Hundreds of climbers arrive at the Everest base camp on the Khumbu glacier every year, but higher temperatures are melting the ice in the Himalayan region. Local guides who are members of the Sherpa community help visitors reach the 8.8km peak, but Nepal’s government is considering moving the camp for safety reasons. So, how dangerous is climate change making the journey to the top of the world’s highest mountain?
In this episode:
- Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, anthropologist
- Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, professional mountain guide
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It’s been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions. Our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: My daughter and her daughter in the future will not be able to experience the mountain the way I did.
Halla Mohieddeen: That’s Dr Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: she’s talking about the Himalayan peaks in Nepal. The mountain region where Mount Everest is located.
Newsreel: Mount Everest remains the ultimate achievement for many mountain climbers and the number of people who try it just keeps growing.
Halla Mohieddeen: Every year, hundreds of intrepid mountaineers arrive at base camp, ready to attempt to reach its mighty 8.8km (5.49 miles) summit. But things are changing rapidly.
Newsreel: Scientists are warning the glacier is melting at an alarming rate.
Halla Mohieddeen: Higher temperatures caused by climate changes means those attempts are becoming increasingly dangerous for climbers and the guides.
Newsreel: Ice that took 2,000 years to form is melting away on Mount Everest.
Halla Mohieddeen: While there is still time to consider options on how best to cope with climate change for the people who live on the roof of the world, the consequences are real.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: So on the one hand, people would like to see more tourists. However, I think people are also realising that there is a cost to it – there is a price to pay.
Halla Mohieddeen: And so we are asking how those who know the mountains best are impacted by, and adapting to, climate change.
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Halla Mohieddeen: I’m Halla Mohieddeen. And this is The Take.
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Halla Mohieddeen: Dr Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is an anthropologist from Nepal.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: I work in Canada at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Halla Mohieddeen: She has been studying how the Himalayan people are affected by rising temperatures.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: My research areas are climate change and indigeneity in Nepal and the Himalayas.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now we know climate change is causing the glaciers in the Himalaya region to melt. Can you tell us about that? How urgent is the threat?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: If you had asked me a decade ago, when I started my research, I would not feel so much urgency. But it’s happening right in front of our eyes and because we have cameras to record everything and transmit across the world within seconds, and live, I think it’s just hard to miss and it’s as urgent as it can get. So it’s a matter of whether we want to see it or not at this point.
Halla Mohieddeen: Let’s look at the effects that climate change is having on the mountaineering community and the mountaineering industry. Now, a lot of the local population in the Himalayas are heavily involved in the mountaineering industry and they need the mountains, the glaciers I imagine, to, to remain intact. What are they telling you about the changes that they’re seeing and how it’s affecting them?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: So the mountaineering community are noticing a lot of, um, changes on the mountains. And I’m speaking of the Sherpa climbers who go there every season, that is twice a year, and every season they’re going up and down the mountain several times. So the climbers who are working on the mountains are people who know the mountain very intimately. They’re saying that every time they go back the mountain looks different. So where there used to be ice last year, there’s water, where there used to be hard snow, now it’s soft snow. The number of people trying to go to the summit has not decreased. So what that means is you see more and more crowd and with crowd, you also see more and more accidents.
Halla Mohieddeen: Let’s talk about some of the impacts of climate change that we’re already starting to see around Everest. There’s been the reduced snowfall, ice melting and flooding, but it’s having a wider impact than that isn’t it?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: It is. So, it’s not just the melting of snow and ice. It’s much more than that. When snow and ice melts, we are losing the mountains, we’re losing so much of connection to the mountains, the intergenerational connections to the mountains. And people have very long intergenerational intimate connection to the mountains. But now with melting of glaciers and melting of ice and snow, our children are not going to experience the mountain the way I did, the way my parents and my grandparents did. And that kind of realisation is quite saddening.
Halla Mohieddeen: What do you mean by that your connection with the mountain?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: So, for us, all of the mountains are sacred spaces. And when I think about my village, the first image that comes to my mind is the mountain um, Yul Lha, which is the protector deity of our region. And when I think about, Khumibla or Khumbi Yul Lha, I immediately feel a sense of home, feel a sense of belonging, feel a sense of being grounded.
Halla Mohieddeen: This cultural and spiritual connection, the Sherpa people have with the mountains is something they consider sacred.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: I think sometimes when we get so focused on climate change and go after climate change, I think we miss this larger questions of survival, larger questions of sustainability and larger questions of just living and being.
Halla Mohieddeen: For decades, mountaineers have climbed Mount Everest with the help of guides. Most of whom are ethnically Sherpa – they know the mountains best. Dawa Yangzon Sherpa has been working as a mountain guide for 10 years. She’s part of the Sherpa community.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: I am from Rolwaling Valley, which is west from the Everest region. And I grew up surrounding mountains at the elevation of 4200 metres (13,779.53 ft).
