Grit

Blood, sweat, tears. That pretty much sums up my PhD experience over the past few years. As I reflect back on the fieldwork and time abroad in Nepal, there are times I can’t stop laughing – like when looking at the Glacier Olympics footage and remembering the great fun we had, despite being in whiteout conditions. I smile thinking back on when Tendi, Kaji and I climbed a 20,000 ft. peak and then descended into the mist, following just our headlamps in the darkness to get to a village, 12 hours after having left base camp. Sleep came easy that night. And there are times when I can’t stop from getting emotional, thinking back on the Everest avalanche and the aftermath. The tragedy shattered lives in the span of a few minutes. It leaves one with a feeling of vulnerability.

Even though I’ve been back for a month now since the last expedition, sleep does not come easy. Often times, I find myself back in the Himalaya, with scenes playing out in my head that I can witness, yet not prevent from happening. Perhaps it’s a way of processing what happened out there. Sometimes the dreams are thought-provoking: watching the whole glacier “time-lapse” in front of my eyes, changing shape from 10,000 years ago to the present, prompting new ideas for how things work out there. And sometimes the dreams are warnings to be careful. About a week before attempting recovery in some glacial lakes, I dreamt that I was swimming underwater and could see two buoys, the ones we had installed over the summer. One was in very clear water and an easy pull. The other wouldn’t budge – it was caught on something. In the waking world, it turned out to be true. Despite my best attempts on the latter, it wouldn’t give, while the ice I was standing on, at only a few inches thick, was starting to crack.

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Over the course of multiple expeditions, there have been shouts of joy when getting 100% data recovery, and cries of frustration when something fails and data are lost forever. When recovering instruments or cameras in this kind of environment, you’re initially relieved when you see them again, either floating in the water or on a rock cliff, after months of being out there. Anything can happen – icebergs can cut buoy lines, while floods can submerge the instruments, never to be found again. Landslides can bring down a whole set-up. Birds can crap on lenses. There’s difficulty in predicting what will happen, months down the line. But say you manage to find your gear. You still have to make sure that data were recorded. On land, given how dusty it is, solar panels can get covered. The dust finds a way into everything. So sometimes, connectors for data transfer can short out and the data corrupt. Now, if you manage to download, you are then left with the task of figuring out what it means. Does the data even make sense? Add in the long journey to get there, working in thin air, and the threat of collapsing ice and boulders around you, and you’re dealing with a pretty stressful situation. Hence, the shouts of joy or cries of frustration.

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It takes grit to work in these kinds of conditions, as your decisions can mean the difference between life and death, not only for you but for your teammates as well. Accidents do happen and sometimes there’s just plain bad luck. But if there is one thing I have learned from my year-abroad, it’s to never let my guard down, no matter my experience level. It is important to remain vigilant and to make the hard, mature decisions when the time comes. Sometimes, ambitions can be so blinding: but I NEED this data. But, the summit is SO close. But…the mountain will still be there. It is important to be proactive and not reactive in the mountains. Know how to read patterns in the weather. Understand what stable and unstable snow slopes feel like. Listen to the wind. Listen to your body. Trust your instincts and know when to keep pushing but also recognize when you need to stand down. Display true grit. Every step and every breath count.

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Reflections

As I sit writing at my desk in Colorado, overlooking the famous Flatirons, I can’t help but be reminded of Nepal. Mountains and open sky – what could be better? But as I watch storm clouds roll in and lightning flash in the distance, I’m reminded that the mountains can take as much as they give. For me, being out there satisfies my thirst for adventure, my need for a physical and mental challenge, and my desire to understand the natural world at an experiential level – getting my hands dirty, quite literally. It’s easy to sit here, in the comfort of the indoors, and forget the hardships of the past year. Yet, the sight of the Boulder Creek makes my blood run cold, as I’m reminded of how I nearly drowned in September. And the sound of a helicopter causes my heart to race, as I remember bodies being long-lined from the Khumbu icefall to nearby our camp.

Having been back a few weeks now, I have told the stories over and over again that I have grown numb to it. What was it like to be at Everest base camp? Terrible. My heart remains broken for the Nepali families who lost husbands, sons and fathers in the Everest avalanche on April 18th. Asman Tamang, one of our team members, leaves behind a young wife and 1 year-old daughter. Why him? Why any of them? Why not one of us?

