Exploration

Everest Weather Made Up of Roiling Mix of Risks

Weather forecasting for Everest is better than it used to be, but huge mountains remain dangerously unpredictable.

No one visits Mt. Everest for the weather, but every climber with summit aspirations spends lots of time watching the sky.

That's because there is usually just a small window of time in May when conditions are as good as they're going to get for climbing. No one can predict exactly when those weather windows will open, and they can close quickly and without warning.

Over the last 20 years, forecasting techniques and communication technologies have improved enough to give teams a better sense of when to set out for the top. Nevertheless, weather remains a major cause of trouble on the world's highest peak.

Photos: The World's 'Eight-Thousander' Mountains

"When climbing is condensed to a really limited time frame because of tiny weather windows, it creates a lot of problems on the mountain," said Michael Fagin, lead forecaster at West Coast Weather, a high-altitude weather forecasting service. "Everyone wanting to go up at exactly the same time creates all sorts of issues."

Every mountain creates its own weather, said Jeff Masters, director of Meteorology at Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Mich. One reason is that air rises up slopes as the sun warms it over the course of the day.

When that air reaches altitude, it cools off, and any water held in it condenses and falls as rain or snow. The taller a mountain is, the more air is forced over it, creating even more potential for precipitation.

Winds can also exacerbate the severity of high-elevation storms if they pass over major bodies of water on their way to a mountain. Peaks in the Cascades, for example, get precipitation from winds that blow in from the Pacific. On Everest, winds can carry water in from the Bay of Bengal to the south.

Everest is always formidable but for most of the year, it is also un-climbable. The monsoon season from June through September brings drenching rains down low and heavy snow up high. Conditions dry out in October, and some climbers choose to make a summit push then, but by late fall, short days and frigid temperatures increase the difficulty of climbing.

The majority of expeditions arrive at Base Camp in April, when temperatures warm up enough to make climbing possible. Then, all eyes turn to the jet stream.

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Jet streams are fast moving air currents that circle the globe at high speeds in the upper atmosphere. For most of the year, the meandering jet stream passes directly over the mountain, which is tall enough to come close to the moving air highway. Winds regularly blow at speeds of 100 miles per hour and up.

Only when the jet stream shifts far enough to the north do winds calm down to a more reasonable range of 10 to 20 miles per hour, Fagin said. When he forecasts for the mountain, he compares six weather models, blends them together and puts the most faith in the models that appear to be the most accurate at the time. He also factors in real-time feedback from clients on the mountain.

Fagin recommends climbing only when there is a good chance that the jet stream will stay far enough to the north for at least five days in a row -- long enough for teams to get from Base Camp to the summit.

Most seasons get an average of 12 summit-worthy days, said Alan Arnette, a mountaineer and respected Everest blogger based in Fort Collins, Colo. But during the spring of 2012, there were just five good days for summiting and 500 people on the mountain, leading to dangerous crowds and notorious images showing long lines on the way up.

Forecasting for Everest began after the disastrous 1996 season, which held the record for deadliest spring on the mountain until this year. Since then, forecasts have become pretty accurate at predicting jet stream movements, Fagin said. The best windows usually open up in mid-May.

But even when the jet stream backs off, it's hard to predict exactly how hard winds will blow. And surprise storms can show up out of nowhere. Models just can't yet say exactly where or when snow will fall on that small of a scale.

"In general, forecasts have gotten better, but where they tend to do poorly is pinpoint precipitation totals on Everest or any other mountain," Fagin said. "Precipitation forecasts are still not acceptable as far as I'm concerned. That's still the wildcard."

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Weather can play a role in triggering traditional snow avalanches, which occur in predictable terrains and under certain known conditions, said Karl Birkeland, director of the USDA Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Montana.

But the kind of avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas with tumbling blocks of ice depends on more complicated dynamics, including the continuous downhill movement of glaciers. The Khumbu Icefall, where the accident happened, is notoriously unpredictable and will likely remain that way.

"As glaciers move, certain chunks fall off and roil down the mountainside," Birkeland said. Each chunk can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. "As far as I know, no one has come up with a way to forecast that kind of avalanche."

Good climbing weather windows can be rare on Mt. Everest, sometimes leading to lines of hikers heading up the mountain on good days.

The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).

This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.

On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.

As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.

The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.

This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.

Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).

The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.

Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).

Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.

Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.

Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.

K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.

And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.