Halla Mohieddeen: Dawa says that some people have misconceptions about her community.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: When we go abroad like different countries and we said I’m Sherpa, then we got a lot of questions that do you climb Everest, and how much you carry on Everest.
Halla Mohieddeen: “Sherpa” means “people of the east” in the Tibetan language. And it’s the name of an ethnic group that migrated to Nepal from Tibet. Many of them settled around the Himalayan region. They have their own cultural traditions, language, foods, and attire.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: Sherpa is my family name. We are very adapted at high altitude, that’s why most of the Sherpa people are climbers. But it doesn’t mean that Sherpa means we climbed.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dawa first summited Everest in 2012 and has helped other climbers ever since. She says the trickiest part of the route is the Khumbu icefall, which is around 5,500 metres (18044.62 ft) above sea level. And it’s where she has noticed worrying signs of climate change.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: Khumbu icefall is considered one of the dangerous part of climbing Everest, especially it’s danger for Sherpa or a climber worker guides who have to do couple of multiple times up and down. Khumbu icefall is, uh, is like a river of ice the size of cars, houses, or big blocks. We have to climb through it and walking through the icefall, we can see a lot of towers of ice above us.
Halla Mohieddeen: In fact, it’s so tricky that there are guides who specialise in this part of the trek.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: There’s a team of sherpa called icefall doctors. They go and find the safer route. They fix the rope and bridge the crevasses so that climber can walk.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: Every two to three days, it keep falling off the ice and also again, they had to go and fix the routes.
Halla Mohieddeen: The daytime sun makes it harder to cross, so the guides try to do that part of the journey overnight.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: Most of the climb, you start at 2am because the temperature is very cold. All of us wanted to cross that point before sunrise because it’ll be much more safer to cross before at least 5am or 6am so because cold temperature kind of holds the glacier. It’ll be a little easier in dark, because you can’t see what’s above you and sometimes, it’s better and also we don’t know when it’s gonna fall out.
Halla Mohieddeen: And Dawa has seen it fall. She described it as an avalanche of giant blocks of ice, but that’s not the only unusual thing on the mountain today. Dawa witnessed the melting snow on her latest trip, another sign of climate change.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: The changes I can see every day was a lot of loose rock and the icefall doctors keep maintaining the route every day.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: And also even one time, we were walking after the summit, we were coming back and we can see some running water around ice falls and it’s melting very fast. And the melting processing and the route changing was, uh, very much quicker than what I saw in 10 years ago. It was, like a running water, kind of like river flowing down from the camp between icefall. So that was like big change. But most changing is you can see a lot of melting earlier. Even now I can see like, those things already little earlier than usual.
Halla Mohieddeen: Melting ice means the guides constantly have to find new, safer route up the mountain. And while the mountaineering industry does provide a huge income for the country, it’s the environment that’s paying the price – with hundreds of mountaineers from all over the world gathering for two annual climbing season.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: During the climbing season, especially in spring season, there will be lot of people there, uh, not only climbers, but more porters, um, kitchen helpers, cooks and staffs. So there will be big town at base camp.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: And definitely there is a lot of human impact on the glacier, which is, is what we cannot control.
Newsreel: The mountains have been littered with plastic bottles, discarded tents, oxygen, canisters ropes, shovels.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: We use the barrel for the human waste and the there’s a porters who carry down and dump the human waste. So the human waste are very controlled at base camp but is some, some something we can’t control our like pee and all this kerosene and stuff.
Halla Mohieddeen: Human activity and climate change have prompted Nepal to look for options on how best to manage the impact. One option is moving base camp. We asked the tourism ministry to comment on this, but we’ve not had a response so far. Even Sherpas working on the mountain don’t have the solution.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: I think it’ll be impossible, but, either way, would be good for the climate. I think it would be good to move the base camp, but for the climbing Everest and for the climbers, it may be a little difficult.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dawa says moving base camp would make the actual climb to the top much longer and harder. But whatever decision is made, climate change is already making the mountain much more dangerous to summit. And these changing circumstances are already having an impact on the next generation of Sherpa.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: A lot of Sherpa kids are getting higher educations going abroad. They’re studying, they are like doctors, businessmen or different thing level, but I don’t think they will come back.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dawa thinks older generations never thought they had a choice other than to work in the industry.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: As an old generation they never, they didn’t know the school and they didn’t have education. So, they have choose this work, but now the kids have education so they got lot of more opportunities and lot of option of job. They don’t have to climb unless they wanted to climb. Climate change kind of impacting younger generation. There’s few younger generation coming back to mountain but, they care about environment. Most of the Sherpa community who are already climbers doesn’t want their kids to become mountaineer but they are happy to if they want to climb as a passion.