A month later on Mt. Himlung in central Nepal, what was it like hearing a helicopter in the remote NarPhu valley, coming up the mountain to rescue John? Heart-stopping. What had happened? What is a helicopter doing up here? I feared the worst. At some point in our lives, we are called upon to make tough decisions. Nowhere was that more true than in the Himalaya this season. Stay? Go home? It was a tough call, as our purpose in the mountains was not simply recreation, but conducting scientific research to help us understand the impacts of human activity at the roof of the world. But in the end, lost funds and lost chances pale in comparison to lost lives.

This year, I learned the hard way that one decision can change the course of a life forever. About a month and a half before coming to Nepal, I crashed my bike and nearly broke my back. A few months later, I cut some safety corners when making measurements at Ngozumpa glacier’s outflow channel and nearly paid for it with my life when I fell in the frigid fast-flowing water. To this day, I deal with the aftermath – physically and psychologically. But perhaps these experiences saved my life in the end, as I became more conservative in my approaches to climbing and field science.

Looking at my pack’s broken buckles and worn out straps, tattered trail runners, and weathered field notebooks reminds me of the long hard journey of hundreds of miles that we endured together. I recall the pain of straps digging into my shoulders and hips, the terrible backaches that wouldn’t subside during the day or night, the stomachaches, the unpredictable weather, and the difficult trail and mountain conditions. But I also remind myself that the joy is in the journey, no matter the outcome. Perhaps this is why I keep returning. It is the only way I know how to be happy, if for a fleeting moment. It is the only way I know how to live.

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This past year would not have been possible without the support of so many. THANK YOU!

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Special Thanks to Major Donors:

Ivan and Luba Horodyskyj; Vsev and Monika Horodyskyj; Dr. Lev Horodyskyj; Wasyl Ilczyszyn, RIP; Dr. Hartmut Spetzler; David Breashears (GlacierWorks); Peter and Susan Zollers; Dr. Arthur and Joan Few; Umbe Oliveira-Cantu; Dr. Patricia Reiff; Dr. Adrian Sheremeta; Stephen Scott-Fawcett; Jeff Daulton; Matthew Hellicar; Ben Diedrich; R Subramanian

 Special Thanks to Team Members/Colleagues:

Laurie Vasily, Fulbright Nepal program director

May/June 2013 (Ngozumpa glacier): Sam Ecenia; Ngima Sherpa; Mega Adventures International team

September 2013 (Imja Lake, Island Peak and Ngozumpa glacier): Himalayan Research Expedition team (Dr. Dhananjay Regmi); Ganesh Sharma and Mega Adventures International team; Dr. Daene McKinney; JB Rai; David Rounce; Dr. Emma Marcucci; Dan Zietlow

October/November 2013 (Ngozumpa glacier and Island Peak): Dan Mazur and SummitClimb; Dr. Emma Marcucci; Marty Coleman; Passang Nuru Sherpa; Kami Sherpa

December 2013 (Imja lake, Lobuche East, Cho La and Ngozumpa glacier): Dr. Alton Byers; Novas Media (Yanick Rose, director); Ang Tendi Sherpa; Mega Adventures International team

February 2014 (Annapurna base camp and Annapurna South): Mega Adventures International team; Michael Coote; Radina Kaldamukova; Nima Sherpa

April/May 2014 (EBC, Himlung): Sujan Bhattarai and the whole Himalayan Ecstasy team; Asman Tamang, RIP; Dr. John All; Jake St. Pierre; Chris Cosgriff; David Byrne; Dr. Carl Schmitt

June 2014 (Ngozumpa glacier): Dr. Rijan Bhakta Kayastha; Patrick Rowe; Cecil Goodson; Thamserku Trekking; Chhewang Sherpa; Jo Chaffer; Rakesh Kayastha; David Byrne

Lodge owners, for putting up with all my excess baggage!

Especially: Pasang and Gyalzen Sherpa (Gokyo); Tshering Tashi Sherpa (Gokyo); Tenzing Sherpa (Gokyo); Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa (Tangnak); Pemba Gyaltsen Sherpa (Namche Bazar)

Funds provided by: USAID climber-scientist grant, with the High Mountains Adaptation Partnership; US Fulbright Program; University of Colorado Boulder; National Snow and Ice Data Center; Rice Space Institute; The Explorers Club; Geological Society of America; Rockethub.com sponsors

