, or Himex as it is known in mountaineering circles, announced that it was cancelling its Spring 2012 Expedition due to concerns over the safety of the guides, Sherpas and climbers. Team leader Russell Brice feels that it is simply too unsafe to climb Everest this year and rather than risk the lives of his team or clients he has elected to go home instead. As you can imagine, this was crushing news for the climbers, many of whom have dreamed of this expedition for years and have spent upwards of $55,000 for the opportunity to scale the world’s tallest peak.

What makes this season different from others in the past is that it has been unusually dry on Everest this spring. You would think that that would actually be a good thing for the climbers, but it turns out that without snow and ice on the slopes the mountain becomes much more difficult to climb. When climbing across snow or ice, mountaineers use crampons – small spikes that are attached to the bottom of their boots – to climb more safely and effectively. Those spikes can become a detriment when used on bare rock. Additionally, the snow and ice help make the route up the mountain safer by firmly keeping rocks locked into place, without it the rocks can dislodge quite easily and tumble down the side of the mountain, striking those below.The excessive amounts of loose rock aren’t the only problem, however, as Brice has also voiced concerns about the stability of the Khumbu Icefall, which is widely considered the most dangerous section on the South Side of the mountain. The icefall is a result of the Khumbu glacier breaking up as it moves down the valley. Due to the ice shifting and collapsing, a new route must be built through that section each year. A special group of Sherpas known as the Ice Doctors are charged with building and maintaining that route, which is created by laying down a series of ladders over the open chasms. Climbers then walk across those ladders as they navigate to the base of the mountain located on the far side. The Himex leader feels that the route could collapse at any time, stranding the mountaineers on Everest, or worse yet, taking the lives of those in the icefall at the time.

The other big commercial guide services seem less concerned about the dangers of climbing Everest this spring and there are some indications that conditions are actually improving. Snow fell on the mountain over the weekend, which has brought a measure of stability to the peak and has allowed climbers to go as high as Camp 3, located at 7470 meters (24,500 feet), as part of their altitude training. Those climbers are hoping that conditions will continue to get better over time, allowing for safe passage to the summit in a few weeks.

It is hard to fault any guided climbing company for being overly cautious when keeping their customers safe but I’m sure there are more than a few Himex clients that are wondering if they’ll ever get another shot at climbing Everest. Hopefully the teams that remained on the mountain will get up and down safely in the days ahead.

[Photo credit: Pavel Novak]

Climber To Fulfill 88-Year-Old Olympic Pledge On Everest

The South Side of Everest in NepalThe spring climbing season is about to get underway in the Himalaya where teams of mountaineers are already descending on Kathmandu in preparation for their expeditions to come. Amongst them is veteran British climber Kenton Cool who is not only seeking his tenth successful summit of the world’s tallest peak, but is also looking to fulfill an 88-year-old Olympic pledge before the games return to London this summer.

Back in 1922, the Himalaya mostly remained a blank spot on the map. Those wild and rugged mountains seemed nearly impassable at the time and explorers spent years mapping their jagged peaks and high passes. One of those explorers was Lt. Colonel Edward Strutt who led one of the first expeditions that attempted to climb Everest. His team actually reached a height of 27,000 feet, which was well below the 29,029-foot summit but still managed to set a new altitude record at the time.

News of that record spread around the globe and gave hope to many that Everest would soon be conquered for King and Country. It wasn’t of course. It would be another 31 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would become the first men to stand on the summit, but Strutt became quite the celebrated figure. So much so that in 1924, at the Olympic Games in Paris, he and his team were awarded gold medals for their accomplishments on Everest. When he received his medal from Baron Pierre du Coubertin, the Lt. Colonel promised he would carry it with him when he eventually went to the top of the mountain. Later that same year, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine would go missing on their famous Everest expedition and it would be another nine years before another team of Brits attempted the climb again. As a result, Edward Strutt never got the opportunity to take his Olympic gold to the highest point on the planet.

Now, nearly nine decades later, Cool wants to fulfill Strutt’s pledge at last. Today Kenton begins his trek to Everest Base Camp on the south side of the mountain. That trek will take upwards of ten days to complete and once there he’ll begin the long and grueling process of climbing a mountain that he already knows very well. Depending on weather conditions, it could take Cool about six weeks to deliver the gold medal to the summit.

You can follow Kenton’s progress on the expedition’s Facebook page by clicking here and hitting the “Like” button. We’re likely to get daily updates from the trek and climb as well as some stunning photos and videos from the breathtaking Khumbu Valley.

