The Fate of World’s Highest Laboratory Hangs in the Balance Amidst International Haggling
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
For 10 months a year, Kaji Bista lives inside a pyramid next to the world’s highest glacier.
Life is hard up here: Up in Nepal’s Lobuche mountain 16,568 feet (5,050 meters) above sea level (asl), a stone’s throw away from Khumbu Glacier, the mean daily maximum temperatures stay below freezing for half the year. A howling wind screams through the steel, aluminum, and glass structure. The weather here changes on a whim: sometimes you see black clouds, sometimes it rains, and heaps of snow descend without a moment’s notice. It’s lucky to see the clear sky.
Bista is fortunate that the pyramid’s geometric shape, almost three-thirds wider on each side (43.4 ft./ 13.2 m) than its height (27.6 ft./ 8.4m), provides stability and resistance to the elements, even withstanding the 2015 Nepal earthquake and subsequent avalanches that completely wiped out the Mount Everest Base Camp. The first semi-permanent high-altitude research center in the world, the Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory includes a self-sufficient energy system as well as a fully equipped scientific laboratory.
At one point, regular routine checks were performed by a team of two managers, a supervisor, and eleven staff members. Alas, the Pyramid has been closed since 2015. Bista is the last man standing.
The laboratory is a unique resource for the scientific resource for the international community for studying the environment, climate, atmospheric pollution, human physiology, geology, and biodiversity in the Himalayas. To date, more than 530 research expeditions have been carried out at the laboratory where 250 researchers from 143 different institutions took part. At one point, regular routine checks were performed by a team of two managers, a supervisor, and eleven staff members.
Alas, the Pyramid has been closed since 2015. Bista is the last man standing: he is staying behind to look after the building and instruments of the Lab as the manager.
“There are no more researchers or students in this lab. The Lab is empty. I am just taking care of the instruments and looking after the lab,” Bista explained from his cabin in Khumbu.
Is Mount Everest really the highest mountain on Earth?
In 1987, Dr. George Wallerstein of the University of Washington announced that by his calculations, K2 may eclipse Mount Everest as the highest mountain on Earth. This audacious claim sent the international scientific and mountaineering community into a frenzy. In response, veteran Italian mountaineers Agostino Da Polenza and Ardito Desio, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Milan, decided to jump into the challenge of remeasuring the heights of Mount Everest and K2. After collaborating with the Italian National Research Council (CNR) to establish the “Ev-K2-CNR Project”, the two not only confirmed that Mount Everest was indeed taller, but they also decided that a more permanent, ambitious, state-of-the-art facility should be built in China to promote high-altitude innovation and research.
Yes, you read that right. The Pyramid was not supposed to end up in Nepal. At the time, plans called for it to be installed in Tibet’s Tingri Valley on the north slope of Mount Everest; at one point, an agreement was signed between the CNR and the Chinese Academy of Science. But as the inauguration day approached, the Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent massacre on June 4th, 1989, halted the launch of the lab. Desio soon made the call to shift the site of the station from the northern slope of Mount Everest to its southern slope at Lobuche.
The rocky history of Pyramid International Laboratory’s establishment and Nepal’s change of fortunes could also be read through the timeline of an unprecedented wave of democratization and knowledge exchange. Although peaceful protest in China ended in repression and bloodshed, the dominoes started to fall in Eastern Europe: The communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria relinquished their absolute power; in just the last week of the eighties, when the former Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (RONAST)’s first vice chancellor Ratna Shamsher Jabara and CNR’s President L. Rossi Bernardi signed an agreement with the aim of promoting and developing scientific cooperation between the two institutions, Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were executed by revolutionaries, and Vaclav Havel becomes the first democratic president of Czechoslovakia.
The rocky history of Pyramid International Laboratory’s establishment and Nepal’s change of fortunes could also be read through the timeline of an unprecedented wave of democratization and knowledge exchange.
