One of the amazing positive side effects of coronavirus lockdown that many people have been talking about is the clarity of the air. Less traffic means less pollution. I’ve fled London for the Cotswolds, and here in the countryside this phenomenon is not so obvious, but for those in cities the cleaner air has been much more obvious.
Nowhere illustrates this better than Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, a place where mask wearing has been a thing for a few years now. Every year I go back it seems there is more traffic and more pollution.
The Kathmandu Valley is an undulating plateau on the southern side of the Himalayan divide. It lies at an altitude of around 1,400m and is just a few short yeti strides from the world’s highest mountains.
In theory, you should be able to look north and see the two giants of Ganesh Himal (7,422m) 84km to NNW and Langtang Lirung (7,227m) 64km to NNE, both surrounded by a cluster of snow-capped peaks over 6,000m in height.
In practice, however, the view is very different. Here’s a photo I took of Boudhanath stupa from the roof terrace of the Roadhouse Café a few years ago under typical atmospheric conditions. It’s a clear, sunny day; Boudhanath is towards the north side of Kathmandu, and I’m looking north towards the mountains of Langtang. But as you can see, the skyline hangs in a dark smog and no snow-capped mountains are remotely visible.
Contrast it with this photo below, posted by the Nepali Times last week under the headline Nepal lockdown proves air quality can be improved. The photo was taken by Nepalese photographer Abhushan Gautam from a place called Chobar, a village on a hillside by the Bagmati River on the southern fringes of the city.
There is actually a gallery of his images in a separate article in the Nepali Times that is well worth looking at. Anyone viewing this gallery never having been to the city can be forgiven for thinking that Kathmandu is a mountain paradise ringed by glittering snow-capped peaks. And it is, but these views are rare nowadays.
I’ve seen a few photos like this, of pristine blue skies, posted by Kathmandu residents over the last few weeks. Most have been of the rather striking Ganesh range to the north. What intrigued me about this one though, was the arrow. That’s supposed to be Everest (8,848m) in the far distance, 165km to ENE.
Can you really see the world’s highest mountain from Kathmandu? I had no idea.
I still wasn’t sure. Mountains can look very different depending on what side you’re looking from. I’ve seen Everest from a few different angles: north (Rongbuk Valley), east (Barun Valley), south (Mera Peak), and west (Gokyo Ri) to name but four.
Nothing looked quite like this, though. Here’s a blurry close up of the image:
Well, I guess it could be the South-East Ridge, with the summit on the left and the South Summit on the right where the ridge becomes steeper.
But where are Nuptse and Lhotse? The view of Everest from this side is usually obscured by the giant wall of rock linking these two mountains, with the summit of Everest just peeping above. Lhotse is the fourth highest mountain in the world and rises to 8,516m. It is joined to Everest by the 7,900m South Col.
Let’s have a look at some more photos. Here’s one I took of Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse from the summit of Gokyo Ri, 24km to the west.
Now we can see that the profile is quite similar. There’s a bit less snow on my photo (taken in May 2009), but actually this mountain could be Everest if we’re looking at the top 300m to 400m, well above the South Col. Nuptse and Lhotse would therefore have to be hidden behind the pointy peak with a white snowcap and band of rock underneath.
But what are these other mountains in the foreground? The article in the Nepali Times describes Everest as being ‘behind Mt Kang Nachugo and Mt Chobutse’. These two peaks lie in the Rolwaling region of Nepal, to the west of the Khumbu (Everest) region. Here’s what they look like on Google Earth, looking towards Everest from Kathmandu.
But there’s another clue. 20km east of Kathmandu is the village of Nagarkot, which has a reputation for being the no.1 tourist destination for getting views of Everest from the Kathmandu Valley. I’ve never been there myself, but plenty of other people have. So what does Everest look like from Nagarkot?
Well, if you go searching for images of the view from Nagarkot, it turns out that most of them are actually of Ganesh, which is a lot closer and more striking. And of course, most of the others are hazy.
But I did find this little video panorama. Although Everest is almost invisible, the mountains either side of it are recognisably the same ones as those in the Nepali Times article.
So, based on the profile of Everest’s South-East Ridge and the surrounding peaks from Nagarkot, the evidence seems to suggest that you can indeed see Everest from Kathmandu.
But things aren’t always what they seem in this strange world we live in now. Here, for example, is a night-time view of the River Liffey in Dublin that I believe needs closer scrutiny.
Breaking: Due to massively reduced air pollution levels in Dublin, for the first time #Everest and the #Himalayas can be seen from the city! @EverestToday @greenparty_ie @DubCityCouncil @everestinamonth pic.twitter.com/hfS03rfzms
— Roger McMorrow (@RogerMcMorrow) May 15, 2020