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Host Megan Hayes welcomes Dr. Baker Perry, a high altitude climber and higher education professional who along with a team sponsored by Rolex and National Geographic installed the world's highest weather station on top of Mount Everest. On this SoundAffect he is joined my Panuru Sherpa who helped lead the team.
Megan Hayes: Well, it's been a long time since we've been able to record a SoundAffect podcast and I am so very, very pleased to be returning with climate scientist Dr. Baker Perry, who is a professor in App State's Department of Geography and Planning, and his colleague, Panuru Sherpa.
Megan Hayes: In 2019, as part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Expedition to Mount Everest, Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa were part of an expedition team that braved record crowding, temperatures of nearly negative 22 degrees fahrenheit and icing that compromised their oxygen intake to install the two highest operating automated weather stations in the world on Mount Everest.
Megan Hayes: In 2021, the global COVID pandemic prevented many members of the expedition team from returning to Everest weather station maintenance. Sherpas in the village of Phortse, who make nearly every Everest expedition possible, were able to service the weather stations which are providing scientists with an unprecedented level of weather data that will improve weather forecasting across the globe.
Megan Hayes: Today I'm joined by Dr. Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa to talk about the project, their expeditions and their partnership. Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa, welcome to SoundAffect.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
Baker Perry: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Megan Hayes: Oh, we're so glad to have you. Baker, let's start. If you could tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in climate science.
Baker Perry: Well, I had some unique experiences as a child. I lived in the Andes of Bolivia and Peru, and as high as 13,000 feet and we would take outings up higher than that. So I had this natural fascination. And for some reason too, as a kid I read a lot of books about Everest. And I didn't really expect necessarily to be back on Everest, but as a result of the National Geographic expedition and my relationship with the director Paul Mayewski, I had the opportunity to go.
Baker Perry: And so clearly these early experiences were very formative in my own childhood. And there were some memorable snow events in the Southern Appalachians too that I can point to, in 1987 and 1993, the big blizzard, and I think those experiences were very important in my career path.
Megan Hayes: So how did you end up on an expedition to Mount Everest?
Baker Perry: Right. So this particular expedition, the opportunity to join it came through an existing relationship, collaboration with Dr. Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. We had collaborated on a project in the Andes together. And then he was invited to head up the expedition to Everest and knew that I had experience working with weather stations in the Andes and invited me to come along.
Baker Perry: And again I had not necessarily been planning to go to the Himalayas for research. I'd been there once before in 1999 when I was a graduate student, but this was an opportunity that came up and of course I was very excited to be a part of it. And it was through that opportunity that I developed the relationship here with Panuru and the other Sherpas in the communities there in Nepal.
So Panuru, I understand you grew up in Phortse, the Sherpa village in the Himalayas which is home to the Khumbu Climbing Center. Did I say that correctly?
Megan Hayes: I understand this village and your climbing center has more Everest summiters than anywhere on Earth. Talk about your childhood responsibilities in Phortse.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah. So when I was younger, I started school at 3 years old. After 3 years I had to look out for my family, my father, mother's yak and nak, looking after them in the mountains.
I like trekking and that time, first time I worked as a trekking porter. I carried 30 kilo bags, carrying for the trekking. My job was to set up tents and pack them up. 1988 was my first expedition to Mount Everest, in September and October. First time I climbed the South Col route., which is very steep.
So I continued to climb in mountain and trek in mountain.
Baker Perry: So how old were you the first time you went up above base camp? Up through the icefall. How old were you?
Panuru Sherpa: That time I was 17 years old. Before, I had no climbing training, did not know how to use rope or use crampons, harness, nothing. Just I trek, I went to base camp and my big brother's name is [Passan Goltsen Sherpa 00:05:14]. He taught me how to use crampons, how to use rope. They had to teach me more in the next days and I had to carry the big ladders, three ladders I carried and I had to bring in the Khumbu Icefall, first time.
Baker Perry: First time! How many kilos is that?
