Ulyana: Wrapping Up

Early last week, the remaining members of the GlacierWorks and Black Ice teams packed up and headed for home while  I stayed behind to wrap up a few aspects of the project.  Being here on my own has been a unique experience.  While walking miles over unstable debris on the glacier was merely a nuisance in the past, now I had to be much more careful of causing rock slides and falling.  Though the adrenaline ran high at times, it was also a great opportunity to really listen to the glacier, without any distractions.  From the booming of debris collapses, to the gurgling of glacial lake water beneath its frozen ice cover, there was no shortage of noise, despite this being the “quiet and stable” season.

For my foray up the glacier, 15 kilometers away, I recruited the help of two trekkers, eager for an adventure.  Camping and cooking at 5200 meters was a challenge, especially as temperatures dipped to -20 C.  Sleeping was difficult as we packed three of us into a 2-person tent (at least that made it a bit warmer!)  The nearly full moon cast a beautiful glow on the surrounding mountains, so, when I could not sleep, I braved the cold and took night photos of Cho Oyu.  Throughout the early morning, I heard a few avalanches come down its slopes.  That, coupled with the sometimes fierce gusts of wind, made me realize how far out we were, away from civilization.  Instead of frightening, it was a liberating feeling.  For me, being out here is not only about understanding the science of what is happening, but also appreciating and respecting the beauty and power of nature.  When out in nature, I finally feel that I am home, in a place I understand and where I can be understood.

James: The Albedo Effect

Before leaving on the expedition, our intrepid student explorer, James, met with students from Milton Academy. Together they reviewed projects that aligned with the expedition’s scientific goals and selected one that studied the albedo (or reflectivity) of various materials found in a sample area of the Ngozumpa glacier. Below, James describes his experience of collecting this data.


One day on the trip, we used the field spectrometer, which is a tool that measures albedo. Albedo is the scientific term used to describe the reflectivity of a surface. The field spectrometer is a backpack that you wear and it has a pistol grip fiber optic lens that you point at the ground to measure the albedo. The backpack itself weighs about 20 pounds but the way it is built it is pretty uncomfortable to wear.


The way we use the machine is pretty simple: we walked transects of about 100 feet and every ten paces we would stop and initialize the machine. When we took a reading I would press a button on the laptop strapped to my chest and then the fiber optic lens would take ten readings and average them. When the machine finished collecting data I would move on another ten paces and repeat the process. The transect went over various types materials including ice, snow and loose rubble.


After about an hour we completed the transect and headed inside. It was such cool experience using such advanced scientific tools, not only because the device looked like one of the Ghostbuster backpacks. The data I collected is being sent back to Milton Academy so the students I collaborated with can use it in their studies.


James: Reflection

Recently, a student at the British School of Boston asked a what it’s like to be on the glacier and how our team was able to navigate the terrain. We sent the question along to James Harvard, who used it to reflect on his experience thus far.


When I was seven or eight, I would often visit an abandoned gravel pit down the road from my house. When I scrambled up and down the steep slopes of the pit, I imagined that I was scrambling up and down giant mountains. Little did I know that I was gaining the skills needed to travel on debris-covered glaciers.

When I picture a glacier in my mind, I see giant crevasses and snow covered ice fields.  What I am currently experiencing in the Himalaya is far from the pure ice I see in my mind! The glacial terrain that I have come to know here in is more like the moon than the glacier I imagined. The glacial surface is covered with mounds of rock and debris stacked and strewn about like two-ton Lego bricks. Blades of ice pierce the chaotic rocks. Beneath the debris mounds there could be a massive ice structure, a tunnel, or maybe even a subterranean river.

In some places massive ice walls can be seen slowly retreating under the sun’s rays. Each exposure of ice has its own character, some are black while others, only 200 paces away, are a pale shade of blue. From a photograph one might mistakenly assume that the glacier is quiet and still. The sounds of falling rocks and cracking ice are always present, reminding me that the glacier is indeed alive and active, even though it’s actually dying. As the sun beats down on the bare ice water drips and freezes forming icicles. But even these icicles are fleeting and soon after they fall and shatter.

