a report for the United Nations Environment Programme
by Roger Payne
Mountaineering is a sport for people who enjoy the challenge and freedom of climbing and who care about the environment. This commitment to protect the mountain environment is why the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UIAA joined forces for World Environment Day 2002 and despatched an expedition to the Himalayas to chronicle the environmental health of one of the world’s most famous mountain ranges
and make a film of the trip.
The aim for the expedition of seven members was to record observations of environmental change and climb Island Peak, which is 6,189 metres (20,305 feet) above sea level and a neighbour of Everest in the Khumbu Region of Nepal. The expedition gathered startling evidence of the impacts of climate change; the snow and ice on the surface of the glacier from where Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay set out to make the first ascent of Everest nearly 50 years ago has retreated by around five kilometres up the mountain.
Other evidence of climate change included huge scars gouged in the landscape by sudden, glacial floods from the lakes swollen by melting glaciers. However, perhaps the biggest indicator of climate change was the glacial lake at the foot of Island Peak. Thirty years ago there was a rubble strewn glacier, but as the climate has become warmer the glacier has melted and been replaced by a lake over 100m deep, 500m wide and 2km long. What is very worrying is that the wall of rubble that contains this lake could fail and cause a life threatening flood to the villages downstream. This lake is just one of 20 glacial lakes in Nepal identified by experts as being in danger of bursting its banks.
On the trek to the mountain the expedition visited the Thyangboche monastery, home to 60 Buddhist monks. Here they met the Lama Rinpoche who has lived there for over 30 years and witnessed two big floods from glacial lakes. The Lama said that in recent years the climate had grown noticeably warmer and floods were now more common. The expedition experienced very poor weather in what was described as the wettest spring season in Nepal for at least a decade.
The warmer and wetter weather, the shrinking glaciers and the growing glacial lakes can only lead to the conclusion that global warming is emerging as the biggest threat to mountain environments. We may think of mountains as being permanent and unchanging, but they are as vulnerable to climate change as forests and oceans.
The expedition reached the summit of Island Peak on 27 May and made a film of the journey. But mountains are not just for sport, they are the world’s vital water towers, and floods and landslides alternating with droughts cause chaos downstream. In the extreme environment of high mountains the evidence of climate change is clear to see. But the solution to global warming is not to be found in the mountains; so we must all think how we can act to protect the mountains and the flow of clean water essential to our everyday lives.
Julie-Ann Clyma (New Zealand)
Laurent Derioz (France)
Sherpa Pemba Gelten (Nepal)
Richard Heap (UK)
Ian McNaught-Davis (UK)
Loreto McNaught-Davis (Chile)
Roger Payne (UK)
With many thanks to:
Nepal Mountaineering Association www.nma.com.np
Himalaya Expeditions www.himexnepal.com
Slackjaw Films www.slackjaw.co.uk
Extracts from the Expedition Diary:
17 May 2002, Phakdingma (2,600 m) - Lama Sarky explains to the UNEP expedition about the damage caused by a glacial lake outburst flood.
The expedition stayed overnight in Phakdingma close to the banks of the Dudh Kosi which in 1986 was affected by a major glacial lake flood. The flood started from the foot of Ama Dablam, a peak over 20 km away in the upper Khumbu Valley, and sent a wall of water down the valley destroying all the bridges in its wake. Like many of the Sherpa people the expedition has met Lama Sarky spoke of the changes to the amount of snow and ice in the Khumbu region.
The expedition entered the Sagamatha National Park at Monjo and in mist and cloud made the steep climb to the Sherpa capital Namche Bazaar at 3,400 m.
Land telephone lines to Namche Bazaar have been cut apparently by the insurgent Maoists; and because of the political situation in Nepal there is an Army check point at the entrance to Namche Bazaar and a 7 pm curfew.
18 May, Namche Bazaar (3,400 m) - Unseasonal warm and wet weather doesn't dampen expedition spirit.
Because it is essential to be well acclimatized before going to the higher camps and summits further up the Khumbu Valley the expedition spent the day in the Sherpa capital for acclimatization and rest. However, uncharacteristically for the time of year the expedition has experienced rain for 3 days which has been almost constant for over 24 hours. Whereas normally mid May is the best period of weather for climbing in the pre-monsoon period.
Ian McNaught-Davis said: "I have never experienced weather conditions like this in the Himalayas before. Let's hope that this bad weather hasn't put too much snow down on the high peaks."
Roger Payne said: "The last time I climbed in this area was in 1989 and for over a month we had clear and cold sunny weather and excellent snow conditions. Increasingly it seems to be the case that what was once 'normal' weather and conditions has become rare and now almost exceptional. As a personal observation from someone who goes to high altitude mountains every year it seems that global warming has increased the frequency of exceptional weather events and has changed what were once reliable weather patterns."
19 May: Bad weather continues as UNEP expedition arrives at Tengpoche
After 36 hours of continuous rain the expedition left Namche Bazar in cloud. Throughout the steady climb to Tengpoche at 3845m there was only one brief glimpse of a high summit. On the route the expedition met climbers descending who had experienced weeks of poor weather and serious avalanche conditions in what is being described as the wettest pre-monsoon season for over a decade. One team had 3 loads of food swept away in an avalanche while they were en-route to Island Peak. Ascending into cloud again the UNEP expedition arrived at Tengpoche with one member (Loreto McNaught-Davis) suffering from mountain sickness. The team therefore decided to remain in Tengpoche the next day for acclimatization rather than run the risk of acute mountain sickness.