Panuru Sherpa: One ladder, like 7 to 8 kilos.
Baker Perry: So we're talking 21, 22 kilos. So 50 pound plus load going through the Khumbu Icefall.
Baker Perry: So, you were chairman of the Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse 2004 to 2019. Talk about the history of the KCC and the motivation too is to train Sherpas to have more climbing skills, to be safer. Right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, because the Khumbu Climbing Center gives the people going to mountain, never been mountain and they are first time to climbing and they're interested in climbing and that we give first time for safety, safety margin. And some how to use knot, how to use for climbing gear, the climbing gear name. Everything is basic thing. And then also he have to coming for next year advance, maybe we have more advanced trainings for rescue. Rescue training, save.
Baker Perry: Yeah, so I was there in January 2019. There were a few of us from the National Geographic expedition that went early to train with Panuru and the other Sherpa team members and Conrad Anker was there. And so we were there at the same time as the Khumbu Climbing Center class and it was so impressive to see how well it was run and how well it was working. And to see all the people, the young people, coming in for the training. So that was very neat to be a part of that.
Megan Hayes: Is that the first time you two met?
Baker Perry: That was the first time, yeah January 2019. So we stayed at his lodge at the Phortse Guest House in a very comfortable lodge with a wood stove in the middle of it and very good food and very comfortable. And so that's where we met and I met his wife and some other family, and other Sherpa team members too.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, I would imagine having that personal connection is also really helpful when you're climbing together.
Baker Perry: It was so helpful for us, I mean especially for Tom and me to have been there, and begun to develop the relationship with especially Panuru and the other Sherpa team members because we didn't have a lot of time together during the expedition because there was so much to do. You all were carrying lots of loads up and down the mountain, and so I think if we hadn't had that time together as part of the KCC course, that it would have been more challenging to communicate and to plan. It may have been harder to have the success that we had without that, without those relationships that we built.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, because you had to make some tough decisions when you were on the mountain. Do you mind talking a little bit about what your roles, each of your roles were, on that 2019 expedition and kind of get us into that a little bit Baker?
Baker Perry: So I was the co-leader of the meteorology team on the expedition, worked closely with Tom Matthews, my colleague from the UK. And so we were tasked with setting up a network of weather stations, including one in Phortse in, in fact, Panuru's land. He's so generous to let us set up one of the weather stations on one of his agricultural fields where they have grown potatoes and buckwheat. There's not a lot of flat land in the community and this was a great site. And we didn't need a lot of it, just a little, small piece. And he said, "Okay."
Baker Perry: And so we set that station up and then we went up to base camp and set up another station at base camp and then at camp 2, South Col. And of course the highest one at the Balcony. And so that was my major responsibility, and of course we had to work very closely together. And maybe you want to talk about what was your responsibility on the 2019 expedition.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, that times I'm on the expedition, we call Sirdar. Sirdar is a lead guide for Sherpas own group. So I make food, tent and oxygen. Everything to prepare from Kathmandu to base camp. When the group's coming we have to have ready oxygen tank, food and climbing gear, everything we have to have ready for basecamp.
Panuru Sherpa: So we make tent. One group, the main group coming, making tent camp everything's ready. We have the tent, dining tent, mess tent, kitchen tent, shower tent, toilet tent. Everything's ready there and then the group's coming there. And then I making plan, like good ceremony puja there.After that I sent Sherpas in Camp 1, Camp 2. And then making load, how oxygen, tent, food, everything we have to separate in the camp 1, 2, 3, 4.
Panuru Sherpa: And then my job (was deciding) like which Sherpas going to ice cores, which Sherpas going to the weather stations. And I have to divide that
Baker Perry: And this was the largest scientific expedition ever on Mount Everest and so it was a big team. I mean even above base camp, there were seven of us. So three scientists and four media team members and then plus the 15 Sherpa. So just the logistics of moving that many people up high is very challenging, but we also had the scientific equipment. And so, I mean the weather stations were big loads to carry, right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, heavy and big load. Yes. Yeah and the batteries are small but they're heavy, you know? And then many times the Sherpas, many time carrying from base camp to camp two 18-20 times there. And then South Col, the camp 4, they have to carrying five times to there. And also there down, everything's carrying down. Yeah the Sherpas have a very difficult job.