Other thank you’s for financial and moral support: Dr. Richard Armstrong; Robert Atwater; Dr. Doug Benn; Ulana Bihun; Dr. Roger Bilham; Joanne Brunetti; John Cassese; Mike Davidson; Julia DeMarines; Teresa Garcia; Tommy Gustafsson; Lisa Harris; Rob Hoyt; Dr. Brian Hynek; Colin Johnson; Maida Jensen; Vera Kaikobad; Alia Khan; Benjamin Kibel; Bohdan Kurylko; Nancy Lathrop; Mike Libecki; Jessia Parra Nowajewski; John Pitzel; Diana Pope; Vince Poulin; Bruce Raup; Diana and Nick Reba; Martin Schoernig; Ronnie Schroeder; Ang Phula Sherpa; Mingmar Dorji Sherpa; Drazen Paco Simicevic; Alexander Sokolenko; Amrit Thapa; Dr. Sarah Thompson; Glennda Tingle; Nancy Vanacore; Joe Zamudio

 

 

 

 

 

Scientific American Blog Series from Mt. Everest and Himlung: April-June 2014

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/2014/04/07/climbing-mount-everest-my-search-for-dirty-snow/

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/2014/04/18/climbing-mount-everest-base-camp-bound-after-a-glacial-detour/

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/2014/05/01/climbing-mount-everest-hostility-follows-deadly-avalanche/

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/2014/06/17/climbing-mount-everest-risking-life-and-limb-for-science/

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/expeditions/2014/06/23/climbing-mount-everest-black-soot-on-white-snow/

 

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Annapurna Dreams

A thunderstorm.  In February?  Indeed, this is how we were welcomed to the Annapurna Sanctuary in central Nepal about a month ago: with rolling thunder, echoing off the mountains; bright lightning striking too close for comfort; and heavy rain that turned to sleet and then wet and heavy snow, as we trekked higher and higher. The beauty of such storms is the aftermath – the snow, frosting all the trees, turns the landscape into an incredible winter wonderland. The silence is deafening.  And, when the sun comes out, everything begins to sparkle – as well as plop on your head from the trees above!

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The variable weather definitely reminded me of home – of Colorado, where you can experience all four seasons in one day. You have to be prepared for anything. Indeed, that has been the motto for this year abroad. From a lingering monsoon in late September, to a cyclone in mid-October, to a storm on the seas near Thailand late November, and to a blizzard in December during the Glacier Olympics, nature has certainly wreaked havoc with my plans. So, I really wasn’t surprised that it happened yet again.

 

The weather improved over the next few days, affording us beautiful views of the Annapurna massif and the famous Fishtail (Machhapuchhre) mountain. The trails were new for me, so I had no idea how long our days would be – or how difficult (steep).  This was refreshing, as, by now, my heart sinks every time I am faced with the prospect of the very steep trail from Namche Bazar (the Sherpa capital of the Khumbu) to Dole, on my way to my main research sites on the Ngozumpa glacier near Gokyo village.

 

The Annapurna region is different from the Khumbu in a few key ways.  Given the lower altitude, there are no yaks and thus, no yak-dung burning for warmth in the evenings. Fires burn lower down but, above tree level, the only option is a portable gas heater, which is placed under the table. This costs 150 Rs. (about $1.50) per person, so everyone has to agree to have the heater. On cold nights, there is no question.

 

I was surprised at how much of the route is accessible via road.  It is much easier for food and supplies to be transported to the villages, unlike in the Khumbu where porters carry heavy loads for days.  But on the environmental side of things, vehicles kick up more dust and release black carbon (soot) into the air much closer to the glaciers, aiding in their decline. Access to new “junk food” leads to more trash – e.g., coke bottles – along trail, too.

 

Above a certain altitude in the Annapurna Sanctuary, bottled water is no longer allowed, given the trash generated. This is a step in the right direction, yet bottled soda and canned beer is still allowed. The Khumbu has yet to introduce any regulation.  If you have ever smelled burning plastic, it is pretty terrible. I have seen the black smoke from village trash pits drifting towards the mountains high in the Khumbu, as well as yaks and horses eating discarded bottles and cardboard boxes. Surely, something should be done about this for the sake of the health of people, animals, and environment alike.

 

After days of walking uphill, we finally arrived to the Sanctuary, or, Annapurna base camp (ABC). It is easy to see how it got its name. The mountains are so close and they envelop you on all sides. You feel protected in this bowl. However, the steepness of the surrounding terrain does make the trails to get here more hazardous than in the Khumbu. Avalanche danger can run quite high, so it is important to travel early in the day.

