Students literally heading to the top of the world - Mt. Everest

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A professor and four students pose in T-shirts featuring a Nepalese flag and Canadian maple leaf.

GEM professor Sanjay Nepal and students (L to R) Heather Wilton, Jacklyn Charlton, Michael Wytiahlowsky, and David Sullivan are heading to Nepal on a field course.

Research. Reports. Trekking to Mt. Everest base camp. Geography 430C isn’t exactly the average course.

The 15 students in professor Sanjay Nepal’s field course are leaving for Nepal on April 10. Some say the 25-day trip will be a life-changing experience.

“Everest has always been on my list of places to go,” says David Sullivan, a geography and aviation student. “I think Sanjay leading this trip is going to make it unforgettable … we’ll be able to see things we’d never see if we went on our own.”

The students, all fourth-years, were selected from more than 50 applicants and come from a variety of different disciplines within the Faculty of Environment. They have been preparing for the trip all term, intellectually, physically, and psychologically.

During the academic term, the students divided into four groups, each researching a distinct topic area: tourism, natural resource management, climate change, and natural hazards.

Jaclyn Charlton, a planning student, has been looking at how tourism has changed lives. “The local Sherpa people, before tourism [became widespread] in the 1950s and ‘60s, used to be some of the some of the poorest people in Nepal and now they’re some of the richest,” she says.

The local infrastructure has also changed radically. For example, the airport town of Lukla had little infrastructure until the 1990s – the runway wasn’t even paved. Now, however, it bustles with tourists, Charlton says. “There’s a fake Starbucks there now.”

Sullivan looks forward to speaking to locals about the climatic changes they have already noticed. Nepal’s agrarian economy is coming under increasing stress as water resources in particular become scarce, he says.

Michael Wytiahlowsky’s research focused on natural hazards. He learned that of the climbers who have died on Everest, about a third were killed by avalanches – and avalanche risk goes up as the climate warms.

Besides trekking, students will be doing research, interviews, and meeting with key informants. Some nights, the group will stay in major tourist villages, while other nights will be off the beaten track, so students get a feel for how agrarian villages differ from the more tourism-oriented ones.

Professor Nepal plans to compile the students’ finished research and provide the information to organizations studying related issues in his namesake native country.

The trip will also be a chance for him to do some of his own research. It will be his first time back to the area in years, but he now hopes to run the course every two years, which will help him track how the region changes over time.

Physically, the trip will be challenging even for the fit students chosen, though the group will be supported by an experienced Sherpa guide and eight porters, says Nepal, who has trekked to base camp before.

Mt. Everest’s base camp is more than five kilometres above sea level, and it’s not uncommon for altitude sickness to force people to retreat before making it there.

“It’s going to be tough,” says Nepal. “Everest base camp is no joke.”

Check out the group's blog

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