Climate Change Hits the Himalayas

Author with Wang Yongfeng_Kathmandu_DEC2015Jarred by the 13 or more Sherpa deaths in Mt. Everest avalanches in April 2014 and the over 40 trekkers perishing during the following October, I made a pilgrimage to the Annapurnas in central Nepal to ask why. Why this sudden change, why so many family catastrophes in one year?

Sherpa is a family name in eastern Nepal. The 2014 spring deaths rocked their closed community. They honor their reputation as guides through the mountains. Guide deaths affect their livelihood as well.

The autumn’s disaster resulted from a sudden snowstorm in the country’s Annapurna region that trapped hundreds of trekkers at altitudes of more than 5,000 meters (16,500 feet). Some blamed the severe weather on Cyclone HudHud. Some Nepalese officials reprimanded the practice of budget tourists not hiring guides to cross the mountain pass.

Yes, climbers, trekkers, and guides have died in the Himalayas in the past but never so many in one year.

My short trek up slick slate stairs and rugged rock trails created “Michael Jackson legs” (quipped my guide Lal). We ascended to only 4,500 feet through the rugged Gurung area, a 90-minute ride from Pokhara. Watching the sunrise on the Annapurnas—white to orange to a red glow—the mountains are blameless.

By chance, my return flight out of Kathmandu through China to San Francisco was canceled. Horrendous weather over the Himalayas. Rumor had it that Kathmandu Airport closed overnight. My AirChina flight had actually taken off from Chengdu in Western China (panda land), but turned around after reports of difficult weather. Through this happenstance I met Wang Yongfeng, a celebrated mountaineer who has climbed the Seven Summits, the seven highest peaks on the seven continents.

Wang, vice president of the Chinese Mountaineering Association and a mountaineering team captain, and his colleagues had just attended a meeting in Kathmandu of four Himalayan countries: Nepal, China, India, and Pakistan. They shared data about the snow destabilization due to climate change (global warming). A team colleague said their research shows the snow is not as solid as previously, and as a result avalanches have increased in frequency. The attendees agreed to share more climate information to further analyze the year’s trekking disasters.

My own meeting with the Annapurnas provides one science fact: before walking out the door in Nepal, check snow conditions.

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