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Every year, hundreds of bold adventurers spend days or weeks in some of the harshest, most unforgiving conditions on the planet, with a singular glory-seeking goal in mind: making it to the top of Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world.
That’s the goal for most, at least.
“Our goal is not to summit; to climb to the top,” said Baker Perry, a professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina and National Geographic Explorer, who has been to Everest three times.
“We’re there to do the research and get (weather stations) up and running. And yeah, if there’s a way to get to the summit, then cool.”
Everest, which soars more than 29,000 feet into the sky above the China-Nepal border, is home to some of the most brutal weather conditions known on Earth.
Winds howl at well over a hundred miles an hour, and temperatures can drop to minus 40.
In fact, the conditions are so severe, and the terrain so difficult to traverse, Mt. Everest has been home to some of the harshest unknown conditions on Earth, because there were no weather stations past a certain point, no one knew with certainty just how bad conditions could get toward the summit.
But in 2019 Perry helped change that when he was part of the team that made it all the way to the “The Balcony,” which at 27,657 feet is less than 1,500 ft from the summit, to install the world’s highest weather stations.
“The sky is such a dark, deep, almost black, because the atmosphere is below you,” Perry said of The Balcony. “It’s like you’re on the edge of the atmosphere,” he said. “The edge of the world.”
The research team’s triumph was short-lived.
Not long after weather data began pouring in from new heights, it suddenly stopped after recording a 149 mile-per-hour gust of wind.
“We don’t know what happened,” Perry told CNN. “Did it blow away? Was the propeller damaged? Did the wire come off? It was total speculation,” he acknowledged.
Deflated but determined, Perry and his team went back to the drawing board to develop a sensor which had to be strong enough to withstand some of the strongest winds on the planet, yet light and compact enough to haul some five miles in the sky.
The team looked no further than Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which recorded the strongest wind gust ever: 231 mph.
“It was pretty comparable, especially with wind speed,” Perry noted of the conditions on the two mountains. “The extreme temperatures were about the same. Of course, Mt. Washington got a lot warmer, just because you can get these warm air intrusions coming in, but for a lot of the variables, it’s similar. Which is pretty remarkable,” Perry explained.
After the Mt. Washington team helped come up with a new and improved design, Perry returned to Everest in May.
The logistics of hauling a heavy weather station and the tools to install it up Mt. Everest made an already daunting undertaking even more so.
“The heaviest single load a Sherpa (people employed as mountain guides) could carry was about 35 pounds,” Perry recounted.
And since the batteries alone weigh 35 pounds, it meant everyone would be carrying something.
“That’s a big load at that elevation,” Perry stressed.
Not to mention carrying the load in the nearly impossible conditions they were yet to face.
Weather almost kept them from succeeding
As Perry’s team started up the mountain this year, their hopes were higher the new stations can withstand the conditions better.
And their sights were higher as well, placing one of the sensors at Bishop Rock; more than 1200 feet higher than in 2019 – and just 100 feet shy of the summit.
In order to do it, they had to be the first climbers up the mountain this season, after not being able to get up there in 2019 due to deadly traffic jams.
And they were the first, just behind the teams assembling the ropes and carving the climbing route for the season. Everything was going right.
However, Mother Nature had another idea. The winds were forecast to be well over 50 miles an hour on the day they had planned to make the assent.
“It quickly became apparent that this was not going to be the day and so we had a really tough call to make,” said Perry.
They decided to make the climb a day early, which meant skipping Camp 3 and making the entire 5,000-foot climb from Camp 2 to Camp 4 in one day.
Perry, realizing he would slow his team down with this ambitious plan, decided to stay back to free up some oxygen for the rest of the team.
He wanted to be alongside his team as they assembled the station, but just getting the job done was the goal, and he saw it was the only way it could possibly happen, understanding it was still a long shot.
“Personally, that was a kind of a tough, tough decision,” Perry told CNN.
When the team got to Bishop Rock, the winds were howling at 40 mph, which made the windchills drop to minus 40 degrees.
Radio communication was difficult, so he was anxious for them to get the 10-foot-tall station installed and attached to the tallest mountain in the world, but also get his team down safely.
“You knew it was very challenging conditions, and so it was not clear that they are even going to be able to install the station to begin with because of the wind,” said Perry, adding, “My close colleague from the UK who has been part of this project, had grade one frostbite on his fingers.”
In the end, the mission was a success.
“So that was the first relief, and then as people started coming down, especially off the summit ridge, and getting confirmation of that was a huge relief,” Perry recalled.
Weather data flowing on Everest
A couple of hours after the installation was completed, Perry received confirmation data was transmitting from Bishop Rock, assuring the highest weather station in the world was working.
As data poured in, Perry realized his team made the right decision in pushing forward and going up when they did.
“The Bishop Rock station recorded a wind gust of 36 meters per second – that’s 81 miles an hour – the day that we were originally targeting to be up there,” Perry said with relief, realizing their decision to press the day before most likely saved the expedition and saved their lives.
“It’s one thing to know that it should be working, but it’s another thing to have confirmation that data are actually being transmitted and that is really an incredible feeling,” Perry emphasized.
Now, forecast models will be able to input his data to derive the forecasts, making the mountain much safer for climbers.
“This translates into better forecasts for the climbing community. And no doubt that in the longer term, it is going to save lives,” Perry said.
The data is now widely available to the climbers, Sherpa teams and rescuers.
“A lot of the unexplained deaths, disappearances on Everest are very likely the result of climbers literally being blown off the mountain,” Perry told CNN.
While weather data and short-term forecasts will be a game-changer on Everest, the stations will also be able to improve their understanding of how climate change is impacting the glaciers and what atmospheric processes are driving the loss of snow and ice.
Studying the changes in climate on what could be the ‘sunniest place on Earth’
More than a billion people rely on the fresh water provided by Mt. Everest.
Perry and his team feel the societal pressure of being able to study the watershed and the rapid changes it faces.
“We know there are changes happening, but we just don’t understand. And so, there’s this huge need,” Perry acknowledged, adding, “Water is life. If you don’t have water, it’s a huge issue. And it’s going to be a big issue as we look to the future for sure.”
Perry’s team already knows solar radiation is incredibly strong on Mt. Everest.
He’s felt it for himself. They have discovered solar radiation is higher at the South Col station than at the top of the atmosphere.
Energy at that level can melt snow and ice, even when temperatures are below zero.
“A lower albedo glacier surface for example, or just snow that may have some dust and debris on it, is going to be absorbing that solar radiation and can actually melt,” Perry pointed out.
We know there is melting taking place on some glaciers on Everest, and it is melting at an astounding rate, but Perry could discover melting at a much higher altitude.
“It’s possible all the way up to the summit of Everest, and that’s where that Bishop Rock station is going to tell us whether or not melt is actually all the way up to the summit,” Perry said.
Perry explained solar radiation is so strong near the top of the mountain, quite a bit comes through, even with cloud cover.
“If we can get a year’s worth of data, we really think that South Col, especially the summit, may be the sunniest place on the planet,” Perry stated.
As Perry reflected with us on the accomplishment of the goal, his pride seems bigger than standing on the top of Everest.
“The more stations we can get up in these high mountains, the greater the opportunities are to learn and improve our understanding and ultimately, improve forecast models and also models of glacier runoff for future water projection,” Perry concluded.
He has no plans for now to return to Mt. Everest, saying he will mostly rely on the Sherpa teams he has assembled to do maintenance on the stations.
He has already achieved his own personal summit, which is greater than any mountain peak he could stand on.
CNN meteorologist Judson Jones contributed to this story