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At ABC, Michael Coote, an American Climber Science Program volunteer, and Nima Sherpa, a Sherpa-Scientist trainee, attempted to get down to the lower Annapurna South glacier, while I scouted from above along the lateral moraine. Progress was incredibly slow with the recent snowfall. Given this was the climbing off-season, our sampling target Tharpu Chuli was out of the question. Simply breaking trail to its base camp would be exhausting, backbreaking work. Instead, we climbed along the higher Annapurna South glacier on some pretty steep terrain, taking photos along the way and collecting snow samples and GPS points from different elevations. The point was to compare these snow samples with those collected in the Khumbu, in the search for black carbon.

 

We had a very short window for this work, as during the day lenticular clouds appeared over the mountains, indicating possible unsettled weather ahead.  Indeed, that night clouds rolled up the valley and it did not stop snowing until late the next day. We took the opportunity to sample the fresh snow as it fell. Snow that settles on the ground for a while mixes its contaminants – that which fell with the snow from the atmosphere and any wind-blown dust. Fresh snow “sweeps” contaminants out of the atmosphere and can be used as a proxy for how “clean” the air was (or wasn’t) prior to the storm.

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By lunchtime, the blizzard was not clearing but we decided we should get a move on lest we get snowed in. Walking down was a surreal experience – getting coated head to toe in snow and being able to see only about 100 feet around you. I felt as if I was in a real live snowglobe. Down and down we went, on slippery trails, wishing luck to those still attempting to get to ABC in deteriorating conditions. Lower down, the snow turned to graupel that, at high speeds, can sting when striking your head and hands. After a few hours of this, we decided to stop for the night. Everything was damp but, being at lower elevation, it was not terribly cold. That night, sitting around the table eating hot food, enjoying the heater beneath the table, and watching the clouds yet again overtake the valley, I was grateful that we got down safely.

 

The next morning was an early start. I had terribly cold feet as I was wearing only trailrunners. Given the steepness of the valleys, it takes quite a while for the sun to reach down to the trails. Yet these shoes were preferred to my mountaineering boots given the rocky muddy trail, a testament to multiple freeze-thaw cycles throughout the past week. About an hour into the trek down, we encountered a massive avalanche slide across the trail. Big blocks, some as big as me, of snow, ice and rock had violently swept down from above sometime in the morning as the sun rose. The storm earlier in the week, coupled with sun for a few days, and then fresh snowfall two days before with melting in between made conditions ripe for an avalanche. It was the first one I had seen up close and we did not linger, except to take a few documentation photos.

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Overall, I found the trails in the Annapurna region more challenging than the Khumbu given the amount of up and down in any given day. Lower altitude, though, did make it easier on the lungs. Before heading back to the city of Pokhara, we enjoyed some hot springs along the way and learned about the Gurung people in Ghandruk village, our last stop. It was nice to see and experience a different part of Nepal.  Sometimes when I work in the same place for a long time, I take for granted the beauty around me.  The Annapurna Sanctuary reawakened my senses, reminding me that nature needs to be respected, as it can be unpredictable and unforgiving. This reminder I carry with me as I set off for the 4th highest peak in the world, Mt. Lhotse, later this week.

 

 

 

Snowy Trails

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.    

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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. 

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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. 

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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: 

http://www.rockethub.com/projects/39241-sponsor-science-to-the-summit-mt-everest-lhotse-research-expedition

 

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On Solitude

My last week on the Ngozumpa glacier and its large supraglacial lake was a unique experience.  In recent months, when working with a team, I set a pretty demanding work schedule.  But when working on my own, I kind of let my body dictate the schedule.  That’s because when working alone, there is a lot more at stake.  Being strong, physically and mentally, is important.  Keeping your wits about you, crucial. 

So, what’s it like out there, on your own?  Well, for one, it’s quite the surreal experience.  You feel as if the surrounding terrain – the soaring white peaks – have been photoshopped in.  The sky is a darker blue.   Sensory overload!  The silence is imposing – at least until you hear the ice cracking underfoot, or strange “squid” noises coming from the nether regions of the lake.   Your senses are more attuned to your surroundings. 

When I first ventured out onto the partially frozen glacial lake, I was cautious and wary.  I tested the ice cover with an ice axe, then an ice drill.  And I brought along a lifevest and safety rope, anchoring myself to shore, when attempting to remove instruments in the ice/water.  I trusted my previous experience to guide me and, if in doubt, I’d either get off the ice, or crawl, creating more surface area in case of cracking.  I sometimes had music playing from shore, to keep me company and sane.

