Deep in the National Geographic Museum you’ll find yourself on Mount Everest. In a hallway, projected video lines the walls showcasing hundreds of yellow tents at base camp, ridges of mountains contrasted with an open sky, and bodies climbing up and up and up. 36 speakers play sounds of storms, explorer’s voices and boots on snow. You feel cold but you’re just immersed in a far-off, high-up place in one of the most extreme-weather locations our planet has to offer.
The “Once Upon a Climb” exhibit features this footage of National Geographic’s scientific expedition to Mount Everest in 2019. A team of more than 30 international scientists, including geologists, geographers, biologists, glaciologists, meteorologists and mapping experts gathered to analyze and understand our changing planet. On the expedition, the scientists mapped the Khumbu Glacier, studied the highest ever ice core (found at about 8,000 meters above sea level) and installed the highest-ever weather station at 8,400 meters — only 400 meters below the summit.
“The exhibit gives you an idea of what the high mountain environment in the Himalayas is like,” Alex Tait, geographer and cartographer for National Geographic says. “You’re experiencing it a couple of different ways: the climbing of the mountain historically, the science work we did and sections about the local Sherpa community.”
Viewers get to see how Mount Everest was discovered as the tallest mountain in the world, how it was named and how fascination with summiting the mountain began. It tells the stories of famous expeditions like Mallory and Irvine, the first successful summit by British explorers and the first successful summit by Americans. Topographical maps, interactive activities and walls lined with gear from the past to present are on display.
National Geographic focuses on locals telling their own stories instead of sending reporters. The Sherpa community of Nepal is featured heavily throughout the exhibit, as they supply permits, provide knowledge on the local environment and culture and help people from around the world on their climbs.
“We do our best to limit our footprint where we can,” Executive Director of National Geographic Museum Kathryn Keane says. “That’s a big part of why we’re so dependent on relationships with local communities and local cultures, and also why we only want to go in with a large expedition when there’s a lot to learn. We don’t want to just explore for exploration’s sake; we want to explore with a purpose.”
The exhibit ends by highlighting just how stressed Mount Everest is. 2019 was one of the busiest climbing seasons, which paradoxically is a triumph and a failure. The mountain is littered with thousands of pounds of trash — and sadly, due to too many permits, inexperienced climbers and the weather, bodies of climbers who stayed in the “death zone” (above 8,000 meters) for too long.
The ice core pulled at 8000 meters has microplastics and industrial carbon in its top layers. The effects of climate change are hitting the mountain hard.
“It’s losing an amazing amount of ice per year,” Tait says. “And they’re predicting that one-third to one-half of all the glacial ice in the high mountain Asia region will be gone by 2100. They’re at the forefront of climate change.”
It can be difficult to see the world as interconnected when we’ve tried to tell ourselves we’re separate for so long — we draw boundaries, then fight over those boundaries — but climate change doesn’t see our made-up lines.
“In D.C., we’re not incredibly affected by climate change,” Tait says. “But talking to the older people in the Sherpa community and what they remember about the mountain environment and how different things are — their physical environment has already changed a lot. They don’t have to study it; they already know.”
Mount Everest fuels a lot of the Sherpa community’s economy from permits and guiding trips. The mountain gives back to them too, providing the community with water from glacial runoffs. So, the Sherpa community is faced with another human paradox: They need money from permits to keep their economy running — but giving out too many permits is harming the mountain they rely on.
Right now, there is an excess of water as the glacier melts but one day, there won’t be any more.
“There’s this irony that Everest is this big foreboding, seemingly impervious geological structure and yet it is quite fragile,” Keane says. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to care about the changes that are happening there.”
“Once Upon a Climb” allows visitors to understand more about the interconnectedness of our world. Every step we take affects our planet, whether in Rock Creek Park or on the ridges of Mount Everest, and it’s often the people in extreme weather zones that suffer the most.
“As a geographer, I’m always encouraging people to understand the connections,” Tait says. “As the seasons change, we start seeing things change in the environment — different birds, different flowers. It’s about starting to learn about the interconnectedness of the human world and the natural world.”
Tait says it was easy to see the changes when visiting Mount Everest. He’d look at a picture of the glacier twenty years ago and compare it to the rock outcroppings bursting through the glacial flow in front of him.
“That was all new to me,” Tait says. “But also, all that same stuff is happening here. You just need to start looking at what’s right in front of you.”
The National Geographic Museum opens its doors for the “Once Upon a Climb: Stories of Everest” exhibit on Wednesday, February 16. Nat Geo will also present “The Greatest Wildlife Photographs” exhibit, which features notable wildlife photography over the years.
For all of February, National Geographic Museum will offer free admission with advance registration to both exhibits. Reserve your tickets here.
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