Measuring Mount Everest...Again
Khim Lal Gautam, a surveyor who works for Nepal's government, did not have much time to appreciate the view when he reached the top of the world in 2019.
He and his four team members got straight down to work when they set foot on the peak in the early hours of May 22.
They fixed radar and navigation devices, changed batteries and gathered data to measure the height of the world's tallest mountain, despite thin air and temperatures dropping to minus 43 degrees Celsius.
The process cost Gautam a toe due to frostbite, while Rabin Karki, another surveyor, faced death after running out of oxygen just below the south summit at 8,600 metres.
"There was nobody there when we reached the top, but more than 100 people came and went while we were doing our work," Gautam tells Dpa in an interview.
The mission mattered for Gautam and his colleagues as it enables Nepal to declare the height of Mount Everest for the first time in the country's history, based on the data the team gathered.
That means Nepal, home to Mount Everest, can finally resolve the long-running dispute over the exact height of the world's tallest mountain.
"We have already completed work on our part. We are waiting for China to finish work on its part. The two countries will jointly announce the height soon," says Prakash Joshi, director general of the Department of Survey. China sent its own surveyors to the mountain in May, the only expedition to summit Everest in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Gautam's team measured Everest's rock height and snow height using the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and ground penetrating radar, using scanners, control monitors and antenna that they carried up with them.
Ahead of the mission, the Department of Survey carried out traditional trigonometric measurements and set up gravity stations and Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS).
It was the first time surveyors had reached the peak to measure its height.
While Nepal recognizes 8,848 metres as Mount Everest's official height, in line with the findings of a survey conducted by India in the early 1950s, the mountain's height has long been a bone of contention among the international community, though it has been measured nine times by different governments and organizations.
For Nepal, the expedition was also a matter of national pride, as the country has so far relied on measurements by people from abroad.
Furthermore, the height may have changed due to gradual tectonic shifts as the Indian Plate presses the Eurasian Plate, experts say, or the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
The snow covering Everest's peak is also receding due to climate change. Dust from some of the world's largest deserts is contributing to the rapid melting of the Himalayan snow caps, a recent study found.
Rijan Bhakta Kayastha, an expert on Himalayan glaciers at Kathmandu University, says there has not been enough research into how climate change affects the peaks of mountains above 8,000 metres.
"Besides dust coming from deserts, many other factors including carbon emission from industries, firewood and use of dried cow dung firewood are affecting the snow," he says.
"In the upper belt, sublimation is occurring at higher pace due to high temperatures and the area's proximity to the sun."
Nepal initially planned to measure Everest alone, but when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in 2019, the two countries agreed to jointly announce the height based on their findings.
Gautam, 36, had to convince his family to allow him to join the mission as they were worried about the risks involved.
But Gautam signed up willingly, having previously climbed Mount Everest in 2011, the first Nepali civil servant to do so.
"I couldn't resist, because I was driven by a sense of obligation to do something for the country," says Gautam, who is the only surveyor to summit the mountain twice, according to the country's department of tourism.
If the 42 days Gautam spent on the mission were among the hardest and proudest in his career, they are also associated with great personal loss. He later learned his wife had given birth prematurely, leading to the loss of their first child. They were devastated.
This could have been due to tension or other factors, Gautam says. "But many in my family still think that this wouldn't have happened if I had stayed home." He also lost a toe after months of unsuccessful and costly hospital treatment for frostbite.
National and international media have reported widely on the mission but Gautam says the fame is not his alone. "Messi wouldn't have been what he is today without good teamwork. The same goes for me. Our mission wouldn't have succeeded without wonderful teamwork."/Dpa
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