The nice thing about working in this way is that you are free to do what you want, when you want, how you want, and only if it feels safe – you have to trust your instincts.  The latter I particularly enjoy, as it’s easy to get “soft” when living in civilization for too long.   I also like not necessarily having much guidance out in the field.  Have I made mistakes out there?  Sure.  Have I learned from them?  An unbelievable amount; more than I would have if someone was standing over me, telling me what to do.  I’ve seen my abilities and attitude towards challenging situations change since my first time out on the ice more than 2 years ago.   More confidence and detachment (not getting emotional if instruments fail), along with healthy doses of humility when things don’t go according to plan (more times than I care to count!).

Though I enjoy the company of others while up here, I also appreciate when I can spend time on the glacier, get to know it better, on my own terms and my own timeline.  I’ve said it before, but it continues to ring true for me.  When you can just sit, watch and listen, you learn so much more.  The data – in number form – that I’ve collected are invaluable.  But, giving the glacier a “face” from all the imagery and time-lapse sequences, I find important, too. 

Do I take risks while out here?  Yes.  I’ll be the first to admit that.  But they’re calculated risks, not reckless.  My years of experience in the outdoors – from soloing in Greenland when I was 21, to now soloing in the Himalaya at age 27 – guide me and keep me safe.  After all, I have much to live for and a special someone to come back to. Image

The Storm

It started raining soon after we arrived to Namche, the last big stop before you head further up into the Himalaya. Earlier in the day, the sky had been an unsettled color – unusual for October. I instinctively knew something was wrong. When I was finally able to get online, I saw the satellite imagery of a massive cyclone off the coast of India. We were in for quite the storm here, the reason being the Himalaya. The moisture has to go somewhere, after all. As the clouds ram up against the mountains, they release their moisture – in the form of snow at the higher elevations, and rain lower down.

Two and a half days after arriving, we finally ventured from our shelter and attempted to go higher. The trail was very muddy and slippery, transitioning to snow around the 13,000 ft. mark. My big boots were in storage at Gokyo, at 15,500 ft. so I pretty much trashed my trail runners and my feet on the way up – nothing to be done. As we went higher, the snow got deeper – from one foot to over five feet. Avalanche tracks stopped just a few feet from the “trail” at times. In short, it was quite trying, getting up to Gokyo. Imagine a newly broken in path on slushy snow, on a particularly steep section, with rocks raining down on occasion from above. You don’t want to linger or take your time traversing that bit – for those familiar with peaks in Colorado, it was like the Narrows on Longs Peak – but if you go too fast, you could slip and end up in the river, hundreds of feet lower down. I’ve been in that river before and had no desire to swim in it again!

Once in Gokyo, we broke trail up to and along the moraine, to get an overlook of the glacier and start some measurements of snow albedo changes (how reflectivity changes as the snow starts to melt) and collect snow samples, for dust and pollution measurement. The blanket of snow on the ground appeared white to the naked eye, while the filters from the melted snow samples came back brown. Thus, in just days after the storm, the snow was far from pristine. That was pretty eye-opening.

Crossing the glacier to the next village (Tangnak) proved difficult. Thankfully, the trail was partially broken in by a team of Sherpas the day before. But even still, what usually takes just over an hour to cross took over three hours, in the hot sun. You’d think it would be pretty cold up here at 15,500 feet. But, with all the snow on the ground, and relatively high albedo, it was like walking in an oven. You couldn’t go for five minutes before feeling parched and wasted. All of us ended up with some form of sunburn, despite 50-70 SPF sunscreen.

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Once in Tangnak, we collected more snow samples, to compare with Gokyo. Then, two of us ventured out to Spillway lake, to collect more snow, on the glacier, versus near the villages. We also got eyes on some of the instruments. Most are still buried or frozen into the lake surface, as expected. Recovery will be attempted in about a week, if conditions (lots of sunshine) remain good. To get to the site required about one mile RT of post-holing through very deep snow. From the knees, to the hops, to even the shoulders at one point, we battled the snow to finally make it to the lake. I was so tired by the end that I ended up crawling to my overlook point. This proved effective, given my greater surface area, but led to numb knees and
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The work out here is physically and mentally demanding. You get so tired. Your pack becomes a burden. You begin to question your sanity. Is this really worth it, you may ask. Whatever it took – post holing, crawling, *was* worth it, to me, to do some good science, yes, but to also experience something few others would – a quiet winter wonderland, deep in the Himalaya. Nature is still doing its thing, regardless of any witnesses. So, when you get a chance to be a witness, it’s pretty special. For me, the glacier is not simply rock and ice – it comes alive in front of my eyes. I feel privileged to be out here, for extended time periods, studying its “moods” and really beginning to understand how the whole glacier system works.