Baker Perry: Yeah, and I mean none of what we did would have been possible without the Sherpa team and especially your leadership, Panuru. It's just so much weight to move up and just the challenge of negotiating the Icefall and the Lhotse Face and bringing ice cores down. Those were very heavy I know and complicated, and drills and just, it was a big job.
Megan Hayes: Well you had lots of different parts too, right, because nothing was put together. Didn't you have to take it all in pieces and then on site build it in order to get the scientific equipment to work?
Baker Perry: Yeah, so there was a load of the tripod and then a battery was its own load because it was so heavy and then there were different instruments spread out among different people, different members of the team. Then yeah, we had to put them all together and we practiced a lot, including back in January 2019 when we were there. We did lots of practicing and training and then of course at base camp and at camp two before going up, we did lots of practicing putting it together so I think you all were pretty confident, you knew what to do.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes.
Megan Hayes: So what was the hardest part of the expedition, what was the biggest challenge that you had?
Panuru Sherpa: Main hardest part is going to Balcony, carrying the heavy load with oxygen, everything. And then also many peoples this day.
Baker Perry: The traffic jam!
Panuru Sherpa: Traffic jam.
Megan Hayes: I remember seeing pictures of that.
Panuru Sherpa: Main hardest part is going to Balcony, carrying the heavy load with oxygen, everything. And then also many people this day.
Megan Hayes: Because that wasn't the original plan, right?
Baker Perry: The original plan was to get up to the South Summit, which is a little bit higher than the Balcony, up on the main ridge line there. But that was tough. I mean we were in this just traffic jam that was just moving very, very slowly below the Balcony. And then when we got up to the Balcony, it took us longer than we anticipated and we could look up ahead and see just a lot of people up there and knew that it was going to be very, very challenging to go on. And just from the time standpoint, that we might not be successful even if we went on. And then of course, it would have introduced a lot more of a safety hazard to stay up so long, and then to be coming down after such a long time up high.
Baker Perry: So I think that was a very, very wise call and it was your call. You were the lead and we topped out at the Balcony and I had been following Panuru up to there and knew that you were concerned and frustrated too at the slow pace. And so we got up there and you looked at me and said, "I think we need to stop here, it's not safe to go on." And I said, "I trust your judgment." So.
Megan Hayes: Well, that was making world headlines at that point, the number of people on Everest. I remember reading the news and seeing photographs from that time and thinking about you all. How challenging and also frustrating that must have been. So, what about the best parts? What were the highlights of the expedition for you all?
Baker Perry: What were the successes? What made you happy about the expedition?
Panuru Sherpa: So that 2019 expedition, I'm very happy for all of the success. The weather station, cores, ice cores, the ice also highest ice core at South Col and we make Phortse for weather stations there is good. And also base camp is very nice now also good. And Camp 2, South Col and Balcony, that times I'm very happy. And also all people safe to back to home, that is very important and I'm very happy there.
Megan Hayes: That is always the goal isn't it.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes!
Baker Perry: Yeah, I think for me too. It was an incredibly successful expedition all the way around, not just with the weather stations but with the ice core and the other science teams too. Just amazing work and I think for me it was so special or important to see how many Nepali students and scientists were involved, especially working out of base camp. And then the strong support of our Sherpa team and just how capable in putting together the weather station and really learning how to build a weather station, just gave me such excitement and pride that we were able to do this together and install the two highest weather stations that have ever been installed at South Col and the Balcony. And the fact that all of the stations have collected such important data and that stations at Phortse and base camp are just doing very, very well.
Megan Hayes: So Baker, can you talk a little bit about the data that's being gathered and why weather data from high altitudes are so important?
