Washburn gives history and Blume the latest on measuring Everest

The Rock Beneath Ice
Fred Blume works with climbers to map the rock summit of Everest

Fred Blume is a geophysicist whose PhD work at the University of Colorado involves the earthquake history and future of the Himalaya. He's working with Roger Bilham in Colorado, Brad Washburn, and the AAI climbing team to conduct experiments that may result in discovering the true rock summit of Everest as well as give insight into the constantly changing landscape of the Himalayan range.

How High is the Highest
Named after the surveyor who commanded a 19th century effort to map the entire Indian Subcontinent, Mount Everest compels mountaineers and geo-scientists alike. The Survey of India determined Everest to be the highest mountain in the world over a hundred years ago, but how high exactly (beneath all that snow and ice) and how is something like that measured? This year, we hope to solve both problems.

Making Mountains
Everest owes its great height to the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates. A hundred million years ago, the ocean-sized Tethys Sea separated the Indian subcontinent from Eurasia.

Tectonic forces pulling the Indian plate north, drove the sea-floor of the Indian plate under the Asian continent. A similar process is happening today in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, causing the earthquakes and volcanic activity that threaten the area.

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By the time the dinosaurs became extinct, 65 million years ago, the Tethys had shrunk considerably as India continued its rapid (by geological standards) movement northward. Forty million years ago, the body of water was gone, and the two continents began the massive collision that is still building the Himalaya.

Undaunted by the crash, India plowed north relentlessly, pushing rocks that had once made up the Tethys ocean floor to some of the world's highest reaches. Writer John McPhee suggests in his book "Assembling California" that plate tectonics can be put in human terms by noting there are sea shells at the top of Everest.

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Still the subject of intensive research, the Himalayas were built by some of the most destructive earthquakes on the planet. Evidence of the last great quake to hit Nepal in 1934 can be seen throughout the architecture of Kathmandu. Understanding more about the process of mountain building could help to better predict future events.

Tracking Tectonics with GPS
In 1984, the US Department of Defense launched the first of what would be 31 satellites that comprise the Global Positioning System (GPS). Commonplace in aircraft landing and personal navigation systems, GPS can also be used to follow continental drift. With specially designed antennas, receivers, field techniques, and data processing, the relative positions of points thousands of kilometers apart can be determined to within a millimeter. Since continental plate movements may only measure a few centimeters a year, GPS is a highly accurate means of tracking them.

When Dr. Roger Bilham from the University of Colorado teamed up with the Survey Department of Nepal in 1991 to make the first GPS measurements, they found the Indian plate moving northeastward into Tibet at 5½ cm/year. Roughly half of this compression occurs across the narrow band of the Himalayan front, and the remainder is taken up by deformation of the continental interiors of India and Asia. That kind of movement will produce earthquakes comparable to the one in 1934 every 75 to 300 years. Because western Nepal has not had a quake on this scale in recorded history, we are investigating whether the area is long overdue for one or is somehow immune.

Getting the Hard Numbers
That same GPS technology can help us get an accurate measurement of Everest's height. The currently accepted figure of 8848 m. (29,028') above sea level was determined by the Survey of India in 1954 using a combination of land-based surveying techniques and astronomical observation estimated at the time to be accurate to within 10'. Based on sightings from over 35 miles away, their measurements involved many assumptions that may have been in error. More importantly, those calculations measured the snow summit, but give no information on the true rock summit of the mountain underneath.

For this year's climb, we have designed a special apparatus that combines Ground Penetrating Radar and high-accuracy, kinematic GPS that will find the location of the true summit. Consisting of 3 lithium batteries, a special laptop computer, and a Trimble 4000SSi GPS receiver, and weighing in at 41½lbs, it will be carried up Everest in four pieces to distribute the load among climbers and assembled at the summit itself. As the climbers move this device around a known grid, the radar allows us to "see" through the snowcover while the position of the apparatus is updated every second using a special GPS field recording and processing technique. Taking approximately a half hour, this procedure may go a long way towards figuring out the height of Mount Everest.

