“A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top”, stated Sir Edmund Hillary about his final climb
–the first ever by the mankind-to the top of the Everest, a feat accomplished exactly 61 years back on 29th of May 1953.
Come 2014, the snow on the ascent is no longer as firm as it was in 1953. Global warming due to emission of green house gases like carbon dioxide is causing ‘grand melt’ all over the globe from Antarctica to Arctic to Andes to Alps mountains. Himalaya is no exception. Worst, this thaw is accelerating due to the deposition of black carbon, which are micro particles emitted in the atmosphere due to incomplete combustion of fossil fuel like diesel and biomass used for cooking and numerous other applications. Such black carbon particles that form the ‘brown clouds’ can travel amazing distances across the globe along with the atmospheric currents and can affect even the unsoiled regions like Himalaya. Travelling from the atmosphere above the rich diesel consuming and fuel burning countries, these clouds deposit black carbon on the snow making it dirty. Such dirty snows absorb more sunlight from the Sun and the melt accelerates at surprising speed.
Proceedings of National Academy of Science in its 2013 paper stated that glaciers in the Alps began to retreat abruptly in the mid-19th century, when they should have instead advanced as per the reconstruct of the temperatures at that time. It has long been a paradox to glaciology and climatology. The reason is found to be industrial black carbon deposition on snow in Alps began to increase markedly in the mid-19th century and snowmelt were of sufficient magnitude to cause this scale of glacier retreat.
Ever since successful climb by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, more than 4000 climbers have now scaled 29,028 ft. summit of Everest. Climbing the Everest has become more of a recreational tourism rather than spirited adventurous exploration. The poor Sherpa who take the role of ‘shadow climbers’ presently service nearly 800 climbers every year from rich world who have money power. Sherpa community, natives of Himalaya, are ‘Ice Specialists’ and are high altitude porters engaged in carrying ropes and ladders to cross crevasses, carving steps and building bridges to make the climb of rich easy. They work a full season in the summer for 4-5 months for total income of USD 2000-5000 per Sherpa as against a rich climber who spend about USD 75000-100,000 for each climb.
Risks encountered by the Sherpa are increasing due to accelerated melting of infamous Khumbu fall, which is at the head of Khumbu glacier-a slow moving mass of ice on Everest’s slope at average height of around 6000 meters. It has to be traversed from Base Camp to Camp I. Khumbu Glacier is now moving faster due to underneath melt and posing life threatening risk for the Sherpa who have to frequent between base camp and camp I, carrying heavy loads of equipment and work on the Khumbu fall to fix ladders and ropes. The job of rich climbers is made easy by services provided by Sherpa.
The Khumbu glacier moves slowly but the large crevasses open their fatal jaws with little warning. The huge towers of ice now found at the icefall have been known to collapse unexpectedly. Blocks of ice of the size of SUVs and even helicopters roll down out of blue. It is now estimated that the glacier is advancing faster-about 1 meter per day -down the mountain and dislocating the ‘firm ‘ ice that Edmund Hillary found in 1953.
I recall my meeting with Bhutan’s former Prime Minister some time back in Thimpu when I was there for the workshop organized by United Nations Environment Programme on Ozone Layer Protection. Pointing to the developed country representative he asked with naïve face, “ What wrong we have done for which you are punishing us by causing the climate change through your emissions of carbon dioxide?” Later he told me that most of the Bhutanese farmers were facing the risk of flash floods- due to the melting of the frozen lakes-that would wash away the habitat and farms. “ And the farmers from developed countries enjoy driving SUVs causing flash floods of the CO2 emissions, ” he concluded sarcastically.
Around 6:30 am local time on the morning of 18 April 2014, sixteen Nepalese Sherpa ‘shadow climbers’ –were killed on the Khumbu Icefall. The climbers were preparing the route mostly for the novice rich climbers through the dangerous icefall for the spring climbing season when the avalanche engulfed them. Nine others were also injured with blunt trauma injuries. They were providing services for the rich world that are seeking romantic recreation at high altitudes by challenging the poor Sherpa directly and making their task life-threatening indirectly by causing climate change.
There is a clear divide between those who cause the damage and those suffer the consequences. Like disposable consumer products the rich climbers are treating poor Sherpa as disposable men. When Sherpa revolted after the tragedy in April mainly for the pittance compensation offered to them, all the rich climbers quietly wrapped their equipment and left for their homes-to continue their emissions like business-as-usual. This ‘state of being apart’ has created ‘climate apartheid’.
The least but the most fitting action Western climbers should take is to declare higher compensation for Sherpa, show them dignity and take pledge to reduce black carbon emissions which will provide early and immediate benefit in delaying the melt of glaciers and reducing the risks of climbing. Of course such efforts should be complimentary to reducing the emission of carbon dioxide.
A Nepali teacher in the school in Kumjung about 4000 meter above mean sea level in Sagarmatha National Park run by Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation spoke to me when I visited the school, “Sir Edmund Hillary when reached the Everest summit took photo of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay standing on the summit but did not agree for Tenzing to take his own photo. Though Hillary reached the summit first, he always said that it was collective effort. It is Tenzing who said much later that Hillary reached the summit first’. He not only cared for Sherpa’s dignity but later worked relentlessly and passionately for their well being through his foundation”.
Such exceptional demonstration has not stopped today’s climate apartheid. It is accelerating. Like melt of glacier. END
Rajendra Shende, Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre and former director UNEP