All of the liquid water on the debris-covered glacier pools to form lakes of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Ice covers the majority of the lakes as winter sets in, but some are the most beautiful shade of pale blue-green. On some lakes the ice is only as thick as tracing paper. Hidden a few meters beneath the murky lake water one finds the bottom composed of rock, mud, and ice. These bodies of water are by no means fixed or stable; they seem to rise and drain constantly. Rushing water runs between lakes in tunnels that form a river system within the ice. You might come across a basin left dry and bare because the water escaped through a tunnel leaving behind plates of shattered ice that once formed the ice surface.

There is a heavily beaten trail to cross the glacier. The path is so tame that yaks can cross it with no trouble at all. If you venture off this standard route, the terrain becomes noticeably more treacherous. Each step must be carefully made to avoid dangerously loose rocks, plates of slippery ice or piles of what I call “sinking sand.” Though there are no crevasses it is easy to cause a rockslide that could carry you off a 100-foot ice cliff. No matter where you are or what direction you look you see the unique features of this moon-like environment. Whether it’s the vegetation struggling to reclaim the barren moraine walls or the massive peaks framing skyline I am inspired and sometimes awestruck by the beauty
of this place.

I just described is a small portion of the debris-covered Ngozumpa that I have been exploring for the last two weeks. I know little of the highest reaches of the glacier, the accumulation zone. By all accounts, this portion of the glacier should reflect what most assume to be a typical glacier. Perhaps high on the slopes of Chu Oyu, the 6th highest
mountain on Earth, you would find the crevasses or rolling ice fields that fit my mind’s image of a glacier. What I have seen and experienced here will stay with me for my entire life. The beauty and danger of this strange, otherworldly rock-covered glacier has changed me with its complexity and mystery.

James: On the Trail

Today I made the walk from Dranak back to Gokyo, The path goes over the glacier and through a maze of rock and debris mounds that are probably about 1 or 2 stories tall.

The trail itself only takes about an hour and a half and is relatively easy. I think the most interesting thing you see from the trail is a lake that has rapidly drained, leaving large sheets of ice in the now-dry lakebed. In the distance you can see Mt. Cholatse, a beautiful snow covered peak. Cholatse looks like a very difficult climb both physically and technically.  Last night in Dranak I stayed at the Chola Pass Resort which is run by a man named Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa. Lhakpa was telling me that he is related to several of the lodge owners in the valley and that in times of trouble they all help each other. Tenzin and Tashi, two of the proprietors of the Gokyo lodge, are actually Lhakpa’s nephews.

James: Doing Science

Today I went out on the supraglacial lakes with Sarah, one of the glaciologists. The purpose of today’s work was to measure the depth of the lake at various points. The method for doing this is pretty simple: we would pick a point, wet the ice with a bit of water, and then use a commercial fish finder to measure the depth of the lake bed.

We put water on the ice so the device can get a clear reading, otherwise the fishfinder will only measure the thickness of the ice. I think in total we measured about 100 to 150 spots. It was really cool to see the differences in depth – for instance, some places were a half-meter and others only a few paces a way were 16 meters! With all of this raw data, Sarah will be able to map out the depth of the lake and also be able to show the change in the depth over time.

James: A Peak Experience

Today we went up to the summit of Gokyo Ri. It was approximately 18,000 feet, and boy did I feel the altitude! It took about an hour and a half, but it felt like forever. When I finally got to the top, I could see for miles. I could see Everest, Lhotse, and many other huge mountains. As I reached the summit, the sun began to set and the mountains turned a beautiful shade of light pink, then dark pink, then a sort of maroon, and then purple until only the mountain silhouette was left. As I began the walk down, all the light faded from the mountain and the sky became dark. I turned on my headlamp and continued down. The trail was illuminated in front of me, and the sky was a dark blue and clear of all clouds. Over a jagged mountain peak a crescent moon shone in bright silver. Today was the
highest I have ever been, and I won’t soon forget how magical it was.

