"The mountain is turning black"

70 years ago the conquest of Everest, today the roof of the world is increasingly fragile

Rising temperatures melt glaciers as the ever-increasing number of expeditions in the climbing season increases risks and turns Himalayan peaks into landfills


Great celebration today in Kathmandu and throughout Nepal to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest on May 29, 1953.

That morning the sky was clear and New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of the highest mountain in the world after spending a night at high altitude on top of the infamous South Col. On their return they were greeted by heroes.

Born in Auckland on July 20, 1919, Hillary had been a quiet beekeeper until the time of the feat that would consign him to mountaineering history.

A robust physique for over six feet tall, Hillary was chosen by the leader of the British expedition, John Hunt, to make the final assault on Everest thanks to his experience in the Himalayas and his great energy and strength. Next to him the Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay who the previous year had touched the goal, forced to stop just over two hundred meters from the summit.

The celebrations were an opportunity to pay tribute to some record-breaking climbers, including Sherpa guides Kami Rita, who has climbed the world's highest mountain twice this season, for an overall record of 28 times, and Sanu Sherpa, who has climbed all fourteen highest peaks in the world twice.

Awarded by the Minister of Tourism of Nepal, Sushila Sirpali Thakuri, also Hari Budha Magar, war veteran, first to conquer Everest without legs.

Nepal began celebrating the anniversary as Everest Day after Hillary's death in 2008.

Its ascent paved the way and since then thousands of people have climbed the summit of 8,849 meters and hundreds have lost their lives on its slopes and in the crevasses of its seracs.

From a feat for a few to a mass hike that attracts climbers from all over the world, Mount Everest has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in recent years.

In 2023 hundreds of climbers reached the summit with the guides and 17 people are missing, dead or missing.

The Himalayan peak climbing season traditionally begins in March and ends in May, after which the winds, rainfall, and melting ice temperatures make the mountains too dangerous.

The deteriorating condition of Everest is raising concerns both for the mountaineering community and for people whose livelihoods depend on the flow of visitors.

The knots that are coming to a head for the Himalayan giant are called climate emergency and overcrowding that brings with it the increasingly evident problem of pollution, especially due to plastic waste.

The Sherpa community, which has always lived at the foot of the mountain and reveres it as the mother of the world, is the most worried.

Ang Tshering is an important Sherpa who has been fighting for years to save the peaks of the Himalayas and surrounding areas from the effects of global warming. At one time near the village where he was born there was a glacier, he tells The Associated Press. Now it's gone.

The effects of climate change are being felt says Tshering: "The temperature increase in the Himalayan area is higher than the global average, snow and ice are melting rapidly and the mountain is turning black, glaciers are melting and lakes are drying up".

Other Sherpas also say they have seen changes in the Khumbu glacier at the foot of the summit, near base camp.

Phurba Tenjing, a Sherpa guide, recently climbed Everest for the sixteenth time, accompanying foreign clients to the top.

Tenjing has been climbing Everest since he was 17 years old. He says that both the snow and the ice have melted and that the trek that used to take five or six hours on the icy trail now takes half an hour because the glaciers have melted and the bare rocks are exposed: "Before, the pieces of ice from the Khumbu glacier reached the base camp. But now they're gone."

Research published in the journal NPJ Climate and Atmospheric Science by scientists at the University of Maine found that Everest's glaciers have lost ice formed in two thousand years over the past thirty.

The researchers saw that the highest glacier in the mountain, that of the South Col has lost more than 54 meters in thickness in the last 25 years.

Archived the proposal to move the base field

Despite these growing concerns, Nepal's tourism ministry decided to move the lower base camp last June has been shelved, according to an article on the BBC website.

The decision was made because of the melting of the glacier and the growing influx that makes it unsafe, but the Sherpa community, through its leaders, opposed the plan that called for the construction of a new camp at an altitude lower between two hundred and four hundred meters compared to the current one which is located at an altitude of 5,364 meters, defining it as impractical also due to the lack of a suitable alternative place.

For many Sherpa climbers the current location of the base camp is the best to start the climb early in the morning because in the following hours it becomes much more dangerous to cross the Khumbu ice waterfall when the sun warms the mountain and causes an increased risk of avalanches and the collapse of seracs.

A mountain of plastic

On one aspect, however, they all agree: Everest is becoming an overcrowded mountain in an unsustainable way.

This season, Nepal has issued a record number of Everest climbing permits, 478, meaning there are more than 1,500 people on the mountain, including mountaineers, guides and support staff.

The government collects over ten thousand euros for every climber who dreams of following in the footsteps of Hillary and Norgay. This makes Everest expeditions an extraordinary source of income for the government of Nepal and communities that increasingly depend on mountain tourism.

All this has an increasingly difficult cost to hide.

"It's a real dump. Behind every rock, there are a lot of oxygen cylinders, canned food, tents, shoes, it's really absurd." To speak is Luc Boisnard, returning from his first attempt to climb Makalu, the fifth highest mountain on Earth with its 8,485 meters.

Heaps of cans, tents, pipes and PVC bottles: plastic is everywhere, even on the highest peaks, says the fifty-three-year-old mountaineer French who founded an association called Himalayan Clean-Up.

Boisnard and his team just recovered 1.6 tons of plastic waste in the Himalayas. The expedition to Makalu started at the end of March and, in parallel with an ascent on Annapurna, reported 3.7 tons of waste, 45% of which was plastic (1,100 kg on Makalu and 550 kg on Annapurna).