20 May: Clear day reveals summits; Llama recalls floods
After 4 days of continuous poor weather the expedition had its first views of the peaks in the Khumbu valley, including Everest. However, despite the clear skies the weather is far from ideal because of strong winds at high altitude. While spending an acclimatization day at Tengpoche the UNEP expedition were privileged to be given a rare tour of the Tengpoche monastery and an audience with the Tengpoche Llama. When asked about changes to the environment the Llama recalled the glacial lake outburst floods he had witnessed from Langmoje in the Thame valley in 1986 and from Ama Dablam in the Imja valley in 1987. The Llama also said that the weather at Tengpoche monastery has been getting warmer and wetter in the past 5 years in particular. The Llama had no comment or advice on World Environment Day and protection of the environment. But he did comment that in over 30 years at the Tengpoche monastery he had noticed that people have become less relaxed and more fearful with less time for culture and family.
21 May: Passing the scars of glacial lake outburst floods
During the extra day for acclimatization at Tengpoche monastery two members of the team (Ian McNaught-Davis and Roger Payne) suffered acute food poisoning. Despite this the expedition set off for Dingpoche. The gradual ascent from the woods of Tengpoche monastery to the open tundra of Dingpoche traverses around the western slopes of Ama Dablam where the scars of the 1987 glacial lake outburst floods are very evident. Despite the illness affecting the team, good progress was made to Dingpoche and the first tantalizing glimpse of the summit of Island Peak.
22 May: Towards moraine dams
A cloudless sky dawned for the relatively short journey but important acclimatization staging post of Chukhung at 4753m. Having left the dense forests and rhododendron behind at 4000m, the journey was over open grassland and scrub leading to the foot of the huge moraines at the foot of the glaciers sweeping around Island Peak and descending from Everest's neighbouring mountain, Lhotse, which is the world's 4th highest mountain at 8501m. Looking up at the moraines above Chukhung it is all too easy to imagine the devastation of an outburst flood from the Imja glacial lake which the team will see tomorrow after establishing base camp at around 5100m on the flanks of Island Peak.
23 May: Destination Base Camp
Another cloudless day and relatively short climb to the terminal moraines of the Imja Glacier and the site of base camp for the expedition. Even with the careful acclimatization stages, arriving at a fraction below 5000m is demanding, especially for Richard and Laurent who are filming the journey. Base camp is a small platform sheltered by the lateral moraine of the Lhotse glacier and above the stream issuing from the terminal moraine of the Imja glacier. If an outburst flood occurred to the Imja glacial lake, this would almost certainly be the exact spot where the moraine wall would burst.
24 May: First view of Imja Glacial Lake
After a journey of 9 days through the Khumbu valley, the expedition has achieved its primary purpose of visiting the Imja glacial lake which has formed in less than 30 years; is now some 100m deep, over 1.5km long and identified by UNEP and ICIMOD as being in danger of an outburst flood. At first sight the Imja glacial lake looks unremarkable; just another feature in very high mountain glaciated terrain. But the experts' reports of accelerated growth and instability, and the vast scale of the mountain walls and glaciers feeding the lake, make the risk to the densely populated valley below simply frightening. The team members can only hope that the expedition's contribution to raise awareness about this environmental threat will assist UNEP in its urgent work to ensure that remedial action is taken to reduce the threat of glacial lake outburst floods and that the causes of global warming are properly addressed. The next objective of the expedition is to move to a high camp before attempting the 6189m summit of Island Peak. But with bad weather having returned and snowfall at base camp, this may be delayed.
25 May: Another view of the Imja glacial lake
Overnight snow and poor visibility prevented the ascent to high camp for a summit bid on Island Peak. The day was used to ascend to 5100m on the true left bank of the Imja glacier for a different view of the glacial lake. The new perspective gave a much better impression of the ice wall of the Imja glacier feeding the lake.
26 May: Destination high camp
Despite further overnight snow and cloudy weather, the team decided to start the summit bid. Because of the less than ideal conditions it was decided that Julie-Ann and Roger with the film team of Richard and Laurent would ascend to a high camp at 5650m, while Mac and Loreto accompanied them part way and returned to base camp. Weather conditions remain unstable but from the new high point only a short window of good weather will be needed for the summit attempt.
27 May: Summit day
Despite overnight snow the expedition arose at 2am to make the summit attempt. In cloud and darkness the expedition set off at 3.45am. Progress was hampered by fresh snow covering the rocky buttress and upper glacial slopes. An ice couloir of around 150m then led to the summit ridge which has become more difficult in recent years. The team of Julie-Ann, Roger, Richard, Laurent and Pemba had to make their way around overhanging ice obstacles to reach the final summit pyramid. The team reached the summit at 10.30am. Despite one brief clearing, the weather remained cloudy throughout the ascent and descent. The descent to high camp was completed safely. The team then continued the descent, and were met by Mac and Loreto, and everyone was back at base camp by 4pm. Overnight heavy snow fell, with around 6 inches at base camp and high avalanche conditions on the peaks. On the morning of the 28 May the team started the walkout one day ahead of schedule. The target was to reach Kathmandu and report to UNEP in time for World Environment Day.