Impact of climate change on the Himalaya far less than estimated

Climate change in the Himalaya is far less than previoiusly thoughtA new climate change study, released this past Thursday, has surprised some experts and blown some major holes in the doom and gloom predictions that have been given out in recent years. In fact, the new study, which was published in the scientific journal Nature, found that there has been virtually no ice lost in the Himalaya over the past decade, which runs contrary to reports that many climatologists have given over that same time period.

In this new study, satellites were used for the first time to track the loss of ice in glaciers and the polar ice caps. Previously, teams of scientists would have to visit the glaciers themselves, and measure the changes manually. This was a time consuming and challenging process, and only allowed them to visit a few locations. The satellites gave researchers the opportunity to see the big picture more fully, and what they found was quite surprising.

Previous climate change studies estimated that the loss of ice in the Himalaya Mountains was quickly approaching 50 billion tons per year, but the satellites showed that the actual loss was closer to 4 billion tons annually, which one scientist in the study labeled as insignificant. That means that while the glaciers are indeed still melting, they are doing it at a far less alarming rate than we’ve been led to believe in the past. Researchers went on to say that the contribution to rising sea levels, from these melting glaciers and the ice caps, was less than half what had been predicted by other recent reports.

This research project began in 2003 and ran through 2010, giving the scientists involved an opportunity to observe changes over a substantial amount of time. Their findings fly in the face of predictions from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which once predicted that the Himalayan glaciers could be completely gone by 2035, a statement they were forced to retract later.

All of these different climate change reports just indicate to me that we really don’t know what the hell is going on with our planet.

Famous Sherpas to hike the length of the Great Himalaya Trail

The Great Himalaya TrailTwo famous Nepalese Sherpas are preparing to hike the entire length of the Great Himalaya Trail in an effort to raise awareness of the effects of climate change on the region. The duo will set out on January 15th and hope to encourage economic development along the new trekking route as well.

Apa Sherpa and Dawa Steven Sherpa will begin their journey in eastern Nepal in the village of Ghunsa and will travel 1056 miles west until they reach the town of Darchula. The entire hike is expected to take roughly 120 days to complete, passing through 20 different districts along the way.

While the GHT is an impressively long trek, it is the altitude that presents the biggest challenge for most hikers. It is considered the highest long distance trail in the world, rising above 18,880 feet at its tallest point. That altitude isn’t likely to be a problem for these two men however, as they have both climbed Everest multiple times. In fact, Apa holds the record for most successful summits, having scaled the highest mountain on the planet 21 times. Dawa Steven has stood on the summit of the mountain twice as well, giving the men plenty of experience at high altitude.

In addition to the altitude, the GHT is known for its incredibly scenic vistas as well. The Himalayan Mountains make a breathtaking backdrop for the trek, but climate change is having a dramatic impact on that place. As the planet has warmed, the glaciers throughout the region have gone into retreat, severely limiting the amount of fresh water that is available to the people who live there. Even now, many of those people have to walk several hours each day just to collect water for their daily use. The two Sherpas hope to spread the news on this impending crisis in their home country.

Climate change isn’t their only priority however, as they hope to encourage economic development along the Great Himalaya Trail as well. The route opened earlier this year, and while hikers have begun walking the route, the infrastructure to support them is not fully in place yet. Apa and Dawa Steven hope that their hike will help bring attention to the trail that will also inspire new restaurants and inns to open along its length, making it easier for adventure travelers to undertake the long distance trek.

New film invites us to spend 40 Days at Base Camp

40 Days in Base Camp on Mt. EverestFor decades Mt. Everest has held sway over the imagination of adventurers everywhere. Standing 29,029 feet in height, it is the tallest mountain on the planet and the focus of countless books, television shows, and movies. But a new documentary entitled 40 Days at Base Camp looks to offer new insights into what it takes to climb the mountain and spend more than a month living in its shadow.

As the name implies, filmmaker Dianne Whelan spent 40 days living in Everest Base Camp on Nepal’s South Side of the mountain. During the spring climbing season, Base Camp becomes a tent city, filled with hundreds of climbers from around the globe, along with their all-important Sherpa guides. The film follows a number of those climbers as they pursue their dream of climbing the mountain, no matter the risks and the costs.

Whelan’s film is unique in that it deftly mixes the drama of the challenging climb along with the daily routine of living in Base Camp, where climbers spend much of their time resting, acclimatizing, and physically preparing for their ascent. She also examines the effects of climate change on Everest and the implications for the future of the ecology of the mountain. As you’d expect, all of this is set with the stunning backdrop of the Himalaya Mountains – one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.

The film is in limited release, so it may not be arriving in theaters everywhere. But if you have an interest in mountaineering or Everest itself, it looks like a fantastic documentary worth tracking down.