Here today, gone tomorrow

Final Letter from Base Camp about how the climate crisis is irreversibly re-sculpting the Himalaya


Everest Base Camp sits on a glacier that is melting and on the move. It is now 50m lower than in 1953 when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were here on their way to climb the world’s highest mountain for the first time. Climbers have even reported pools of water on rocks on the South Col at 8,000m.

Global warming is heating up the planet, but scientists say the temperature in the Himalaya is rising twice as fast as the global average. The debris-covered Khumbu Glacier has unusual ice sculptures: arches, pinnacles and an enormous black rock sitting on top of an ice column 5m high.

But it is all here today, gone tomorrow. Carved by climate change, the columns melt and arches collapse. Base Camp travels slowly southwards on the moving ice, paths between expedition tents disappear during the night as the glacier grunts and growls in its sleep like a gigantic reptile.

New surprise: a river now runs through camp. It freezes at night and by the time the sun comes up from behind the West Shoulder every morning, it is a fast-flowing gurgling brook.

Read also: Letters from Base Camp 2, Eelum Dixit

One climber said he wept when he saw that the stream actually originates in the Khumbu Icefall. We wonder how long it will take for the icefall to turn into a waterfall. All this is happening right around us, and because of us.

“This glacial stream is getting bigger and bigger every year, its flow is alarming,” says Khim Lal Gautam, a civil servant and surveyor who has climbed Mt Everest twice, the last time in 2019 as part of the team that measured the true height of the summit at 8848.86m.

The overcrowded Base Camp with all its kitchen tents, gas cookers and waste is making things worse, and Gautam says it should be moved beyond the glacier to Kala Pattar. “Imagine how much damage we are doing to the glacier just by being here,” he adds.

Spring climbing on Mt Everest has ended, and it has been a season of new records. Unusually long weather windows and above average temperatures meant that a record 650 people out of the more than 800 permits issued got to the top.

But no matter how many clients and guides summit the mountain, there is one glaring thing that hits everyone at Base Camp as the sun comes up: the mountains are changing, and change is accelerating.

Read also: Letters from Base Camp 1, Eelum Dixit

It is not difficult to calculate the carbon footprint of a large Everest expedition staying for two months at Base Camp. The livelihoods of expedition guides and  porters are important, but we have to ask what those summit photographs cost the planet. What of all those helicopter ferry flights, the LPG cylinders in the kitchen tents?

The translucent seracs on Nuptse glow blue as the sun climbs higher, layers of ice that have accumulated over centuries being drawn down by gravity to the glacier below. Besides the spring thaw that melts winter snow, it is now also this permanent ice that is rapidly turning into water.

Most of the melting is due to global warming, but the ice is melting faster because it is covered in soot and dust particles from pollution brought up by wind from the south. What remains of the Lobuje Glacier is dirty ice.

Many had hoped that the three month climbing season would allow the mountain to recuperate during the rest of the year. But the damage is more and more severe every year, so the Himalaya needs a break.