Should Nepal move Everest’s base camp in the face of climate crisis? The sherpas don’t think so

Tents belonging to mountaineers at the Everest base camp in the Mount Everest region of Solukhumbu district on 3 May 2021 (AFP via Getty)
Tents belonging to mountaineers at the Everest base camp in the Mount Everest region of Solukhumbu district on 3 May 2021 (AFP via Getty)

Every year, hundreds of climbers visit Mount Everest’s base camp hoping to make it to the summit, helped along by sherpa guides who know the mountain intimately.

But with the climate crisis melting the Himalayan glaciers and overcrowding choking routes up the world’s highest mountain, Nepal is reported to be reviewing the need to shift the base camp elsewhere – a move that is facing stiff opposition from sherpas and mountaineering operators.

BBC News has reported that at a consultation event held recently in Nepal, about 95 per cent of attendees rejected the idea of moving the base camp, an outcome that effectively killed the idea in the short term.

However, tourism ministry officials and members of the Nepal Mountaineering Association said that a feasibility study was still going on.

Taranatha Adhikari, director general of Nepal’s tourism ministry, told the media last year that the department was “preparing for the relocation, and we will soon begin consultation with all stakeholders”.

He said human activity and carbon emissions were accelerating the melting of the ice at base camp, currently located at an altitude of 5,364m on the Khumbu glacier. “We have to protect the ice and snow on the mountain,” he said.

It was previously reported that Nepal was contemplating lowering the Everest base camp to a site 400m further down the mountain. The Nepal government had formed an official committee to look into the relocation, after it was estimated that the current base camp was good for only another three or four years, according to its manager Tshering Tenzing Sherpa, who works with the regional Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee.

But the plan has faced stiff opposition from trek organisers and members of the sherpa community, who call the move “impractical”.

Dawa Steven, chief executive of Asian Trekking and a member of the committee studying the relocation possibilities, was quoted by Explorers Web last year as saying that the “base camp and the Khumbu glacier on which it sits is no more unstable than in the past”.

“There certainly are no cavities under the ice that could swallow up base camp or pose a threat to anyone’s life. Also, no crevasses are suddenly ripping open overnight to devour tents,” he said.

There have been concerns that, with an increasing number of tourists each year, the base camp might expand to less stable parts of the glacier that experts said were more prone to avalanches.

Lukas Furtenbach, the owner of Furtenbach Adventures, told Exped Review that there was no immediate need to move the camp. “I don’t see an immediate problem with the increased melting on the Khumbu glacier, except that the campsites [platforms] need more maintenance work during the season,” he said.

Ang Norbu Sherpa, president of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association, told the BBC: “It has been there for the past 70 years; why should they move it now? And even if they wanted to, where is the study on a viable alternative?”

The Independent has reached out to the Nepal Mountaineering Association for comment.

While Nepal has welcomed an increasing throng of tourists every year, it has paid a price for it, according to Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, an anthropologist who works at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She told an Al Jazeera podcast last year that sherpa climbers said every time they went back, the mountain looked different.

Yangjee Sherpa’s research included human dimensions of climate change and the sherpa diaspora. “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,” she said.

“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... 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.”

Yuba Raj Khatiwada, the director of Nepal’s tourism department, has been quoted as saying that the main reason for the record number of deaths on Everest this year is the changing climate.

“The death rate is quite high this season because of the climate and climate change,” he told Bloomberg last week. “There is no other reason. We are trying our best to reduce the risks, but mountaineering itself is risky.”

He told The Guardian that climate change was “having a big impact in the mountains”. “In the past, we have seen that not all of the areas [over which] modern base camp stretches are safe,” he said. “Some areas are exposed to gravitational mass movement, and avalanches from surrounding terrain.”

One of the sherpas who is against relocation is record-holding climber Kami Rita Sherpa. He told The Third Pole last year: “If you move base camp lower, say to Gorak Shep [at around 5,150m], then it will just be a stopover before the current base camp, as it’s nearly impossible to hike from the moved Base Camp to Camp I.

“And you can’t stay anywhere in between, as there isn’t any suitable spot except the current base camp. It will be just an added camp, not an alternative.”

The 53-year-old veteran mountaineer scaled Mount Everest for a record 28th time on 23 May this year.

He said: “I think if a decision is made [to move base camp], it will shift more climbers to China. It’s already expensive and challenging to climb Everest from the Nepal side. The Tibet side in China has a lot of facilities, and it’s easier to climb from the northern side rather than the southern one.

“China has electricity and roads up to the base camp. You can go up to 6,500m on yaks. Why would someone come to the Nepal side if you prolong their stay without reason [by creating a longer route]?”

A 2018 study by Leeds University researchers found that the glacier close to base camp was thinning at a rate of one metre per year, a decline that threatens not only the sherpas’ livelihoods, but also their sense of personal connection to the mountain.

Yangjee Sherpa laments that “now with the 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.”