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But How High Is It Really
Since that will tell us where the true summit of Everest is with respect to the center of the Earth, we need another measurement to give its height relative to sea-level -- what we commonly refer to by "height". Because there is no sea near Everest, we determine where it would be using a mathematically-defined surface known as a geoid, which can be thought of as the effect of changes in the gravitational field at any point in the earth. The huge mass of the Himalaya has its own gravitational force that actually changes the position of sea level. To make up for this, we'll take measurements of the gravitational attraction on and near the mountain and factor them into our calculations.

Using a portable meter, we will be taking very dense grid of measurements on the way up to base camp, and then on the mountain itself. Accurate to one part per million, the meter gives us the missing piece needed to calculate sea level, which will be done using a new technique developed by Prof. William Kearsley of the University of New South Wales in Australia.

By the end of the climb, we hope to have a new number, accurate to 40 centimeters or less, to put on Dr. Bradford Washburn's map of Everest. (See interview at right). Our measurements will also tell us how quickly the mountain is rising due to tectonic pressure. Our current data suggests Everest has been growing a half centimeter per year. Every time someone reaches the summit, they set a new altitude record.

-- Frederick Blume, Geophysicist from the University of Colorado & Mountain Zone Contributor

Climbers Do Hard-core Summit Science
You can follow the team's progress as they attempt to climb Everest and work with Blume to take the summit measurements in their Disptches from Everest. Throughout the climb and from as high on the mountain as possible, they'll be transmitting audio updates and digital images over satellite phones. Click here to read an early report from Kathmandu on the team's first look at the science equipment. (Climber Charles Corfield is pictured here with the fully assembled summit apparatus.)
Big-Mountain Science
An interview with Brad Washburn, the legend of mountain geography

Bradford Washburn is a noted cartographer, explorer, and photographer whose maps, including that of Mount Everest, have been considered definitive. Though no longer in the field himself, Washburn continues to promote and inspire the search for ever more precise knowledge of mountains by sponsoring (through the Boston Museum of Science) and collaborating with scientists like Roger Bilham and Fred Blume, and climbers such as the Alpine Ascents team on this year's expedition.

Mountain Zone: What do you have to consider when putting together a team to do something like this?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
Well, it sounds very simple but it depends on two things. One is a helluva good group of people on the ground doing the work. Not only very, very good climbers, but an expert guy at Base Camp who is a scientist and has been teaching the climbers how to use some of this equipment at very high altitude. You know, anyplace around the United States on a nice clear day the barometer is around 30 inches. On Everest, it's 9.3. You can't use your mind very much up there, that's why people make all sorts of mistakes. So when you're doing very high altitude scientific work we're not only going to have some very bright guys, some very powerful guys up there, but we're also going to have a very sharp guy at base camp, Fred Blume, working under Dr. Roger Bilham -- of the University of Colorado Geophysics Department. [See Fred Blume's column at left.]

Mountain Zone: What exactly will you be doing to collect measurements?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
What we're trying to do is to put two drill holes in bedrock. One of them will be at 26,000 feet at the South Col, which is the spot from which you start the final ascent of Everest on the day you select to make the climb. The other one is going to be about 150 horizontal feet, I don't believe it's more than 50 vertical feet below the top, which is essentially the highest bedrock in the world. We put these little bolts in there, and these we hope will be revisited, not necessarily every year, but at intervals a long, long time into the future to show the rate at which Mount Everest is still going up.

Mountain Zone: How did you get involved in this sort of geophysical research?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
Well, I started out way back... I retired in 1980, and I decided I didn't want to go to Florida and play shuffleboard, and that it would be fun to say "I would like to do now something that I would have loved to have done 40 years ago. But I didn't have the time to do it because I ran the museum, and what could I do today with the equipment that is available today?"