First Impressions and Reflections

Impressions of Kathmandu:

I started to realize that I was getting close to Nepal when I was at the Bangkok airport waiting for the flight. The people were different from what I had encountered on the way over. The Kathmandu Airport (KTM) looked like a typical small airport from the sky, however, on the ground I soon realized I was in a completely new country with many different types of people. There were worn buildings, worn vehicles, and a general sense of busyness. As I left the terminal and saw hundreds of people across the barrier waiting, waving, and holding signs with names, I couldn’t help but feel some trepidation. However, as I entered the crowd I soon realized they were polite. Thankfully, they did not try to overwhelm the visitor in their midst.

Nepal was different from most 3rd world countries I have visited. Kathmandu is a city of about 7 million for the entire valley with narrow – almost one-lane – streets, many tiny businesses, signs everywhere, people slowly walking different places, and cars, scooters and motorcycles incessantly beeping. One has to stay on one’s toes! At first the many signs and noises are a little overwhelming. However, I found myself getting into the rhythm. It brought back memories of Mexico, the Philippine Islands, and Hong Kong. Businesses seem to have lots of employees and little automation. It is easy to feel safe here. Kathmandu is an adventure.

Kathmandu to Lukla:

We were scheduled for a 7:30 am flight. I was met at the hotel at 6 am. We picked up Ulyana and Emma at 6:30 am and arrived at the airport at 7. We then started what is a well-known part of the Nepal experience – waiting. The weather, unreliable power, and generally challenging environment can lead to delays. I think an expectation that there WILL be a delay is built into the local psyche.

There appeared to be two sections to the airport – one for flights within Nepal and one for the international flights. We went to the local section. It was crowded with people that looked as if they were there to trek and climb, lots of big expedition bags piled onto carts and trip coordinators running around trying to get their people out.

Although flights have scheduled times, none seem to leave on schedule. We waited and were finally able to leave after several hours. The place was a worn Cessna 206 that was set up to seat 12, with expedition bags piled behind the four rows of seats. Some of the plane hardware (interior lights, for example) did not work.

The plane noisily took off, and everyone filled with excitement knowing we were headed to Lulka: the gateway to trekking and climbing in the areas around Mt Everest. It was a lively ride, as is typical in a small plane, especially when we crossed mountain ridges. We were so close at times, I felt as though I could reach out and touch the mountains.

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The Lukla runway, sloping noticeably uphill, is surrounded by mountains and starts at a cliff. I realized when we left that our takeoff direction meant we would leave the runway as we went over the cliff – we better be airborne. The plane headed down with a steep approach and hit the runway very hard, getting tossed into the air a bit and to the right. Everyone’s hearts had to be in their mouths for a moment! Then, we were down and taxiing.

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Porters picked up our two expedition bags, we put backpacks on our backs and headed out on the trail to Monjo, a small village with a few homes and a few smaller Teahouses. It was about a 9.6 mile trek and took about 5 hours with the lunch stop. Monjo and Lukla are about the same altitude. However, the undulating trail involved many steep ascents and descents so we gained and lost thousands of feet along the way. We were continually going up or down for the entire trail.

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We stopped for lunch at the Sunrise Lodge near Phakding. These trails are the only connection between the small villages and homes along the way, and many are paved with large uneven rocks embedded the dirt. There were long stairs at some places and many swinging bridges – steel cables with metal walkways. It was not uncommon to encounter teams of Yaks, cows, and porters carrying huge loads of goods between villages. Most homes or village buildings were constructed using local rock, hand-hewn to resemble large blocks and stacked with a little cement to tie them together. All have tin roofs of many colors.

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We spent the night at a Teahouse (lodge) in Monjo. It was very pleasant. The center of activity for all Teahouses is a large room with many windows, with benches along the walls and tables and chairs. The rooms are decorated with local pictures, often of people associated with Buddhist beliefs, but other times of mountains and climbers.

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The Teahouse kitchen is next to this room. This is also where you check in to obtain a room. It is the only room in the teahouse that is heated. In the evening and mornings it has many people sitting in it talking, eating, playing cards and etc. Throughout the day you find a few people in this this Teahouse room because it is pleasant and feels comfortable. The rooms are very basic: just a thin mattress on plywood for a bed and one light. Most have no electric outlets. In the nicer lodges you may find some rooms with a bathroom and an electric outlet. Some of those may even have an electric blanket. The rooms are not heated. In the US you might question the quality or cleanliness, but in the Himalaya they are a warm, pleasant oasis providing protection from the elements.

