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Climber-Scientist Needs Your Pictures

Posted on: February 15th, 2011 by Luke Bauer

What follows is a guest posting by AAC member John All, PhD, JD, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Geology at Western Kentucky University. Much like fellow member Alton Byers, featured recently in Inclined, Dr. All is a climber-scientist, taking his love of the mountains even further, by studying and working to protect them. Read his tale of climate change research on Everest. Dr. All is looking for dated photographs of Himalayan base-camps, particularly Mt. Everest base-camp, from the 1970s through the present. All photographs are intended to aid in his research and documentation of change in glacial coverage through the last few decades. We’ll be putting out a similar call on Twitter and Facebook. See below for details:

Global Climate Change Impacts Everest

—Dr. John All

While scientists are certain that climate change is occurring worldwide, no one is exactly sure what that means for any given location. Will temperatures be higher and soils drier or will precipitation increase and temperature moderate?  Will glaciers grow thanks to more precipitation or shrink due to melting?  Our world is a complex place and these questions can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. For climbers though, there is no question that we are seeing glaciers melt and routes change before our very eyes.

Dr. John All on the summit of Mt. Everest, sans crampons. Photo Courtesy Dr. John All.

As an example: I spent nearly a year in Nepal climbing and teaching at Tribhuvan University with the US Fulbright Program. During the May, 2010 climbing season, I climbed the North Col/Northeast Ridge route from 7500 meters to the summit of Mt. Everest (8850m) and back over two days without crampons. In fact, for the entire climb on the Tibetan side, I only used crampons from 6700 to 7400 m on the North Col glacier. This was not intended as a global warming stunt—I carried the crampons ready for use the entire climb, but there was never enough snow/ice to make them vital. A small ice ax for cutting some steps on the summit headwall at 8700 meters (and in-case of a self-arrest situation) was all that was required.
I am sure most alpinists will denigrate this effort because of the annual ‘prepping’ of the North Col route that is standard for the large numbers of guided parties. However, I was climbing with just one fellow climber in-support and we did not rely on the fixed ropes except at the Steps. But I will acknowledge that I would never have been foolhardy enough to try this on a non-developed route. There were storms before and after my summit bid that required climbers to don their crampons for survival on those days, but the mere fact that it was possible for me is startling.

A combination of wind and solar energy—which dictates that amount of snow sublimation—on Mt. Everest determine the total snow-load on the mountain. These parameters are changing rapidly.  In the six weeks we spent at Advanced Base Camp, the glacier melted out around us to nearly a meter lower than our tent – and this is the part of the glacier that is insulated with an inch or two of stones.  Anecdotes indicate that nearly one hundred feet of ice depth has been lost from all the base-camps surrounding the mountain since climbing began in the 1900’s. While the North Col ice itself will not disappear in the next decade or longer, it may no longer be a part of the route in the future. One climber died and one was maimed during an unprecedented ice avalanche this year and there is a lot of ominous evidence that the ice is crumbling. It is not out of the question to ask when the North Col/Northeast Ridge route will become a rock climb.

Camp 3 (8,300 meters) with little snow. Photo Courtesy Dr. John All.

While this is just a single example, as climbers we see how routes are changing every year.  It is for this reason that the American Alpine Club has a strong conservation program. While global climate change may be bigger than any one institution, we can still help limit its impacts and help conserve the mountains that we love.

After seeing base camps and a route that was far different from the historical accounts of Everest that I feasted on as a younger man, I have decided to do an in-depth analysis of the changes to Mt. Everest from a climbers perspective. I have acquired satellite imagery and thousand of ground control points (GCPs) of data from both the Nepal and Tibet routes on Mt. Everest. I have worked with Nepali students to conduct interviews of dozens of local residents of the Khumbu and Sherpa climbers to learn both about changes in the mountains and about changing resource management strategies and local responses.

I would like to ask the assistance of AAC climbers community for help with this project. Specifically, I would like to ask that anyone who climbed from the North or South aspects of the peak in the 1970’s to early 1990’s share any pictures you have—especially of the base-camps. I am interested in wide-angle shots that show ice conditions, trash and human waste, and anything else that you think is significant. The images will not be published in any form without  permission. Instead, they will be used to ‘ground truth’ satellite images from similar time periods so we can identify exactly what we are seeing from the air.

Scanned images can be emailed to me at [email protected]

Rongbuk Glacier with base-camp visible at the tongue. Dr. All is seeking pictures like this for his project.

Or, send real mail to:

John All
Department of Geography and Geology,
Western Kentucky University,
Bowling Green, KY, 42101.

I will scan and return any images if you desire. Also, if you have any recollections/writings from those climbs—i.e. memories of disposing of waste in one hundred foot deep crevasses at base camp—please feel free to send me those as well. The results of this work will be published in an AAC periodical among other places, so that all climbers can learn the results. I thank you all in advance for your help in learning more about recent changes in this critical location for climbers.

—Dr. John All

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