Over two years after the world’s highest altitude weather station on land was destroyed, a team of Sherpa and scientists have risked their lives to place a new and improved version atop Mount Everest (aka Sagarmāthā or Chomolungma).
Led by 31-year-old electrician and mountain guide Tenzing Gyalzen Sherpa, the team installed the new record-breaking weather station at an altitude of 8,810 metres (28,904 ft); just 39 metres (128 ft) below Everest’s summit.
This perilous project was part of National Geographic and Rolex’s ‘Return to Everest Expedition’ in May 2022 – three years after they broke three records on the mountain – organized by Appalachian State University (USA) in collaboration with King’s College London (UK), the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (Government of Nepal), Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (Government of Nepal) and Tribhuvan University (Nepal).
The completed weather station installed at Bishop Rock
The previous, destroyed station was located on Everest’s “Balcony,” a small platform almost 400 metres (1,312 ft) lower than the new site.
It was the first ever terrestrial weather station to have been placed above 8,000 m (26,247 ft), however, it fell victim to hurricane-force winds and met its untimely end just seven months after being installed.
When Tenzing ascended Everest to retrieve the Balcony Station’s data logger in 2021, he was also tasked with scouting a spot for the station’s successor.
He climbed a few hundred metres upwards before settling on Bishop Rock, a landmark near the mountain’s summit, named after Barry Bishop, who was a member of the first US expedition there in 1963.
The Balcony Station – part of a network of five weather stations installed by the team in 2019 – was collecting information that could impact the lives of 1.6 billion people who rely on freshwater from the region, thus its replacement was imperative.
Tom Matthews and Baker Perry, climate scientists and co-leaders of the project, spearheaded the construction of a redesigned weather station; one that could withstand the extreme conditions atop Everest.
Tom Matthews navigates the Khumbu Icefall
In May 2022, Tenzing, Matthews and Perry once again found themselves at the bottom of the world’s highest mountain, joined by 12 other Sherpa (many of whom had participated in the original 2019 expedition).
They planned to clean up the broken Balcony Station and assemble the upgraded version at the new site.
Each carrying different components of the weather station, they embarked on the precarious climb to the top.
As they reached Bishop Rock on the morning of 9 May, the 40 mph (64 km/h) wind speed had created a biting -40°C (-40°F) wind chill.
Unfortunately, Matthews’ frostbitten fingers meant he had to sit out the assembly of the station, however, the Sherpa had cleverly heated their hands with batteries in their down suits, so they were able to drill the all-important anchor bolts.
The expedition team navigates the Khumbu Icefall
After a gruelling three-hour installation – one hour longer than they’d planned – the station was powered up by Tenzing.
Before the team had even made it down to South Col (the second-highest station in the network, which also required repairs) the new weather station was already transmitting data.
Engineered to survive Everest’s wild weather, the station has a “good chance of measuring a full winter’s wind,” according to Matthews.
One of the key scientific reasons to go to such effort is to study the little-understood sub-tropical jet stream.
The weather station will also be able to collect much-needed data on high-elevation climate variables in the region, which impact on glacial activity and meltwater cycles.
Additionally, its observations can help inform more accurate weather forecasts, dramatically improving safety and preparedness for climbers of the world’s highest peak.
The expedition team from left to right: Nirakar Thapa, Tenzing Gyalzen Sherpa, Baker Perry (behind), Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, Tom Matthews, Subash Tuladhar, Niraj Pradhananga, and Dibas Shrestha after servicing the Phortse weather station.