Monjo to Namche Bazaar:

The trek to Namche was just a few hours it ended with a very steep climb. Namche is the Sherpa people’s capital. We stayed at the Khumbi Lodge. It was step above the last Teahouse and my room had a bathroom with shower, an electric outlet and a mattress heater. The common room was large and pleasant surrounded by windows. The manager seemed educated. Namche has a Starbucks (!), an Irish Pub, about five bakery / coffeeshops and a number of businesses selling trekking and climbing gear. The people here are from all over the world. I’ve met people from Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and other places. We still seem forests and wood is used for heat. In a few thousand feet we will be out of the forests and yak dung is used for heat.

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Nepal weather has been significantly impacted by India’s recent Cyclone. It has rained continually for days. There has been significant snow fall above us – one place we are headed, Gokyo, has already received 3 feet of snow. There have been avalanches beyond us and people have died. This disrupted our plan to leave Namche today. Just got word that there is 8 ft of new snow where we are trying to go. Groups of people are being stranded by avalanches. May have to sit out things here for a bit.

The Freedom of the Hills

What are you thinking about when your body is straining to go uphill, while struggling to breathe in the thin air?  You may think about how much your muscles hurt.  You may concentrate on your breathing: in and out.  You are fully immersed in the now, in the moment.  Your life depends on your presence in the now.  Your mind is free of the shackles of society – problems from back home temporarily disappear.  They don’t matter.  Imagine what freedom!  To be fully present and living in the moment.   That’s why I climb – it’s simple.  It brings me to life.  Nature is my therapy.  The key, though, is to retain this state of mind in the everyday.  That remains a struggle. 

Being able to couple this passion for the high places with my scientific interests has been challenging.  Recently, it has resulted in carrying packs more than half my body weight; a diet of soup, potatoes, and candy bars while in the field; long hours; sore legs; and sometimes utter despair, when data collection fails or malfunctions.  There simply isn’t much money out there for such a career track.  You’re either a climber or a scientist.  Not both.  Hence, an identity crisis of sorts emerges.  But both can (and should!) be done.  After all, the early expeditions in the Himalaya were driven by scientific objectives, as much as climbing ones.Image

A good friend recently told me, getting to do what you love is a ferocious battle.  I agree.  This path has not been easy.  It takes physical toughness to work in the mountains, for sure.  But it also takes mental toughness, to face failures and disappointments with grace and humility.  It is very easy to give in.  I reflect on this in particular, after nearly drowning on my last trip.  In that moment, when I went in the water in a strong current, and when I could have let go of the safety rope, I didn’t.  Despite recent hardships and challenges, I chose life.  I fought for it.  Lessons from nature apply to our everyday lives; we need to choose to listen, though.

Impressions (By Emma)

Climbing into the car after 24+ hours of traveling, I was simultaneously trying to get to know Tendi (a wonderfully helpful and knowledgeable Sherpa) and to ignore the crazy traffic I was immersed in.  I have traveled to some pretty crazy places in terms of traffic (Morocco and Istanbul), but the streets of Kathmandu are hands down the most chaotic I’ve experienced.  The apartment in Baluwatar sits just off a main road, but is surprisingly quiet (except the barking dogs at night, which can drive me nuts!).  When I ventured around the city, I was struck by the similarity of Nepali and Indian cultures (at least how I perceived it, having never been to India).  After just a week of city noises and dirt, I was more than ready to head to the mountains.  The domestic airport is an attraction in and of itself.  Fortunately Tendi was along and did the talking while we stood there trying to keep track of our luggage, which seemed to move around at random with the porters.  We got through security at about the same time our flight was scheduled to leave, so we were hustled onto a bus, then onto the smallest plane I had ever been on (at least until that point!).

