8 MIN READ
How Khim Lal Gautam risked life and limb to ensure Nepal would be able to calculate Mt Everest’s official new height
Born in Hadaule Village of Kaski District, Khim Lal Gautam was raised in the shadows of stunning mountains. From his courtyard, he could see Mount Dhaulagiri and Mount Annapurna most days of the year.
But never had it occurred to him in his wildest dreams that he would one day climb mountains. And never had he imagined that he would one day scale the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, to measure it. Even when he made his first summit of Everest, in 2011, he had never thought he would be the one to lead the national Everest measuring survey team and capture the data that would be used to determine the precise height of the world’s tallest mountain.
“I studied in Pokhara. Initially, mountaineering wasn’t something that I thought I’d be involved in. This all happened as a matter of coincidence,” says Gautam, an engineer, who looks strong and has a tall physique.
Gautam has not only summited Everest twice but is also the world’s first surveyor to reach the top of the mountain to measure, with the aid of state of the art technology, the actual altitude of the peak. In doing so, he has helped Nepal come up with the definitive height of Everest.
In May last year, Gautam, 36, leading a national team of surveyors, with heavy loads of equipment, reached the top of Everest and took the measurement, before climbing down to give Nepal’s survey department 1 hour 16 minutes of satellite data that he had collected from the summit. It took almost a year for the department to process and analyse the data to confirm the height.
After having risked life and limb on the dangerous slopes of the mountain, it was only natural that Gautam and his team of surveyors wanted Nepal to solely declare the height of Everest. But the surveyors, who were successful in preventing India from getting involved in the task of remeasuring Everest, couldn’t stop influential China.
Despite protests from Nepali bureaucrats, China--which has been doling out millions of dollars as financial assistance to Nepal, to bolster its influence in recent years in Nepal--easily persuaded Nepal’s ruling leaders to turn the ongoing Everest measurement process into a joint project.
In October 2019, during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal, Nepal and China had agreed to jointly announce Everest’s new height. After the agreement, China sent a team of surveyors from Everest’s northern side and remeasured Everest using the Yellow Sea as the baseline. On Tuesday, during a programme organised in Kathmandu to officially declare the new height of Everest, the consensus height was announced jointly as per the agreement reached between the two countries.
Over many months leading up to Gautam’s summit of Everest, other Nepali surveyor scientists had completed the tedious step-by-step ground-leveling survey from Maadar of Siraha, a Nepal-India-border point, and connected the sea-level baseline coordinates of the Bay of Bengal, India, to Everest Base Camp, the nearest measurable point on the mountain. From there, the surveyors determined the reference points that were to be used in conjunction with the satellite data obtained by a GPS receiver and antenna that Gautam was to place atop Everest during his summit later.
Meaning, the final calculation could only be made once Gautam had climbed to the top of Everest and placed the GPS equipment there. While he and his team made their ascent, his seniors at the Survey Headquarters, Kathmandu, spent a sleepless night observing their progress, and they held their breath, especially as he headed up for the summit push from camp IV to complete the most difficult phase of the Nepali mission.
“We all were keenly observing all these activities from Kathmandu, especially on the summit-push day. We celebrated after the team stood atop Everest and captured the data because we had achieved the first part of our mission,” said Susheel Dangol, the coordinator of Nepal’s Everest measurement project. “Today, we marked the success of the final part of our overall mission.”
Gautam’s mountain adventure was not an easy one.
Gautam had first read about Mount Everest, in his textbook, when he was in grade four. But rather than Mount Everest, he was more fascinated by the mountains he could see from his village. Later, he did dream of climbing mountains, but he couldn’t pursue that aim because he was focused on his engineering degree; after he completed it, he joined government service and was busy with the work there.
In the course of his government service, he came to learn that bureaucrats like him were preparing to climb Mount Everest under the banner of ‘Nepal Civil Servants' Everest Expedition 2011’. Nepal was marking 2011 as a Visit Nepal Year to attract more tourists to the country, and a group of civil servants, led by the then secretary Leela Mani Paudyal, was preparing to scale Mount Everest. The aim of the expedition was to promote Nepal’s mountain tourism, in the country and beyond. Nepal Mountain Academy, the government organisation that was authorised to select 20 bureaucrats who were physically and technically fit to ascend Everest, summoned prospective candidates to Kakani to test their climbing skills.
Gautam was one among many contestants. At the end of the trials, his name was shortlisted as an alternative candidate. Later, when the group were taken to climb Yala Peak, in Langtang region, as part of the rehearsal for the Everest summit, Gautam, who was initially ranked 21st, was named the best performer. After scaling Yala, he climbed yet another mountain, Island Peak, in the Khumbu region, before climbing Everest.
Of the total of 15 climbers selected for the expedition, nine successfully stood atop Everest. The survey engineer, then 27, was the youngest climber of his team.
He thoroughly enjoyed the 2011 expedition, which was of lesser import than his latter summit. He took photographs, as many climbers do after accomplishing their long-cherished dream, watched the world from the point closest to heaven, and safely descended. Nine years after his first Everest summit, he was going back to the mountain. This time around, he was entrusted with a far greater responsibility.
After 2015’s devastating earthquakes, many survey scientists speculated that Everest might have shrunk. India, which has been involved in measuring Everest multiple times in the past, was quick to seek Nepal’s consent to remeasure Everest, which sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet.