Baker Perry: So these high altitude regions in the Himalayas and also in the Andes and other mountain ranges where there are glaciers and where there's a lot of snow and ice, are so important for sustaining communities downstream with water. They're the livelihoods and we call these water towers, these mountains are water towers. But there are only a handful of weather stations above about 20,000 feet in the world. And so we really don't understand how quickly they're changing or what the important atmospheric processes are that are driving the glacier retreat at these elevations. And so the data that we are collecting from the weather stations include just basic temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction but also solar radiation, incoming solar radiation and the reflected solar radiation from the surface and also the thermal or the long wave infrared. And especially those data are incredibly important for understanding what's happening at the glacier surface and what is really causing the melt or the disappearance of the glaciers. And so we need those in order to be able to feed into the glacier melt models that ultimately predict how much water is going to be running off. And lower down we have precipitation sensors that measure how much rain and how much snow is falling and of course those are very important variables as well. These have all been already very helpful in scientific studies that have shown for example that Mount Everest may be one of the sunniest places in the world. It's very high up and because it's so high up, the intensity of the sunshine is exceptional. And even when there's clouds, during the monsoon there's a lot of sun that's coming through there. And so this is a very important finding that there's a lot of melt that's occurring on the glaciers, even when air temperatures are well below freezing. And so that's not necessarily been well understood within the scientific community and so that's a really important data. From a forecasting standpoint, just having the wind speed measurements and the temperature measurements available for climbing forecasts, it's helped to improve the weather forecast during the climbing season and has allowed us to better calibrate the forecast models that are being used so that when we look into the future we can say with higher confidence what the wind speeds, what the temperature are going to be. And we think that this will certainly save lives during the climbing season by having the better weather forecasts.
Megan Hayes: Wow, so do you want to talk a little bit about the importance of water?
Baker Perry: Yeah, so water we know is so important and so maybe... How is water important in Phortse and for your family and your community?
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, the water is very important for the people and also animals and about everything.
Baker Perry: And up high in your summer pastures the water coming off of the glaciers is so important for the grass that grows for your yaks and naks.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, that's right. If water is not coming we have no grass there. And then that was very important for the yak and nak and also some vegetables and also fields.
Baker Perry: And also the electricity that's in your community comes from hydropower, right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, we have a 60 kilowatt hydro power in Phortse. Before is like many people not use, "Oh, we have this too much." But now we have not enough, because everybody needs heaters and also TVs there and washing machines there, now is not enough.
Megan Hayes: A lot more demand for electricity.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, yes.
Megan Hayes: So Baker, the 2019 installation which is recently recognized in the Guinness World Records book as the highest altitude weather station on land. I feel like we can't get through this conversation without at least acknowledging that, because that's pretty darn cool.
Megan Hayes: But as a matter of fact this is one of three world records set by the expedition team and I understand that even some of the other scientists.... There were other discoveries of insects at some of the highest altitudes known previously. So can you just tell us a little bit about the records that you were involved with and kind of what that means to you?
Baker Perry: I mean as a kid, I grew up... I think I had multiple copies of the Guinness Book of World Records and you're like, "Oh, let's look." There is a cool factor about that, and yeah so I think there is a certain excitement of being a part of that but I think the scientific accomplishments are much more valuable to me, I think, at this stage. But it's not to diminish the fact that we've done something that nobody else has done before, and it's really part of this incredible team that we had and so the weather station was a huge success but it wasn't the only one, as you said. And we had the highest ice core, our team from the University of Maine led that. Mariusz Potocki and Paul Mayewski and these guys did the heavy lifting and getting it down was so important.
Also, our team collected snow samples from just above the Balcony, just up a little bit from the Balcony and that's where the highest microplastics in the world were found. And so this is just an indication that we've got plastics just everywhere, not only in the oceans but even up on the highest slopes of Mount Everest. And I don't know that that's necessarily something to celebrate, it's a record but it's not...
