It’s hard to believe that it is already February. When I first started trekking back in September, bright-eyed and excited for the journey ahead, I really had no idea what I was in for – what challenges I would face and the depression I would have to fight through to get to where I am today. December was probably one of my hardest trips in the mountains. The work wasn’t really that different – my body was accustomed to it, more or less. But I think I was suffering from slight burn-out – physical and mental exhaustion due to a number of events over the months: from nearly drowning in September (I had the same drowning nightmare for a month), to dealing with the aftermath of a massive snowstorm in October (I probably pushed my team too hard at times), to soloing on tricky terrain (partially frozen glacial lakes) in November, for the last of my data collection before the deeper freeze. At the end of my fall “season” I had trekked over 500 miles (800 kilometers) and climbed thousands of vertical feet between two valleys in the Khumbu Himal, creating a nice dataset that I am now in the process of analyzing. Somehow, my trailrunners weren’t completely in tatters by the end of it. Can’t say the same for my hips and shoulders, though, which have required hefty doses of physical therapy upon my return to the city.
Despite being quite cold, December is a special time to be in the mountains. The tourist season is mostly over. The skies are a beautiful deep blue. And the air is cold and crisp. There can be issues with fog and smog, though, sometimes delaying flights for days. Given I was trying to catch up with a film crew already on-site at the start of the month, it wasn’t an option to wait. Fortunately, Mega Adventures were able to get me on a helicopter transporting some Japanese tourists to Lukla and I was able to make it on-board with just my hiking pack (though, it is an 85-liter beast!). The helicopter didn’t take off until early afternoon, so that day I could only make it to the first village, Phakding, before stopping for the night. Given my climbing/camping bag (that I had stored in November) was in Namche, a few hours away, I was without a sleeping bag for the night. Even with blankets it was quite cold.
The next day was a semi-early start (bones creak when it gets this cold!) to get to Namche Bazar and meet a porter there, who would help transport my climbing and science gear to Imja Glacier, near Island Peak. I zipped up the hill, getting there by lunchtime, only to find out that a porter had not yet been arranged. After many phone calls and negotiations, one was found – he would stay for about 10 days with me. Though I enjoy trekking solo, his company was welcome, especially given the long days ahead. With time running out to meet the crew on schedule, the next day we did an 8-hour trek to a village called Dingboche. It was about 3,000 ft. of overall gain in one day with a LOT of uphill and downhill. The pain in my hips and legs was unbearable at times, but nothing to be done except eat Pringles and carry on!
The next day, it was onwards to the base of the Imja glacier (near Island Peak). That, again, was a long haul. The last village is called Chukkhung and, once there, I repacked only what I needed for the next few days into my hiking pack and continued onwards, without the porter. In hindsight, I should have taken him with me. Despite being on that trail a few times, the river iced over, coating all the footbridges, so I couldn’t actually remember where to cross. Realizing I was lost, but not having anyone to ask, I followed the river up the valley part-way, tested the ice very carefully before committing and crossing, and then finally saw the trail running parallel to where I was. The prayer flags were a welcome sight. Problem is, they were a few hundred feet higher than me! This required scrambling up loose moraine boulders and violently post-holing through the “sugar snow” the whole time because I was climbing on the north face of the moraine, which is mostly shielded from the sun. Thankfully, I had lost only a half hour of time. The rest of the trail was a bit undulating but pretty easy going, especially when compared with my fiasco of a start! So, that’s the journey to get to the film base camp.
Once at the camp, I met the crew and the Sherpas and did my best to not vomit over them all, as, at this point, I wasn’t feeling too well from back-to-back 8-hour days and 7,000 ft. gain. But, it was nothing some food, water, and Diamox couldn’t fix. I had retained some of my acclimatization from being in the region a few weeks prior. Even still, it was quite surprising to me how quickly you can lose most of that. I guess it’s the same when lifting weights – it takes months to build muscle, but, once you stop, you start losing it quick. That afternoon, we got straight to the filming. It was quite the experience working with this crew, as they had all sorts of neat gadgets: a 10-foot crane for mounting the camera and getting really cool panoramas, a terminator-looking vest (aka Steadicam set-up), and a flying drone outfitted with a high-resolution GoPro camera, to get stunning overhead shots. The director, Yanick, taught me how to fly it the last day (after the filming, in case I crashed it!). Because of the very cold temperatures and extreme altitude, the batteries only lasted 2 minutes.
