Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Disappearing Snows of Everest

The Khumbu glacier, at the base of Mount Everest, has shrunk by several miles since Edmund Hillary’s 1953 ascent; photograph by Mark Power, December 1988 (Magnum Photos)

In the fall of 1967 with two French friends I trekked from Kathmandu to the base of Mount Everest. At that time, climbing was forbidden in Nepal and the trekking business was in its infancy. During the thirty-seven days we were on our trek we saw less than a handful of other westerners and the ones we saw were in Nepal on official business. The high point of our trek in every sense was our climb of a small hillock named Kala Patthar. It was a grassy knoll whose summit was at 18,200 feet—about 800 feet above what had been the British base camp for Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s climb of Everest in 1953. From this summit one has a fantastic view of Everest and neighboring peaks, such as Nuptse and Lhotse. In fact, during a reconaissance mission with Hillary and others in 1951, the British climber Eric Shipton used vantage points on the ridge that Kala Patthar is part of to plot the route that Hillary’s team took in their ascent two years later.

What struck me on our trek is how tropical a country Nepal is when the altitude permits. It is at the latitude of Florida. The only reason that there is snow is because of the altitude. In fact, the snow line was around 5,000 meters. Kala Patthar’s altitude in meters is 5,550 and indeed when we left the summit it had begun to snow heavily. What also struck me was the significance of the rivers. The Dudh Kosi (milk) river and the Bhote Kosi drain the glaciers. The Bhote Kosi drains the Khumbu glacier at the base of Everest. They join and become, or became, a very mighty stream that eventually flows into the important rivers on the Indian sub-continent. This glacier water is the principle water supply for India during the non-monsoon periods. That supply is now threatened.

On December 4, the Nepalese cabinet met near the summit of Kala Patthar to call attention to global warming

There are several warning signs. The Himalayan snow line has risen several hundred meters since I visited 1967. The Rongbuk glacier is melting at a rapid rate; the lower parts are beginning to look like a rock pile. Recent monsoons have been unusually intense, causing floods and mudslides in the low lands. It was with these worrying developments in mind that, on December 4, the entire cabinet of the Nepalese government, including Prime Minister Madhav Kumar, was flown to the international air strip at Lukla. This was basically a cow pasture that Hillary had converted into a landing strip, and when I visited it in 1967 it was still just that. When I went back twenty years later it looked more like a proper airport.

The twenty-two-member delegation took some time to adapt to the altitude and had medical checks before they were flown by helicopter to a spot below the summit of Kala Patthar. All of them were provided with oxygen masks. Tables had been set up and their meeting lasted some twenty minutes, during which they issued a declaration urging immediate steps to prevent the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers. They were then flown by helicopter to the Sherpa village of Syangboche, where Kumar read the disturbing speech he had prepared for this week’s UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen to various local dignitaries. They included the important lama Ngegon Lama, who when the prime minister had finished speaking said, “There is no snow where there should be, no rain where there should be. I’m sure it is because of global warming.”

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