Nepal itself wasn’t immune to its own nonviolent revolution: two groups, the Nepali Congress, a pro-democracy group and the largest illegal political party in the country, and the United Left Front, a coalition of communist and leftist parties, joined in 1990 to launch Jana Andolan’ (People’s Movement), a campaign to achieve a multiparty democracy in Nepal. Starting from Democracy Day in February, the movement swelled through protests and bandhs (a form of general strikes); at one point, some 200,000 people, or 1% of the total population, marched in protest of the monarchy in the capital.
Pro-democracy forces across continents triumphed on April 8, 1990, when Italy’s neighbor Slovenia held its first direct and democratic elections since World War II, and King Birendra of Nepal simultaneously lifted a 30-year ban on political parties, ringing the death knells for the former Yugoslavia and absolute rule in the Himalayan kingdom. Two days later, an addendum to the agreement for ‘A High-altitude Research Project in Nepal’ was signed by Narendra Bahadur Singh, member secretary of RONAST, and Da Polenza, who became the president of the Ev-K2-CNR committee.
By October, then-Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Bhattarai, a founding leader of the Nepali Congress and former political prisoner who led Jana Andolan, got busy: he climbed up Lobuche to witness the opening of the gleaming Pyramid, with Desio, now 93 years old, by his side; he then descended back to Kathmandu to review Nepal’s new constitution that would be announced in one month, with language mandating the prioritization of “the development of science and technology” – the kind of innovation which would be performed at the Pyramid for the next two decades.
The Pyramid Lab is divided into three levels, where small to large laboratories, radio, and satellite communications systems are kept: the first contains a restaurant, two large laboratories, and a chemical analysis section; the second with three medium-sized laboratories and a hyperbaric chamber; the third is dedicated to data processing, telecommunications, and management. There is an independent living unit on the south side of the Lab, where up to 20 researchers, technicians, and logistical staff can be accommodated. The Lab has maintained the Pyramid Meteorological Network of six automatic weather stations and ensured the long-term availability of data. However, it was interrupted for a year during COVID after no technicians visited there.
The pyramid’s geometric shape, almost three-thirds wider on each side (43.4 ft./ 13.2 m) than its height (27.6 ft./ 8.4m), provides stability and resistance to the elements, even withstanding the 2015 Nepal earthquake and subsequent avalanches that completely wiped out the Mount Everest Base Camp.
Dr. Gianni Tartari is a Senior Research Associate at the Italian Water Research Institute-National Research Council (IRSA-CNR). In an email conversation, he said that he used to coordinate a hydrochemical study that began with the first expedition in 1989 organized by Desio and de Polenza as they scrambled to pivot their research from Tibet to Nepal. Afterward, he conducted major studies on the hydrology of Himalayan glaciers and ponds in addition to how anthropogenic air pollution and climate change would threaten The Third Pole.
“Along with environmental research, important physiological, but also geological, ecological and, more recently, glaciological and atmospheric research was conducted for a long time, with the important installation of an air quality measurement laboratory,” he added.
Before 2015, RONAST’s successor, the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, and the Ev-K2-CNR committee jointly managed the Pyramid laboratory and observatory. The Ev-K2-CNR project, run by CNR with the advice of the Technical Scientific Commission of the Italian government, almost entirely funded the lab. After CNR stopped funding the Ev-K2-CNR due to budgetary issues, the Pyramid no longer operated smoothly.
The 1990 agreement between NAST and the Ev-K2-CNR committee stipulated that the Pyramid would be handed over to NAST either after the completion of the project or if one of the partners does not agree to conduct further joint research work. However, the Nepali authorities did not take the closure of the Pyramid seriously.
The annual fund that the Ev-K2-CNR used to provide NAST, including 20,000 USD allocated for expedition purposes and a research grant of 3,000 USD to scientists, evaporated overnight. For stations kept in private property, rent remained unpaid. Bista, who has not been paid since 2015, and members of the Ev-K2-CNR Association, have donated their time or money to maintain the observatory at a vastly reduced capacity.
With no more staff and a working team left in the Pyramid, the computers, radio, and Everest webcam are down.