Ganesh Datta Bhatta, the then director general of Nepal’s Department of Survey, didn’t respond to India’s request--because Nepal was planning to remeasure Everest on its own. Although Everest remains Nepal’s treasure, Nepali surveyors had never measured it by themselves. In the past, a few Nepali surveyors had been involved in measuring the mountain, but they had worked as support staff of foreign Everest-measurement expedition teams.
Viewing the post-earthquake period as an opportune time to test the skills of Nepali surveyors, the government announced that Nepal would measure Everest on its own, for the first time in its survey history. For Nepali surveyors, conducting the ground leveling survey wasn’t a problem, but sending surveyors to the top of Everest to capture satellite data made for a herculean task. Although none of the measurement expedition teams had been successful in sending surveyors to Everest’s summit in the past, Nepal wanted to give it a shot.
The person the government entrusted with leading the expedition was Gautam. He and his team would have to not just scale Everest but carry with them a GPS receiver and antenna. Prior to sending him to the top, Nepal collected sea-level data from India, which it had collected from the Bay of Bengal and Maadar, in Siraha, conducted the ground leveling survey, and determined the geoid details around Base Camp to help capture data from satellites. Once these preliminary procedures were completed, Gautam would be heading for the Everest summit to collect satellite data--the key task related to completing the measurement process.
At 3 am, March 22, 2019--a historic day in mountaineering, for that was when the most number of people (223 climbers) summited Everest in a single day--Gautam, along with his colleague Rabin Karki and Sherpa guides, stood atop of Everest, with their high-tech devices. To avoid traffic, he had had to summit the mountain in the wee hours.
Most Everest summiteers descend within a few minutes, after having taken photographs from top of the world. But Gautam spent 1 hour 45 minutes at top in the course of capturing satellite data. His GPS receiver and antenna recorded satellite data for 1 hour 16 minutes (for comparison, in 2020, Chinese were able to capture satellite data for 54 minutes).
Except for Babu Chiri Sherpa’s unprecedented record of 21 hours stay atop Everest, very few people have spent such a long time in a spot that is referred to as the ‘death zone’. Gautam, however, risked his life because he was determined to obtain as much data as he could--the more data that he collected, the more precise the height that would be calculated.
After spending almost two hours atop Everest, exhausted and freezing in the -43 degree Celsius temperature for hours, Gautam found that his colleague Rabin had become unconscious at an altitude of 8,600 metres. And Tshiring Jangbu Sherpa, the IFMGA guide deployed to assist the measurement expedition team, too was in a problem as he was running out of supplemental oxygen while descending down the mountain’s sloppy ridges.
“Rabin had become unconscious when he was stuck in a traffic jam. So I put my oxygen mask over his mouth,” says Gautam. “He regained his senses later.”
Worried by Rabin’s condition, Nima Tendi Sherpa, a guide who was assisting American climbers summiting Everest with TAG Nepal, donated additional oxygen equipment to Rabin.
“His survival seemed almost impossible, and I even informed the Kathmandu office about his condition,” recalls Gautam. “In fact, in my mind, I had already started imagining that I would have to rescue his body to Base Camp. But he woke up after getting the supplemental oxygen. Then, Jangbu and I brought him to the Balcony.”
During his descent, at 8,200 metres, having had no food for 23 hours and running out of oxygen, Gautam was so exhausted he was crawling. His friends had already descended to lower altitudes, thinking Gautam would be able to do the same. But he fell unconscious, and only came to his senses when an American climber descending from the top kicked him to confirm whether he was dead or alive.
“I don’t know when I blacked out. I only started gaining consciousness upon hearing the climber muttering ‘Oh, he’s still alive’”Gautam says of his situation at the death zone on his way down.
But despite the hell he had been through, he had with him all the data collected at the top.
Today, Gautam thinks he would have died on the mountain had the mountaineer not woken up him. “Perhaps, God rescued me. No climber has returned from an altitude of 8,200 metres after falling unconscious,” says Gautam. “Perhaps, nature added energy to my body.”
At the death zone, exhausted by the heavy equipment he was carrying and the freezing conditions, Gautam’s throat had dried up. To survive, he resorted to licking ice. This reenergized him, and he slowly descended.
But because he was stuck at the death zone, without oxygen, for so long, he lost a toe to frostbite. It was only later, when Gautam and his team had descended to Camp II, that a helicopter rescued them.
As part of the expedition, besides the team that climbed Everest, a team of 80 people were deployed at Base Camp to capture data. When Gautam descended, with the equipment loaded with precious satellite data, his team was overjoyed because this was the first time in history that such a mission had been accomplished.
Gautam now also owns the record of becoming the first survey scientist to capture satellite data from the top of Everest to measure its height. During his time on the summit, he captured the signals of 49 different satellites, a rare achievement in geospatial science. The volumes of data collected from the top allowed for an extremely accurate calculation of Everest’s height. In addition, the traditionally used trigonometric method, was also concurrently used by the survey team to verify that an accurate measurement had been taken.
“For me, it’s a matter of pride to establish the accurate height of the world’s highest peak. The earlier, widely accepted height, was measured by others, even though the mountain is ours,” Gautam told The Record in an interview days before the official height was announced. “We have proved that Nepali scientists are capable of achieving excellence in any sector.”
Bhadra Sharma Bhadra Sharma is a Kathmandu-based freelance journalist. He is also co-author of the book 'Impunity and Political Accountability in Nepal'.
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