Megan Hayes: Maybe it's an important teaching tool for us though.
Baker Perry: It is. It's an important teaching tool and a milestone in some ways that, "Hey, this is very serious, our impact on the environment." And then colleagues make important biological discoveries on the mountain and there may be more records that come out of that work, they're still in the process of analyzing it. It was a very significant expedition on many fronts and it was just for me personally such a wonderful experience to work with a diverse team of scientists from lots of different disciplines under the umbrella of National Geographic and with the sponsorship of Rolex, it was very much of a highlight for sure.
Baker Perry: A question for you Panuru, can you just talk a little bit about what you and especially Lhakpa, your son Lhakpa and Tenzing were able to accomplish this spring on the maintenance expedition.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, so I'm very happy this year we are going to Everest, the National Geographic expedition. We have to check all the weather stations from Phortse to Balcony, we have to change batteries or some... We have to change. And then the old one we bring down.
Baker Perry: And it reminds me too that after we installed the Phortse and the base camp stations in 2019, you went back with a few others. Well, you built a fence around each of those stations for security, and especially at base camp that was a big job to haul all the materials up. Because you had to haul the fence and the posts and some cement too, right? All the way up to base camp.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, we had to carry and we had to mix there. We make one days there.
Baker Perry: It was a great opportunity this year to develop more experience and to build capacity of especially Tenzing and Lhakpa who did everything they were supposed to do that they needed to do. They were extremely successful. So I think that gives us a lot of optimism, moving forward that we can maybe maintain these stations for many years into the future and so that's the goal. And to build the capacity of the Sherpa team to serve as the caretakers and to keep the stations running for a long time, maybe at least four more years. Four more summits for you, right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, I think so yeah.
Baker Perry: Beginning to think ahead, maybe next year, having a weather station academy in Phortse perhaps.
Megan Hayes: Oh nice!
Baker Perry: Kind of like the Khumbu Climbing Center course, to give people more opportunity to work hands-on with some of the weather stations and invite people from other parts of Nepal and perhaps other parts of the Himalaya to come in and learn. And perhaps bring somebody from Campbell Scientific that has built a lot of the stations to do some of the training but also for Tenzing and Lhakpa and some of the more experienced members of our team to actually do some teaching as well. And so we're very optimistic and excited that something like that can start up in the next year or two.
Baker Perry: I'm optimistic that we can keep these stations operating for some, for several more years at least. We're clearly building relationships and building capacity there on the ground, that is an important component of it. And we're also building stronger collaborations with our colleagues in the Nepali government department of hydrology and meteorology and at Tribhuvan University, and trying to work with more Nepali scientists as well that can provide leadership down the road. So those are some of the, I think, points to look forward to. Maybe this can be a kind of a testing ground and a place where we can bring people from other mountain regions around the world to learn from our Sherpa friends and also learn more about how to operate weather stations in mountains and so that's part of a vision that we're working on as well. So, we'll see.
Megan Hayes: Wow, that's exciting. It's exciting to sit here. It's been a pleasure to spend a little bit of time with you two and just see the continuation of a friendship and a trusted colleague relationship as well, so I appreciate that. It's been my privilege to be here with you today. So Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa, thank you for being here.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
Megan Hayes: To be able to revitalize the SoundAffect podcast after this time with the two of you has been my privilege. So thank you so much for being here today.
Megan Hayes: The work that you're doing that's expanding and deepening our perspectives on climate science, which is really for the benefit of the Nepali people and all the citizens of the world. It really is groundbreaking and it makes such a huge difference. You sit here in Boone, North Carolina and think about the far reaching impact that this work is having and the fact that I can sit in my office and see what the temperature is on Mount Everest is pretty darn cool. So beyond the cool factor, it's also just incredibly important for climate science and thank you for that work and for being here with me today.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
Baker Perry: Thank you again for having us. This was a lot of fun.
Megan Hayes: It was a lot of fun. Thanks so much.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
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