Why (and How) is There Snow on Mount Everest?

There’s always snow on Mount Everest, even though it lies on the border between two countries that are either partly tropical jungle (Nepal) or arid desert (Tibet). Most high mountains, even some on the equator, have snow on their tops. Meanwhile, the plains around them are hot and dry. Why is that?

Mount Everest is covered with snow because it’s cold, and it’s cold because it’s high. Temperature in the Earth’s atmosphere falls with altitude and that’s called the Lapse Rate. The cloud cover on Everest varies, but there’s almost always snow.

If you travel from the Nepali border to the summit of Mount Everest you will go from hot, steamy tropical jungle to snowy arctic wastes. That’s due to the temperature difference between the Terai at an altitude of 220 ft (67 m) and the snow-covered summit at 29,031.7 ft ( 8,848.86 m). But where does the snow come from?

How Come There’s Snow on Everest?

“Everest is supposed to be above the clouds – and snow comes from the clouds”, some might say. But this is wrong, Everest is often shrouded with clouds, particularly during the monsoon season, between spring and fall (autumn). The snowiest day on the mountain is 1 July (source: snowforecast).

During the monsoon summer there is heavy snowfall in the freezing temperatures and if you climb on the mountain afterwards you’ll encounter deep, heavy snowdrifts. Everest also experiences high winds often, so snow can (and will) move and drift frequently.

In 2010 Eric Larsen and five Nepali guides summited Everest in this post-monsoon autumn for the first time in ten years, and I summited post-monsoon in 1993. We all encountered heavy snow.

A huge avalanche came down the Lhotse Face in 1993 and swept away our Camp 3 with all its tents, food and oxygen, so I can personally attest that a lot of unstable new snow falls on Everest during that season.

Advanced base camp
Advanced base camp, North side. With heavy snow.

How Much Snow is Usually on Mount Everest?

Mount Everest is almost entirely covered with snow, except for the vertical rock faces. A Chinese team measured a snow and ice depth of 11 feet (3.5 m) on the summit of Everest, which is in line with the net elevation of 8,848 m (29,029 ft).

Is There Always Snow on Everest? Is it Year-Round?

There is always snow on Mount Everest. Down at Base Camp on the north, Tibetan side snow will fall on poor weather days but swiftly melts away in the sun. At Base Camp on the more popular Nepali side the tents are pitched on the ice, and the snow tends to last longer.

How Old Is Everest’s Snow? Does it Ever Melt?

Everest is around 60 million years old (source: Scholastic). But the snow is being constantly replenished and flows down the slopes to form glaciers. So it is unlikely that there is any snow much older than 100 years. But then water itself is 3.8 billion years old…

Everest south base camp
Everest Base Camp, South side.

What Would Mt Everest be Like Without Snow?

If Mount Everest had no snow it would be far safer to climb. The most common way of being killed is by being hit by avalanche or falling ice (see Top 10 Ways People Die on Everest (The Dangers). The second is by falling, which is often caused by slipping on snow or ice.

The standard route would become a fairly straightforward rocky mountain scramble, but a lack of snow would also open up the largely unclimbed Kangshung, or East Face of Everest, which with constant avalanches is considered too dangerous to attempt – for now.

It would still get colder as you climbed higher, even if there were no snow. The rate of temperature decrease with altitude increase is 9.8 °C/km (5.4 °F per 1,000 ft) (source: Wikipedia). Climbers find it useful to allow for a 3.0 °C drop in temperature for every 1,000 ft they climb.

George Mallory wrote in his diary about the snow-covered Kangshung Face “Other men, less wise, might attempt this way if they would, but, emphatically, it was not for us.” (source: Wikipedia).

Without snow on it he could he might have climbed Everest more easily and returned alive (see Where is George Mallory Buried? His Body’s Location on Everest).

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.