Tom Matthews after Everest scientific expedition: “It was humbling”

New weather station at the so-called "Bishop Rock" near the summit of Mount Everest
New weather station at the so-called “Bishop Rock” near the summit of Mount Everest

The icy ground is melting away from Everest Base Camp on the south side of the mountain in Nepal. For this reason, the Ministry of Tourism in Kathmandu is considering moving the camp’s location away from the glacier to ice-free ground in the future. The site behind the last inhabited settlement of Gorak Shep is reportedly under discussion, at an altitude of around 5,200 meters – at the foot of the popular hill Kala Patthar (5,645 m), from whose highest point many trekking tourists enjoy the view of Mount Everest. The possible move was triggered by the effects of climate change.

“I remember not many years ago when kitchen staff used to collect big pieces of ice, and boil them in huge pots to make water. These days, we can fetch water directly from Khumbu glacier,” Khimlal Gautam writes in the Everest Chronicle portal. The surveyor, who stood on Everest in 2011 and 2019, spent the entire past spring season at the base camp – as a member of that commission of the Ministry of Tourism, which now recommended moving the base camp to lower regions.

British climate scientist Tom Matthews stood on the summit of Everest at 8,849 meters this spring. The 36-year-old mounted a weather station with teammates from the National Geographic science expedition at an altitude of 8,810 meters, not far from the summit. In spring 2019, Tom had already installed a station on the so-called “Balcony” at about 8,400 meters, but it had survived only a few months. Matthews answered my questions.

Tom, What was it like for you as a scientist to stand on the highest point on earth?

Tom Matthews (r.) on the summit of Mount Everest on 9 May
Tom Matthews (r.) on the summit of Mount Everest on 9 May

It was humbling and a privilege. 

Our intention was never really to reach the summit: it was to install the weather station successfully. We had been working with the Sherpa team off and on for almost four years to help make that possible, and by the time we set off on our summit push, we knew that team – led by Tenzing Gyalzen Sherpa of Phortse – could probably do it without us. The scientists (me, Baker Perry, and Arbindra Khadka) were going to try to get as high as we could – hoping that if we made it to the top, it would make a successful install even more likely, but we hoped it wouldn’t depend on us being there. As it happens, as the moment drew closer, it looked quite unlikely that we would make the summit: a late change in the weather forecast meant that we had to climb straight from Camp 2 (leaving at 10:00 AM) to Camp 4, and then depart for the summit just a few hours later. We thought it might be too much to take on as we climbed higher, but the Sherpa were awesome in helping us along the way: from keeping us well supplied with tea and coffee to bundling us into sleeping bags when we arrived tired at the South Col – they were immense. 

Standing on the summit was humbling and a privilege because, as those who have been high on Everest know, the potential cost of trying to get there can be very high. There is always some element of good fortune involved in a successful ascent (from avoiding illness to catching a break in the weather). I was very grateful for our slice of good luck. 

The weather station you set up at the Balcony in 2019 at around 8,400 meters didn’t last long. What makes you optimistic that the new station just below the summit will survive longer?

Tom Matthews (r.) with fellow researchers Baker Perry and Arbindra Khadka (l.)
Tom (r.) with fellow researchers Baker Perry and Arbindra Khadka (l.)

The station at 8,430 m didn’t last that long, but it still recorded valuable data that led to critical new insights. For example, we now know that oxygen variability on Everest’s upper slopes can make Everest seem hundreds of metres shorter or taller in the winter – depending on the day you try to climb! This variability – linked to the day-to-day behaviour of the jet stream – could be the difference between success and failure (or life and death) for those trying to climb without bottled oxygen. 

Anyway, for the new, higher, station, we are optimistic. First, it has more than twice the number of bolts securing it to the bedrock – which we think is itself very high quality and unlikely to fracture. Second, the most vulnerable (wind) sensors have been upgraded to be tougher. Will it withstand what might be the fastest winds on earth? On paper, yes, but the jet stream at -50C might have other ideas. 

On the Tibetan side of Everest, Chinese scientists have installed eight weather stations on the way to the summit, the last one also a few meters below the highest point. Is there a race for the weather data on Everest – or a scientific exchange?

There are rich insights into Everest’s meteorology and climate that can come from concurrent measurements made by both networks. A well-rounded approach is very important. I hope the network of weather stations on the north side of the mountain will contribute to this crucial science.

You were on Everest for the second time after 2019. This time there was an unusually long lasting window of good weather. Is that possibly an effect of climate change?

Nepalese side of Mount Everest
Nepalese side of Mount Everest (seen from Kala Patthar in 2002)

It’s too early to conclude, but that’s exactly the type of question we should be able to answer with the weather station network. 

What we can say is that the good weather of 2022 is certainly not part of a very clear trend. 2019 was unusual because it had so few days of good weather! There’s also no obvious physical mechanism that would cause longer periods of stable weather in spring on Everest.

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