Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

November 1, 2012 -- by Travis Corthouts
Geology professor Dave Lageson explains the
geology of Everest to Danuru Sherpa.
Photo courtesy of Travis Corthouts.
The entire Everest Education Expedition team,
including Sherpa staff, climbers and assistants,
at base camp. Photo courtesy of Travis Corthouts.
Danuru Sherpa and Jangbu Sherpa with the suite of
rock samples from the southeast ridge, a few days
after summiting. Photo courtesy of Travis Corthouts.
Travis Corthouts with rock samples
from Mount Everest.
Photo courtesy of Travis Corthouts.

Last spring I had the privilege of being involved in one of the largest—and most closely followed—Mount Everest expeditions in recent years. Supported by National Geographic, The North Face, Montana State University and the National Science Foundation, the expedition was dubbed the Everest Education Expedition (EEE) for its emphasis on science and education. Lead by world-class mountaineer and Bozeman native Conrad Anker, the EEE focused heavily on human physiology, glaciology, climate change and geology. David Lageson, professor of structural geology in the MSU Department of Earth Sciences, pioneered the geological research component of the expedition. I served as the MSU education outreach correspondent and satellite technician for the expedition while also assisting Dr. Lageson with his research.  

The geology of Mount Everest is fascinating. One of the most intriguing aspects of Everest is that the summit is composed of seafloor sediments with marine fossils dating back 470 million years. The scope of our project was to collect a suite of rock samples extending across the southeast ridge (from the South Col to the summit), a task that has never before been completed. It’s not for a lack of interest or effort that these rocks remain largely un-sampled, but the extreme difficulty involved in reaching and collecting them.

Usually collecting a rock and recording its location isn’t difficult. However, when you’re bundled up like an astronaut, and oxygen deprivation is crippling your ability to function, sampling becomes tough, if not impossible. Your focus quickly changes to self-preservation. This left us wondering what we could do to ensure the success of our research on Mount Everest.
From April 1st to the beginning of June, Everest turns into a spectacle due to the hordes of summit-seekers who mob the mountain on their quest for the roof of the world. Facilitating these expeditions is the Sherpa, a group of people indigenous to the Everest region who are physically evolved to tolerate high altitude. During my time on Everest it became decidedly clear to me that the climbing industry on Everest couldn't endure without the strength and fortitude of the Sherpa people.

Likewise, Sherpas became the linchpin in our pursuit for the geologic treasure above—why not employ people who have a proven aptitude for dealing with the extreme conditions high on Everest, and by doing so, allow them to be involved with groundbreaking research on their mountain. Through this logic, the task of sampling rock high on Everest was placed in the hands of Danuru Sherpa of Phortse and Jangbu Sherpa of Makalu.

In the weeks leading up to our team’s push for the summit, I had a few training sessions with Danuru and Jangbu. The largest hurdle to overcome was deciding how the location of each sample would be recorded. Normally a sample’s location would be recorded on a topographic map or with a GPS unit, but given the conditions, both of those methods would be far too cumbersome. We decided the most reasonable way to solve this issue would be to place the sample in a Ziploc bag, and then record on the bag the elevation where the sample was taken. Because the southeast ridge route is so well defined, the elevation could then be used to pinpoint on a map exactly where the sample was taken along the ridge.   

On May 25th, the day our team was pushing for the summit, the weather was very windy, too windy to do anything other than summit and quickly descend. I was sure the sampling wouldn’t get done, and that our research was in jeopardy. But, I was wrong. Despite fierce wind that took the toes and fingers of many climbers that day, Danuru Sherpa managed to gather 16 samples from eight different locations. A truly astounding feat!

Today the treasures from the top of the world are safely housed at MSU, and Dr. Lageson and I have begun the process of analyzing them. The goal of our research is to further refine the composition and geologic evolution of the world’s tallest peak. For my master’s thesis, I’ll be looking at the lithology and structural nature of the North Col Formation, a suite of rock that comprises the bulk mass of the summit pyramid. Dr. Lageson is focused on the petrology and geochemistry of the summit limestone, known as the Qomolangma Formation. Together, we hope to use the geology of Mount Everest as a window into the tectonic processes that have created the greatest mountain belt on Earth. 

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