Halla Mohieddeen: And this has also prompted Dawa to think about the choices her own children will have to make about their future.
Dawa Yangzon Sherpa: For my kids, if they love mountain and they wanted to do this, it’s their choice, but I don’t want them to take this as a career. It’s very risky job and since I’ve been doing this career for living I have survived few times from the nearly death. I chose this job since I was very young I didn’t, choose because I loved this, I didn’t have a lot of option when I was younger, so, but now I think things are changing.
Halla Mohieddeen: But it’s not only the youth who have to look for ways to adapt. We’ll be back with more on that after this quick break.
Halla Mohieddeen: So Dr Pasang, we know that the Nepalese government is considering a number of options about how best to cope with climate change and one of them is relocating the base camp. Do you think this is a viable solution?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: I definitely think it’s one solution. If the base camp where people camp, uh, currently, if that’s not safe, I think it just only makes sense to find, uh, another location that is safer but because Everest is crowded now, and there are a lot of people, a lot of, groups coming in, there is the need of some kind of management.
Newsreel: A staggering amount of human excrement is also being left on the mountain slopes.
Newsreel: Four thousand litres (1,056.69gal) of urine is dumped at base camp every day. And because climbers spend weeks on the peak adjusting to the altitude, they generate several kilos of waste.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: Every year on Everest, with every single person, there is a kind of bio waste that happens, and that affects the place, the ice and the snow, and that’s just a very obvious thing in my opinion. However, from a local perspective, when we are thinking of moving base camps, I think what should be paid attention to is, the sacredness of the site, it’s not just about finding an empty space, but finding a space that is culturally OK to be used. And when I say culturally OK, I’m talking about the spiritual aspect of it, but I’m also talking about the protection of local lives in those areas. And if the Nepali government or anyone wants to use any open space, in the mountain areas, they definitely have to consult the local people who have been using this area who have been living in this area as their homeland for generations and who, in my opinion knows best how to guard and protect the lives in these areas.
Halla Mohieddeen: Climate change is here and it’s going to continue at pace. Given this reality, do you envisage a scenario where it becomes too unsafe for climbers to attempt to summit Mount Everest. Is this something that you see as a possibility?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: The way I see it, I think climbing was never a safe thing to do and I say that with a lot of humility, because every season we see people dying. every season Sherpas die, like every single season, every single spring. So that’s just the truth. But the question then is why do people still go on the mountain and why still, uh, Sherpa risk their lives, risk, not only their lives, but their family’s lives, their children’s lives because if the person, if the father or their mother loses their life, the breadwinner is gone. With climate change, it adds additional layer of challenge, additional layer of safety issue and, and the base camp moving is just on is just one example. It’s just one indication of how unsafe it is and it can be.
Halla Mohieddeen: The safety concerns are not limited to base camp. Unpredictable weather patterns means that sometimes not safe for flights to run. And that means a lull in the number of tourists arriving.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: So, one of the ways weather and climate change directly impacts livelihood of Sherpa in the Khumbu region today is how many times the flights get cancelled to Lukla from Kathmandu because that’s one of the ways, if you’re not walking, that’s the only way to get to the Everest region to Khumbu region. And if there are no flights, that means there are no tourists. And if there are no tourists, that means there is no income for the people in the region.
Halla Mohieddeen: But how are flights connected to cancellation of flights? How’s that connected to climate change?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: So the general idea is that in the spring and autumn, these are the two, tourist seasons. And so April, May, September, October, November. So these are the best times to visit the Himalayas. What we are seeing is that in the past April, May and October, November, the weather patterns were predictable, and people could predict that the weather would clear up and flights would go.
Halla Mohieddeen: OK.
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: However, now the weather changes unpredictably within hours.
Halla Mohieddeen: What do you think Nepal can do on a local scale to try and adapt to these changes?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: I think it is relevant to talk about limiting the number of, of tourists, number of mountaineers, but I think it’s quite sensitive and it has to be done with a hundred percent local consultation. And I’m not talking about just informing the local communities, when everything is over, but I think the local people who actually live in the region should be consulted as equal partners when making these kinds of decisions.
Halla Mohieddeen: What message do you want the international community to hear? And what action would you like to see happening?
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: I would like the world community to see the Sherpas who live in this region, who call this region. And to see from their perspective, how their home is changing. And with that recognise how there is grief, how there is sadness, but there is also excitement about the future excitement about the possibilities of what we can do together and excitement for the future generation.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Ruby Zaman with Chloe K. Li, Amy Walters, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer, Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is our head of audio. With special thanks to Rizza Alee who provided the audio from Everest heard in this episode. We’ll be back on Wednesday.
This episode was produced by Ruby Zaman with our host, Halla Mohieddeen. Chloe K Li fact-checked this episode. Our production team includes Chloe K Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, and Ruby Zaman. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.