I read about the uniqueness of the Lukla airport, but the flight and landing weren’t too out of the ordinary except for coming awfully close to some ridges.  Unfortunately because we had a bunch of science equipment, our luggage was too heavy to be on our plane and two of our bags were put on a later flight.  Doubly unfortunately, weather caused the flights after ours to be cancelled.  There was a glimmer of hope when we heard the props start, but that was just a flight leaving.  Despite the delay we pressed on with the trek.  One porter took the bag that did arrive and guided us the first two days, while the guide and other porter waited in Lukla for the rest of our stuff.  I admit I was not a happy camper, or hiker as the case was, because one of the missing bags was my own, which had all of my warm layers.  The first night in Phakding, I got no sleep because I was so cold (little did I know that I could ask for blankets!).  The hill into Namche Bazar was not as bad as people made it out to be, but the afternoon rain did little for my mood or my expectation that flights were arriving to Lukla with our luggage.  About an hour after dinner, Babu (our Sherpa guide) arrived with the other porter and our bags!  I cannot explain the elation I felt knowing I would be warm and cozy to sleep that night.  I was also hugely impressed that Babu and the porter made it to Namche Bazar loaded with luggage in 5 hours (for reference we tourists took about 7 hours over two days!).  The rest of the trek was mainly that-trekking.  We had beautiful views (no Everest) and met interesting people.  The day we left Namche Bazar for Dole was probably the most trying day.  After hiking up, up, up stairs for an hour, we stopped for tea.  I was happy figuring we had done all of the elevation increase we needed to do for the day, but then Babu said we would have lunch down by the river.  “But the river is thousands of feet below us!?” was my initial thought.  Sure enough, we spend the next hour going down, down, down.  How disheartening to lose all of that elevation.  Every downward step was so frustrating.

Upon arrival to Gokyo, the lodge proprietors greeted us with hot mango juice (aka mango tang).  We knew we had at least one day to unwind before Ulyana came, so we trekked up Gokyo Ri.  The timing worked out well for us–slightly cloudy at the start, but clear (still no Everest) at the summit.  During this week of trekking, it interested me to see how different the mountain culture was from that in the city, closer to Tibetan.  The food was also radically different with trekking lodge menus full of carb-loaded dished (fried rice, fried noodles, fried potatoes, and momos (or dumplings)).  By the end of the trip, I was ready for a flavor (any flavor) that wasn’t on these menu, which are the same at all of the lodges, except the prices go up as you get higher.  On that note, you do get a lot of food for a couple of bucks.  And there is a surprising amount of ‘American’ snack foods (Coke/Sprite, Mars/Snickers bars, Pringles).  All of these had to be trekked in by porters, who can’t be human.  Some of them carry 90 kilo loads, while only weighing 45 kilos!!

But back to why we are in the Himalaya…Ulyana arrived a couple days after us (I did like having a day where I didn’t put on my hiking boots–and getting a chance to wash my hair!).  With the arrival of Ulyana, the science began.  I have seen photos of the lakes used in this study, but seeing it in person is quite different.  To start, the area covered is much larger and more rock-covered than I imagined.  Ngozumpa glacier is a long tongue of ice sandwiched between two moraine walls and covered with rocks.  It’s a bit odd, coming over a ridge to see this rocky channel with another ridge on the other side.  Moving around the glacier required a fair amount of scrambling over loose debris.  There were definitely a few instances where I felt one wrong step would set off a rock slide.  Although a six day commute to ‘work’ at altitude is the farthest I have gone, the workplace setting is too beautiful to describe in words.  It is also amazing when you realize that you are at 15,000+ feet and there are still mountains towering over you.  The work required tough days (long distances, unstable debris, and freezing lake water), but was incredibly rewarding and the people we met were so nice.  Ulyana’s excitement was easily contagious over the weeks we were there.

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The end of the expedition was bittersweet.  I think we were all happy to be heading towards a comfortable apartment with a shower, but sad to leave the peace of the mountains.  Weather in Lukla had delayed two days’ worth of flights, which fortunately cleared out the day we returned to Lukla.  So I have yet to experience the weather-wait.  However, the experience at the Lukla airport was quite different from the one in Kathmandu.  It was a study in frustration.  After checking in the day before, we were told to return in a couple hours to get our departure time.  After a pushy 45-minute wait, we were told “6am.”  The chocolate cake, caramel hot chocolate, and big screen TV movie channel at ‘Starbucks’ in town was our reward.  Going to the airport the next morning renewed the frustration as the desks weren’t even open and when they did, it was a pushy waiting game once again.  Of course, once through security, which was so poorly lit, I’m not sure how they would see anything, it was waiting game number three.  However, Ganesh (our logistics person based in Kathmandu) worked his magic and got us on an earlier flight (and a new record for smallest plane I’ve been on).  Good, since Kathmandu weather was rainy and questionable.  The downhill hurtle to takeoff was the most apprehensive part of any of the flights, but you just have to trust the pilots.  I can’t imagine being a pilot and doing that run for the first time.  Despite the near constant rain since we’ve been back to the city, it is nice to have showered and eaten some different food, but I am sure I will be happy to get back to the mountains next week.