For the past week, news headlines have been fraught with Mount Everest death tolls. There have been 11 fatalities so far this season according to CNN and other news outlets, many of which are blaming overcrowding as the main source of danger on the mountain. This season on Everest has been especially deadly, though there have been fewer fatalities than the 2014 season, in which bottlenecked crowds were not the root of such devastation. As Sherpa were fixing ropes to the South Col for fee-paying climbers in 2014, a massive serac broke loose above the Khumbu Icefall triggering a rock and ice avalanche that took the lives of 16 people. This is an event that Alpenglow mountain guide and Protect Our Winters ambassador Adrian Ballinger fears may become more commonplace as global temperatures continue to rise.
Geological locations where bedrock is held together by ice—as is the case on many high altitude peaks—are more prone to rock and ice fall as that ice begins to melt, said Ballinger. The glaciers of Everest are melting and receding at an exponential rate according to the study Glacial Status in Nepal and Decadal Change from 1980 to 2010. This glacial recession is exposing bodies long since consumed by the ice and snow of mountain, and threatening new fatalities with unstable conditions. Ballinger has been on the mountain for the last 12 years, and has witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand.
“The big differences I’ve noticed are obviously glacial recession,” Ballinger said. “The second big change is how much less stable the [Khumbu] Icefall seems to be.”
In 2015, after the 2014 tragedy on Everest, Ballinger decided to move his operations to the relatively safer north side of the mountain, to avoid the Khumbu Icefall on the south side. However, Ballinger remains in the minority. He is joined by roughly only 30-percent of climbers who attempted to summit Everest this year on the northern, Chinese side of the mountain, while the other 70-percent remained on the southern, Nepali side. The reason, according to Ballinger, is logistical—it is more expensive and more difficult to obtain permits to summit via the Chinese route, hence why most guides still opt for the southern route, subjecting their clients and porters to the ever-more unstable and unpredictable Khumbu Icefall.
“There has been one Sherpa fatality on the north side in the last decade,” said Ballinger. “And there’s been close to 30 on the south side. Part of that is because of the larger number [of climbers on the south side], but the percentage isn’t even close—it’s not even close.”
In addition to the foreboding casualty statistics, empirical evidence on weather trends and glacial mass in the Himalaya also lends insight into how climate change is affecting these critical environments. According to the Glacial Status in Nepal study, average mean temperatures in the Khumbu sub basin rose 0.09°C each year between 1998 and 2008. As a result of these increasing temperatures, the total glacial area in Nepal has decreased by 24% between 1977 and 2010.
The authors wrote: “The results show clearly that the glacier area in the Nepal Himalayas is decreasing at a rapid rate, and that individual glaciers are shrinking, retreating, and fragmenting. The changes appear to be linked primarily with a marked rise in average temperature associated with global climate change.”
The changing landscape on Everest is revealing the bodies of long-lost mountaineers. “As the glaciers move, recede, and melt, new bodies or sometimes body parts are being found,” Ballinger said. “As it moves and melts, bodies that were much higher on the mountain, lost in the Khumbu Icefall or lost in the Western Cwm are now coming out at the bottom of the glacier close to base camp.”
Ballinger explains that because of the cold temperatures and high altitude of Mount Everest, no bacteria can grow and break down the corpses of these lost climbers—they have been essentially mummified, frozen in time. The bodies are typically moved off of the main routes by Sherpa and guides so they do not become a hazard for climbers. Nonetheless, they serve as a grave reminder of the mountain’s potential for tragedy, and how human presence has left its mark on the natural world, leaving behind a literal trail of bodies.
“Places like Mount Everest are just really stark examples of things that might be harder to see in some other places,” said Ballinger. “So, they provide good opportunities to talk about climate change and glacial recession and melting and things that are going to have huge global consequences.”
The implications of global climate change are more far-reaching and impactful than making a mountain more dangerous for climbers. For instance, according to the same study referenced above, in Nepal, glaciers help to regulate climate and keep temperatures lower. As the glaciers disappear, it creates a positive feedback loop, increasing temperatures at an exponential rate. Additionally, much of the region obtains its freshwater from glacial melt. In the short-term glacial melt would increase, but in the long-term, as the glaciers deplete, the region may face a water shortage crisis. These are just microcosmic examples of the innumerable effects climate change could create and is creating on a global scale.
“We are a big, diverse community. We’re not going to agree on all of the solutions, but hopefully we can agree on the problem and the fact that we need to discuss and debate and get active in it,” said Ballinger of the climbing community. “To make real, meaningful change worldwide, our best tool [is] to change US policy on climate change. We need big picture changes like a carbon tax, massive government investment in clean energy sources, and in transportation that works in America. Getting involved on a local level or a national level and using your voice, and using our voice as a climbing community, is very important.”