In April, Peter Verja, an engineer and the Chief Technical Director of the CNR, visited the Lab and did some maintenance activities. After the Lab was closed, he came of his own volition year after year to repair and calibrate the instruments. ‘I used to check the equipment twice a year and repair them. COVID has altered this.”
“In this visit, I replaced the old sensors and added new ones in the stations. All the equipment of weather stations is managed. Namche station (11,713 ft./3,570 m asl) is now running. Kala Patthar station (18,372 ft./ 5,600 m asl) is fixed, Pheriche station (13,976 ft./ 4,260 m asl) is now renovated.” New data loggers are installed in weather stations, as are GPS equipment.
The live webcam at Mount Pumori (23,458 ft./ 7,150 m asl) is now operational, but the webcam at Kala Patthar, which showed a live video of Mount Everest, is still broken due to equipment malfunction. Due to low mobile network frequency, direct download of data remains unavailable in the weather stations. The atmospheric research lab is not yet working.
After repeated pressure from researchers and the media, NAST formed a committee in 2020 to figure out the status of the Pyramid Lab and the way forward. A report prepared by the committee suggested that NAST restart the Lab as fast as possible. “We have recommended that the NAST should take lead to the ownership of the laboratory and start communication to CNR and Ev-K2-CNR in solving the outstanding debts to be paid in Nepal,” committee co-coordinator Dr. Madanlal Shrestha, a NAST Academician, said.
Dr. Tartari is optimistic that the Lab will be run. He said in an email conversation, “I certainly cannot hide the fact that the setback linked to the difficulties in financing the research carried out in the Pyramid on the Italian side has prevented the continuation of a promising path. However, it must be said that the three decades of collaboration, which have fostered close contact between Italian and Nepalese researchers and the opportunities some have had to train for short or long periods in Italian universities and research centers, have probably provided important opportunities for the growth of research capacity at the Nepalese level.”
The Science and Technology Secretary for the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Pramila Devi Bajracharya, has also stressed that the ministry has taken the matter seriously of how to run the lab. She said that the Lab should be developed as a Centre of Excellence for high-altitude research.
In April 2022, the Italian team visited NAST and come up with a new proposal to further continue the research. However, NAST officials have not made a formal decision. Devesh Koirala, a Scientific Officer at NAST, expressed hope that the Lab will be operated by 2023 with a new managerial team between the two institutions.
In the previous agreement, the head of the Lab used to be from the Ev-K2-CNR side. NAST is now pushing for the head to be from Nepal. Although Nepali officials want to run the Lab independently, it is difficult to do so without technical support from the Italians, who played an instrumental role in establishing, running, and making the Pyramid Lab the symbol of high-altitude research in the world.
“It must be said that the three decades of collaboration, which have fostered close contact between Italian and Nepalese researchers and the opportunities some have had to train for short or long periods in Italian universities and research centers, have probably provided important opportunities for the growth of research capacity at the Nepalese level.” Dr. Gianni Tartari, Senior Research Associate, IRSA-CNR
Dr. Sudeep Thakuri is the Dean of the Graduate School of Science & Technology at Mid-West University in Nepal. He conducted multiple research projects from the lab, including the complete mapping of all glacial lakes in the Mount Everest region, and the discovery of 511 new lakes that have formed in the last four decades.
While Dr. Thakuri expressed sadness that the Pyramid remains closed, he conceded that the Lab cannot be run without the help of Italian researchers. “Most of the technical equipment and data analysis are previously handled by the Italian researchers. Nepali researchers are not trained. Under the current situation Nepal cannot run by itself without help from them,” he added.
The July meeting of NAST Academicians also discussed the operation of the lab. Dr. Shrestha has presented the current status of the Lab and its importance to other academicians and scientists. They also agreed that collaboration is needed to run the lab.
A team from Italy is expected to come up with the new agreement by the end of this year. Officials are hoping that the Lab will run from the first month of 2023 after solving all debt disputes.