Climbers set to celebrate 70 years of Everest summit amid melting glaciers

Melting glaciers and rising number of ascents and casualties cast a shadow

Nitin Kumar New Delhi
mount everest

On May 29, 1953, at 11.30 am, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay from Nepal and Kiwi mountaineer Edmund Hilary scaled the highest peak on Earth and spent 15 minutes atop.
The duo’s historic ascent of the Mount Everest, 70 years on, remains path-breaking and inspiring for generations. But the feat itself has been rendered routine by the sheer scale of statistics. Consider this: According to the latest available data, as of January, 6,338 individuals have summitted the Everest.

As the mountaineering community prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Norgay and Hilary’s summit, there is growing concern about rising temperatures, melting glaciers and snow, and a more fickle yet harsher weather on the world’s tallest mountain.
Mine Islar, senior lecturer at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies in Sweden and a researcher on the Himalayas, said in a paper this year that it would be possible for local communities and tourists to scale the Everest for another 70 years, but not in the same way — that is through the ice. In the present and immediate future, due to glacial melting the route could become unstable and alternative routes might have to be arranged.

“Tourism, livelihoods, infrastructure, energy and water supply are under threat as climate change accelerates glacial retreat,” Islar said.
A study in the Nature Portfolio Journal Climate and Atmospheric Science in 2022 said that ice formed on the South Col Glacier — one of the highest glaciers on Mount Everest over a period of 2,000 years — melted in about 25 years.

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The pace of melting is also worrying for Himalayan dwellers, who are worried about the possible changes in the next 70 years. Romala Butalia, a resident of Uttarakhand, tweeted on Friday: “70 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled Everest. Rising global temperatures have put the Himalaya in danger. In the next 70 years, two-thirds of glaciers on the region’s mountains will disappear if we do not take urgent action to #SaveOurSnow (sic).”
A rise in temperature and permafrost degradation can potentially increase the chances of avalanches in the regions, experts say. Researchers have also found evidence of microplastic pollution at the top of Mount Everest, according to a study published in the One Earth journal.

The evidence was found based on an analysis of the snow and stream samples from the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition in 2019.
The highest concentration of microplastics was found in samples collected from around Base Camp, where hikers and trekkers spend the bulk of their time. However, the team of researchers also found microplastics in samples as high as 8,440 metres above sea level, just below the summit (8,849 m).

Because of the higher number of tourists, the authorities in Nepal have also considered relocating the base camp of Everest over environmental concerns, according to recent media reports.
The rising presence of private operators, evacuation facilities and, most importantly, government push are also motivating the climbers to attempt the fabled conquest.

Adding to the concerns is the rising number of visitors to the base camp, where people stay for months during the climbing season enjoying relatively luxurious accommodations that include hot showers, Wi-Fi and catered meals.
Not just the number of tourists, but the number of casualties on Everest is also increasing. The latest climbing season is set to become one of the deadliest ever. So far, eight people have died and five are missing, according to the Nepal tourism department figures reported by the media.

The number of fatalities this year threatens to surpass the 11 deaths recorded in 2019, when images of massive traffic jams at the summit went viral worldwide.
The deadliest year for climbers in Everest’s history was 2014, when at least 17 locals were killed, mostly in an avalanche, according to data tracked by US-based non-profit organisation The Himalayan Database.

The dark side of Everest won’t, however, dim the spirits of climbers. Come May 29, the Nepal government and its unstoppable community of mountaineers plan to celebrate Everest Day with a parade around the capital of Kathmandu and a ceremony honouring climbers and veteran Sherpa guides.
Climb at a cost

Every year, the Nepal government issues more than 400 climbing permits that form an important source of revenue for the Himalayan nation. In the 2023 spring season alone, so far the Nepal government has received $650 million from issuing over 450 permits for climbing Everest.
The permit costs around $11,000 for non-Nepali citizens. Also, two other fees to the Nepalese government — liaison officer charge and Khumbu icefall charge — raise the costs to approximately $13,000 per individual. Additionally, the equipment needed for the expedition costs around $7,000 to $8,000.

First Published: May 26 2023 | 9:46 PM IST

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