James: Inside the Glacier

Today was so much fun – we went into an ice cave! When we first approached the cave, David and Sarah went in to determine that it was safe. After about 30 minutes David came out and told me it was safe to enter, and I was so excited! When I got in and turned on my headlamp, the entire cavern turned light blue.

We walked through and kept going and going until suddenly we popped out on the other side. I was so surprised to realize that it wasn’t a cave but a full tunnel! The ceiling was coated in ice crystals that looked like snowflakes frozen in time.

The tunnel split and we took the right path – the left path, we suspect, went further down beneath the glacier.

Compared to the Lirung glacier, there is much more to see and do here on Ngozumpa. There are ice caves, exposed glacial walls, and the fact that it is so much bigger than Lirung. Every day I feel the temperature dropping a bit but its still quite manageable. Tomorrow I plan on going up Gokyo Ri. It should take about three hours up and two hours down and I’m hoping to go around sunset.

Ulyana: Triumphs and Trials

The past few days have seen their ups and downs.  The up side: a few days ago, we hiked to the top of the true Gokyo Ri via a lesser known route — more of a scrambling/climbing route than a hike up that trekkers usually take.  It was very steep and loose.  It literally took my breath away!  The views from the top were absolutely stunning!  We had a beautiful wind-free day at 18,000 ft.  We took lots of pictures and the last bits of filming were done here.  By far, my favorite day of the expedition.

The down side:  my time-lapse cameras from last summer caused quite a stir here, when a reporter filmed them a few weeks ago and claimed they were Chinese spy cameras.  I was only able to recover one of them (out of three).  The data loss is a loss not only to me, but to the community as well, so I hope I can recover them.  I am down at Namche now, where I spoke with the National Park Service, to smooth things over.  In addition, I just visited the World’s Highest Dental Clinic to fix a crown.  What a cool place!  I was proud to be able to support, in a small financial way, what they are doing for the locals here.  Now, my plan is to hire a horse back up to the glacier, so that I can save my strength a bit for the weeks ahead.

Pema: The Ice Wall

As usual we traveled with Ulyana and Sarah and their team to the glacial lakes near our lodge in Thangnag.  We spent just a few hours in the morning working on the glacier, which was great. I saw the glacier was covered by a thin layer of snow, which made it look like a field of snow, especially on the lakes. I had the opportunity to ask more questions to Ulyana about the scientific methodology that allows us to calculate the temperature, and how much the sun reflects on the glacier in different ways depending on the surface material.  We returned to the lodge for another delicious meal at the Chola Pass Resort and spent some time packing up.

After that we headed towards Gokyo, elevation 4790m.  On the way to Gokyo from Thagnag we crossed the Ngozumpa Glacier.  Along the way, we saw a massive ice wall which we were able to learn about from Ulyana and Sarah as it related to their research.  After almost two hours we reached to Gokyo just as the fog rolled in.  Tomorrow we are going to the Gokyo side of Ngozumpa Glacier to make some volume calculations and learn about Perched Lakes.


Pema: Spectrometers and Spreadsheets

Like yesterday, I went with the team to the Ngozumpa glacier.  Like yesterday, I felt that I learned more about the scientific methodology that helps us understand more about glaciers through the use of instruments such as the “spectrometer”, which measures albedo.  The weather was good until the end of the day when thick clouds rolled in and we returned to our lodge.  After a great day on the glacier, we returned back to the lodge and enjoyed a delicious lunch. Then after lunch, Ulyana and I worked on plotting some of the data that we collected on the glacier.

Ulyana taught me how to enter the data into a spreadsheet and also to understand the data and what it means. For the first time, I came to know about how much solar reflection affects snow versus ice or vegetation.  This makes me surprised to learn. I am really enjoying all that I am learning about such topics.  I was able to do some independent research while experimenting with the instruments they were teaching us about.  Tomorrow we will be on the glacier in the morning and learning new techniques, and then in the afternoon we will travel the town of Gokyo where I have been before.  It’s a very nice place and I am looking forward to returning there!