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Slippery Slope

The top of the world is changing rapidly, and skilled mountaineers are paying the ultimate price. Our man on Mount Everest wonders, Is it too dangerous to climb?

Author Tim Rippel

AT 2AM ON OCTOBER 18, I awoke in my tent at base camp high on Mount Ama Dablam, in the shadow of Mount Everest. I boiled water for tea and prepared to make my morning check-in call to Hugo Searle, the leader of my high-altitude expedition company’s Everest Training Climb team, which was camped 4,200 feet higher up the slope, readying to make a summit push. Ama Dablam is a tough 22,349-foot ascent and a perfect place for climbers to get a feel for the rigors of Everest. After a three-day climb, they were ready. What I expected to hear from Searle, a firefighter and 20-year climbing veteran, over the radio was an account of the usual summit-day preparations—boiling water, securing crampons, preparing to tie into the rope. But his reply chilled me.

He and his four colleagues were in a panic, scrambling to pack their tents and get off the mountain as fast as possible. They’d spent a sleepless evening listening to snow and debris crashing around them, knowing that the spot where their tent was perched was the exact site where six climbers were crushed a few years ago when a large piece of the overhanging serac, known as the “jewel box,” broke off the mountain.

But it was too dark and confusing to move. The fatigued team had no choice but to wait until morning.

“The avalanches missed us by only a few feet,” Hugo told me later. We both realized how lucky he was to be alive. As daylight arrived, the exhausted team’s summit bid was called off, and they descended to safety.

I was happy they’d made the correct decision and turned around, but questions started to nag me: Is Ama Dablam safe to climb anymore? How about Everest and the rest of the Himalayas?

Risk has always been part of high-altitude ascents. Once you enter the “death zone” (the altitude at which oxygen is so thin it can no longer sustain life for extended periods), you climb with the knowledge that that grim outcome is possible, even for the most experienced mountaineer. But the deterioration that my training team witnessed on Ama Dablam—the melting of the ice that acts as a glue, literally holding the mountain together—is more than a technical consideration or a fact of life. It’s a symptom of a momentous problem that the mountaineering community is only just beginning to comprehend: climate change.

The world’s tallest mountains are being transformed at an alarming rate. In Switzerland, like on Ama Dablam, the icy soil of the Alps is melting, causing the peaks to come “unglued.” The Matterhorn is now periodically closed to climbers due to summer rockfall hazards. In New Zealand, Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak, has become so dangerous for the same reason that many scheduled climbs in 2007 were canceled. Ice on the most popular route to Cook’s summit, usually up to 10 meters thick, is now wafer-thin, forcing climbers to choose more hazardous routes.

But the degradation of the highest mountains isn’t just a dangerous inconvenience for climbing enthusiasts. In remote places like Nepal, communities rely almost entirely upon expeditions and trekking companies for their livelihood. Two of our Sherpas, Ang Karsung Sherpa and Ang Nima Sherpa, have been with us since 1991. They, and many others, are our family, and Nepal is our second home.

Camp One, dwarfed by
surrounding peaks; a solar-heated dining

Nepali villagers are not only at risk of losing the main source of their income but also their homes and lives. Currently, geologists are monitoring the thickness of a large chunk of ice below Island Peak, or Imja Tse, in eastern Nepal, which functions as a natural dam to a growing body of water. Every year this ice grows thinner. Experts are concerned that if enough ice melts, it will break loose, unleashing a devastating wall of water that could wipe out the Sherpa villages throughout the valley below.

Much has changed in the Himalayas since my wife, Becky, and I started climbing them in 1991. Without the luxury of the internet and satellite phones, our early days were harder in many respects, but this lack of convenience allowed us to build strong ties with our Sherpas and their families. Today there are masses of climbers, many of them novices, who crowd Everest in precipitously greater numbers each year, and bring with them modern problems like noisy generators, human waste and often deadly overcrowding on routes.

We try to be proactive in dealing with the changes that are taking place in the Himalayas. While we’ve always tried to be green climbers, in 2008 we gave our Everest expedition a “Go Green” theme and tried to make our summit effort carbon neutral. We started shopping locally, which cut the packaging and fuel used to contain and transport food from back home. Buying our goods from villagers and farmers also means our food is fresh, and it supports aspects of the local economy that often don’t see money from the expeditions. We found organic, boil-inthe-bag products for the prepackaged meals climbers use on the mountain. These make for easily digestible, nutritious meals and obviate the need for pots and pans, which require extra fuel for cleaning.

We also replaced generators with solar power to light the tents and charge batteries. This keeps our corner of base camp quiet—the way the mountain is meant to be. Skylights in our tent act as heaters during the day; solar powered LED lights are perfect substitutes for kerosene lanterns that spew fumes and are thought to sicken the porters who carry the fuel up the valley in plastic jugs, dripping kerosene on themselves along the way.

For the most part, what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain. Which is why we instituted the new practice we’re most proud of—and the one that gets the most giggles from our competitors—our use of the biodegradable human waste bag, what our clients have dubbed, “the mountain poo bag.” We’re among the first expedition companies to use these, and we’re hoping others will follow our example. In the hostile environment of high altitudes, organic matter simply does not break down as it does elsewhere. This is not only unpleasant, but it also poses a health risk for climbers who must melt snow for drinking and cooking water. These nifty bags break down human waste in 40 days and allow us to easily transport it off the mountain.

These are just a few of the new ideas we’ve incorporated into all of our climbs, and we’ve been thrilled by the response from our clients, who often mention our green practices as one of the deciding factors in choosing to climb with us. If they take some of that awareness home with them after the climb, perhaps we’ll all begin to change our habits.

Meanwhile, though, the transformation of Everest continues apace. After that harrowing night, we no longer go to Ama Dablam. Our Everest training now takes place on Mount Pumori, an equally challenging and beautiful, but somewhat safer, peak.

In the spring of 2009, if fate allows, I’ll once again stand on the peak of Mount Everest, the top of the world. As amazing as that feat may seem, what will be more amazing is if we can all work hard enough to keep our planet safe so that one day my grandchildren can stand on top of the world, too.

Tim Rippel is a high-altitude specialist and president of Peak Freaks Expeditions, based in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada. For more information, visit www.peakfreaks.com.

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