Published: Aug. 15, 2022 By

Banner image: Joanna Lambert of CU Boulder and Joel Berger of CSU pose with signs from their universities at Everest Base Camp. (Credit: Joanna Lambert) 

On a sunny day in May at almost 18,000 feet, rumbles echoed through the Himalayan mountains as giant chunks of ice peeled off the Khumbu Glacier and crashed into the rocky valley below. 

A couple hundred feet above this rapidly melting ice flow—on which Mount Everest’s historic South Base Camp is situated—Joanna Lambert delivered the Inaugural Everest Address on Wildlife and Climate at the World’s Highest Climate Summit in Nepal to a small group of brave guides, scientists and filmmakers. 

Her goal? To all but shout from the mountaintop about how climate change is increasing human and wildlife conflict around the world, harming not only people, but snow leopards in Tibet and Nepal, lions in India, and bears in the American West.

“There is nothing bigger than Everest,” said Lambert, professor of environmental studies and affiliate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at CU Boulder. “This expedition was part of a very conscious decision to engage in something that I thought would get attention in a much bigger public way than a scientific journal article.”

Lambert was joined by Colorado State University’s Joel Berger, who received his doctorate degree in biology from CU Boulder in 1978. He led a presentation on Nepal’s legacy on biodiversity, focusing on snow leopards and wild yaks, as well as noting the growing loss of glaciers and the consequences of global warming on biodiversity. 

The summit, held on May 29, marked both the 69th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic summit of Mount Everest and the 75th anniversary of U.S.-Nepal diplomatic relations. The expedition was funded by the Nepal Ministry of Forest and Environment, sponsored by the Nepalese Mountaineering Association and organized by the World Record Holders Society. 

Lambert and Berger were the only Americans invited to the international event, and Lambert was the only woman on the team of 20. After arriving in Lukla Airport, considered the most dangerous airport in the world, they joined local guides, Nepali scientists and a film crew—but before ascending the mountain, they squeezed in a rare 1.5 hour meeting with the Vice President of Nepal, Nanda Kishor Pun, at the presidential palace in Kathmandu. Pun was keen to discuss how climate change was impacting his country.

By the time the team finished its 134-mile, 12-day trek to Everest’s South Base Camp at 17,598 feet, Lambert had recovered from severe food poisoning, broken her toe in a freak accident and become the team’s main medical expert—as the two doctors on the trip came down with altitude sickness and had to bow out. But there was never a moment when Lambert wanted to leave. 

“Until the day I die I think I will always be seeking adventure,” said Lambert. “This is one of the greatest, most epic, extraordinary experiences I've ever had.”

This one-of-a-kind international conference may also be the last time people ever stay at this historic base camp on the world’s highest glacier, as the quickly thinning ice has become too dangerous for the 1,500 mountaineers, tourists and staff who set up camp there each year. Nepal currently plans to move the site down and off the glacier entirely by 2024.

Humans and wildlife in conflict 

Lambert, whose work in evolutionary biology examines how animals such as wolves, coyotes, baboons and chimpanzees adapt to different environments with and without human development, is keenly aware of the conflicts between humans and wildlife created by the growth of cities and people’s desire to live near wild places. 

“Humans are increasingly in conflict with wildlife for resources that are becoming scarcer and scarcer,” said Lambert. “And that is a consequence of global warming and climate change all around the world, including in the Himalayas and in Colorado.”

In the high altitude habitats of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan, solitary snow leopards roam in search of prey. As climate change affects their preys’ food supply and location, the snow leopards too must change their ways to follow them. This has brought tahr (mountain goats) and blue sheep into agricultural areas irrigated by humans, which then draws snow leopards close to villages where they might eat a domesticated animal instead. The snow leopard is then likely killed, having become a threat to local livelihoods. 

Extreme drought and wildfire can also draw large wildlife into human settlements, resulting in human and wildlife deaths alike. Asiatic lions looking for water in India are drawn into towns to drink, sometimes killing people. Wildfires reduce resources available to black bears in the Rocky Mountains, driving them to look for food from bird feeders and trash bins in town. 

We need to be reminded of how much we have and how much we have to lose.”
–Joanna Lambert

Appreciating the awe of nature  

At such a high altitude, you think about every single step, said Lambert. She brought that sense of mindfulness back to Boulder.

“Somewhere above 16,000 feet landscapes get truly awesome in a way that almost paralyzes you with beauty. Every mountain around me was between 22,000 and 29,000 feet. There were times when I just couldn't talk. Part of that was because I couldn't catch my breath, but part of it was just that there were no words to describe what I was seeing,” said Lambert. 

While not everyone can visit Everest, she hopes more people are able to experience similarly “truly awesome” moments of appreciation for nature, which can occur in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park or while watching a butterfly or bird in one’s backyard. For Lambert, these moments of awe inspire feelings of grace and compassion towards others and the world around her. 

“We need to be reminded of how much we have and how much we have to lose,” she said. 

Photos courtesy of Joanna Lambert.