Mountain Zone: All your work is highly regarded by geographers and mountaineers alike. How did you get interested in mountain geography?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
There president of the National Geographic wrote me a letter in 1936 and said, "Is there something exciting that hasn't been done in Alaska that you would like to try and do?" And I said yes. And they gave me $1000 to get together with Pacific Alaska Airways and make the first large format photographic flights over Mt. McKinley, which we did in July, 1936. Same airplane, incidentally, that Amelia Arhardt used the following year. We made the flights from Fairbanks, which is 150 miles away. We made three different flights at different altitudes on different days. I got hooked, I got fascinated by McKinley. Then during the war I was the Air Force representative on the US Army Alaskan test expedition, which was organized by the quartermaster general in Washington to test all sorts of cold weather equipment in the middle of the summer somewhere where it was really cold. Several of us... several others at QM all agreed that the perfect place to be really cold in July was the basin right near the top of McKinley at 18,000 feet.

Mountain Zone: Is it true you were the first person to land on the Kahiltna Glacier, which is now used almost daily like an international airport?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
Two of us made the landing. Terrance Moore, who was then president of the University of Alaska, he was an excellent pilot. He and I got our pilot's licenses -- I think his was 1933 and mine was 1934. My license is 32898. There are not many of them around nowadays. We cooked up the idea of landing there because it would make it much, much easier to get up on McKinley rapidly, and of course it proved to be very definitely true.

Mountain Zone: When you first arrived on the glacier, could you have imagined the scene there now?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
I would never have dreamed it. I've been many times asked what you would do in order to minimize the awful accidents that are happening up there now. And I've always had the same answer -- they'll never do it -- I said don't allow people to fly into that spot by air. It's just like the old route from the north side of McKinley where there was no landing. By the time you got to the bottom of the mountain, all the people who didn't know how to climb, and all the people who were inexperienced would be all sorted out and dropped by the wayside, and by the time you got to 10,000 feet, there'd be nobody left but people who didn't know what the hell they were doing.

Mountain Zone: How did you become aquatinted with Todd Burleson and the folks at Alpine Ascents International?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
We had our first contact 1991 or 92. In 1992, his party then brought up some laser prisms which we set up, or they set up for me, on the top of Everest. We observed them from Namche Bazaar. Boy, those laser machines are marvelous. We made observations on them on three different days, at three different times and over an 18 mile distance. All of those sites were within 2 centimeters of each other in 18 miles.

Mountain Zone: What will you be relying on mostly for measurements?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
It's 100% GPS. With the lasers we were simply trying to make very detailed sites on the mountain which would give us some very precise distances and very precise vertical angles. But vertical angles make no sense when you're near Everest because the mass of Everest tends to throw the plumb-bob toward the mountain. You get very accurate readings from GPS. However, there's one problem with them. They're great when you're trying to calculate the difference, the rate at which the mountain is going up. Because they give you with enormous accuracy the distance down from the satellite. If you reoccupy a station five years later, that's going to be a lot less, maybe three or four centimeters a year less. But it gives you the distance down from the satellite, it doesn't give you the altitude above sea level. [See Fred Blume's column at left for a detailed explanation of the measurements being done this year on Everest.]

Mountain Zone: What's the smallest movement you can detect with the GPS equipment?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
I think that if you run in the South Col for six or eight hours, you're going to be within a centimeter of where you think you are. It's tremendously accurate.

Mountain Zone: What's next for you?

Click to hear Brad Washburn's answer.
I remember one of my very good Alaskan pilots, he said, "Let's skin one skunk at a time." I haven't any plans. My god, you know I'll be 87 in June, and I ought to lay off of this stuff. But the thing that I love to do is to work with bright young people. And guys like Roger Billham and Fred Blume, working with Roger to get his PhD, and these guides -- the guides we've got are absolutely marvelous guys. It's a pleasure to be working with them and it's a delight to have them willing to let me work with them.