Over the next few days, Dr. Alton Byers, director of The Mountain Institute, the crew and I climbed around the Imja lake and glacier, filming interviews and exploring a cool ice cave. As you may recall from my September (with University of Texas Austin) and October trips, this glacier is losing ice fast and growing a very large glacial lake. Chunks of ice break off regularly during the summer melt season and pieces of ice occasionally come up from the bottom, leading not only to expansion, but deepening, too. Even the wintertime is active – you hear all sorts of creaks and groans from the ice – sounds similar to me, on my worst of days!
After coming back from the glacier and spending a few more days in one of the villages with the crew, we parted ways. My friend Tendi joined me in Dingboche – our goal over the next few days was to climb a 6000-meter (20,000 ft.) peak, called Lobuche East, cross the Cho La, at 5300 meters, and end up at the Ngozumpa glacier, so that I could download some more camera footage and meteorological data, while also resetting the instruments for the winter season. The climb up Lobuche was very tiring for me. It took nearly 12 hours from high camp to summit back to high camp, and onwards to a small village called Dzongla. The whole way up, I had GI problems and slight altitude sickness – not enough to come down, but enough to make it an unpleasant journey. The condition of the snow was pretty treacherous, too. Given all the dust, sharp penitentes had formed along the steep slope. Take one step up, slide two steps down! Even with crampons, it was a challenge, as sometimes the snow would just fall apart when climbing. Thankfully, we got to the summit at a reasonable time, collected good snow samples and GPS points, and made it back down safely. Though, we were walking in the dark to get to the next village. It was quite surreal – imagine trekking down the mountain, watching the fog roll in and overtake the land, and the glow of dozens of yak eyes, following your every move.
Fast forward now to Ngozumpa glacier. After we crossed the Cho La and collected more snow samples and GPS points along-route, I finished up with some more lake measurements (documenting places where I saw large upwellings) and set up a new station to track albedo (reflectivity) changes during the winter season. January and February see a lot of snow, so, hopefully, I collect some good data. One potential problem is that the instruments may freeze. I know I did the best I could to weatherproof them – LOTS of specialized electrical tape, desiccant packets, etc., but I won’t know for sure until I return in April. If nothing else, a few cameras are watching for snowfall events and possible ice wall/debris collapses. The visual impact from them is sometimes more powerful than data squiggles (which are, of course, useful too!)
The grand finale for my fieldwork from September – December was in the form of a Glacier Olympics competition with locals and foreigners (trekkers). This is something I came up with over the summer, when thinking of fun things I could do while working out there, so I was prepared with gold, silver and bronze medal prizes. Of course, after perfect weather for weeks, a snowstorm blew through December 19/20, when the Olympics were scheduled. Regardless, we had a lot of fun out on the ice. Countries represented were: Nepal, USA, Chile, Croatia, Russia, South Africa, and Australia. Team events included speed tent set-up, a relay race on ice, and a boat pull, while individual men’s and women’s ice axe throw events rounded out the competition. The public was able to participate as well (advertised via Facebook and emails), in the form of betting during ice curling. While we kept warm by running around on the ice, it was really nice when one of the cooks from Namaste Lodge came down to the glacier with hot mango juice and cookies, providing a much needed boast for the ice axe throw event! Team Croatia-America swept gold in the team event; Team Nepal-Russia came in second, and Team Chile took bronze. In the individual ice axe throw, Day 1 resulted in Croatia (men) and Chile (women) gold medals, with South Africa taking gold and bronze in Day 2 and Nepal, coming in second.
That snowstorm effectively ended my field season on the glacier, but the timing was quite good, as I was tired and the cold had really gotten to me – when your only source of heat is huddling around a yak dung-burning stove, you get quite chilled to the bone when leaving that little spot of bliss. I was ready to come down the hill, back to some warmth, food, and Christmas/New Year’s celebrations. The journey back to Lukla was breathtaking: 30 miles of trail, mostly downhill but with a few gnarly uphills, covered in patches of black ice (fitting!) with snow “frosting” covering the trees. A hush settles over the land after such a snowfall and that silence just adds to the mystique of the Himalaya.
Though the past few months have been difficult due to funding cuts and contending with injuries, both visible and not, I think the challenges have prepared me for what lies ahead. Come April, I, along with a small team from the American Alpine Club, will be attempting to climb high for science. Our target is Lhotse, the 4th highest peak in the world, which shares most of its route with Mt. Everest. The price tag is steep and I’m still hoping to put a dent in some of these expenses with your help. I appreciate all the “likes” on Facebook and words of encouragement. Whatever you can do to help, even $10, will help us accomplish good science, while staying safe. The high altitude arena (over 8000 meters/26,000 ft.) is not the place for The Hunger Games! More details can be found here: