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
hands.

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.

Highlights and Hardships: Sept 10 – 25

The past two weeks have been filled with a lot of activity. Here is a breakdown of the good and the hard.

– Solo scrambling up Chukkhung Ri, a 5500 meter peak.

– Seeing the large Imja lake (1 km long) for the first time and realizing how catastrophic a flood there could be.

– Enduring a Friday the 13th sleet and snowstorm on the 2.5 mile commute from Imja lake to our base camp.

– Helping out with UT Austin’s glacier measurements and learning a lot in the process.

– Sampling ice high up on Imja Tse (Island Peak).

– Enduring a chest cold/congestion high up on Imja Tse.

– Having the huge Lhotse wall, at about 10k ft. higher, greet us each morning at base camp (when it wasn’t misty).

– Witnessing avalanches and calving (collapsing ice) in the region – you really get a feel for the region when you sit, wait, watch and listen.

– Crossing the Cho La, a mountain pass at 5300 meters very early in the morning – it snowed the night before and the moonlight glinting off the peaks was spectacular.

– Meeting up with my field team from CU; exhausted after lugging 55 lbs of gear across the Ngozumpa glacier, so very happy to see them!

– Hiking to Cho Oyu base camp, 16 miles RT, in one push, to recover instruments.

– Getting good data on both ends of the glacier.

– Enduring a “polar plunge” at the outlet of Ngozumpa glacier, when the boat capsized.

Highlights: Sept 1 – 9, 2013

Given the expense of Internet, I don’t have much time to write in detail. But, here are a few highlights from the last week:

– Crossing Ngozumpa glacier twice in one day, seeing new ice walls revealed and new small ponds forming.

– Seeing how Spillway Lake, Ngozumpa has changed in 3 months.

– Making it down from the glacier to Namche, 18 miles, in one push, with a 45+ lb pack.

– Watching Nepal beat India in a soccer match. The locals set up a screen and projector in the streets of Namche.

– Experiencing the market (meats, fruits, veggies) in Namche.

– Getting blessed at Tengboche Monastery

– Seeing the rimpoche (one step below the Dalai Lama) at Tengboche Monastery

– Hiking through a misty rhododendron forest

– Trying seabuck thorn juice – delicious!

– Catching glimpses of Everest and Lhotse, in the setting sun

Total distance covered: ~45 miles

Onwards and upwards to Imja!

Adventures Up High

As I sit and write, we are in the middle of a Himalayan blizzard.  The weather has been quite unsettled the past few days, but we’ve pushed on to get our work done.  With phase I on Spillway Lake complete, we moved on to phase II, up near the base of Cho Oyu, the 6th highest peak in the world.    The 5-hour journey up usually is quite picturesque.  Instead, we faced an onslaught of rain, sleet, hail, and finally snow, as we made our way higher and higher.  I just kept my head down and pushed on.  I probably was quite the funny sight, hiking with a huge umbrella.  What can I say, though?  It worked at keepingme dry!

Once on-site, we set up camp next to 6th lake, one of the Gokyo holy lakes.  Given the distance to get there, not many people make it, turning back instead at the 5th holy lake.  This area is also home to Cho Oyu base camp, when people climbed the mountain from the south (Nepalese) side, back in the day.  These days, most people attempt from the North (Tibet), as it is “easier.”  I can certainly see why, as the icefalls blocking the south side look quite intimidating.  It’s been claimed that they are tougher to climb than the Khumbu icefall guarding Mount Everest.

Our original plan to set up instruments on some nearby clean ice was thwarted by big cliffs and dangerously unstable talus blocking the way.  We did try, but the thin air and the heavy packs slowed us down significantly.  This time of year, we knew that the weather windows would be quite short.  However, we could only go so fast, as a 2-person team navigating uncharted terrain.  Rather than risk life and limb, we came up with an alternative plan.  We decided to set up our instruments and cameras lower down, near 17,000 ft., to monitor the accumulation zones of Ngozumpa.  Given that this is where new ice is incorporated into the main body of the glacier, we figured it was a good place to monitor.   With stations on either end of the glacier now, we have a more complete picture of how the glacier is changing over time.

To reflect a bit on the experience of being up this high, the fresh, albeit thinner, air was a welcome change.  The sound of silence was deafening at times, until an occasional rockfall or thundering avalanche shook our tents.  The rawness of nature out there reminded me of just how small I am.  Dwarfed by thousand-foot granite cliffs on one end and the heights of Cho Oyu on the other, I couldn’t help but feel insignificant but, at the same time, incredibly privileged to be witness to nature doing its thing.

First Crack at the Glacier

The past few days have been busy with exploration.  Upon our arrival to the high altitudes, we spent a day at Gokyo (15,500 ft.), sorting gear and doing initial photo recon on some of the lake basins that we targeted in November 2012. Given the early thaw and relatively good weather, we decided to begin work on Spillway Lake earlier, before our foray to a small glacier at 17,500 ft.  So we crossed the glacier to Tangnak, a beautiful village near the start of the famous Cho La Pass.  The crossing took a bit longer than usual, as I kept stopping to take photos of the lakes and ice walls.

Glacier Wall!

 

I’m impressed at some of these ice wall collapses relatively early in the melt season.

Once at “base camp” in Tangnak, I proceeded to sort through more boxes and bags leftover from November’s expedition.  After all the sorting and troubleshooting some of the equipment, we carried over an inflatable kayak, courtesy of Dr. Sarah Thompson; a few cameras and solar panels; a laser rangefinder; and a mini weather station to the glacier.  Using a homemade paddle, courtesy of Lhakpa, the owner of Cho La Pass resort, we navigated the waters and set up the cameras, as well as made measurements on North and East-facing ice walls.  These walls don’t melt as fast as South and West-facing ones.  They are pretty much the only ones remaining, as many other ice walls in the region have been recently covered up with debris.  Thus, through survey work (May 2013/November 2013/May 2014) with a laser rangefinder, a camera to take hourly photos, and ground-control point determination, we are better able to track their demise through time.

We also set up a mini weather station in the region, to track rainfall, air temperature, relative humidity, and barometric pressure. All of these measurements are important for determining how quickly and at what magnitude the glacier and lakes change throughout the year.  We will be setting up a similar station a few days from now, at nearly 2,500 ft. higher, to see how much melting is occurring at higher elevations as well.   All of this work took quite a while, as the sites were far apart, the winds were a bit strong and there were strong currents in the lake at some of the choke points.  We got quite the workout with all the paddling and battling!

 Team at work

I conclude with some interesting findings.  At one of my measurements points, we discovered a bubbling “glacier geyser,” in front of a massive ice wall at over 80 feet (~25 meters) tall.  It was spouting cold water and didn’t show any sign of slowing.  I wonder what its source is and if it will keep it up throughout the melt season.  I’ll definitely keep my eye on it throughout the coming weeks.  In addition, we have witnessed a partial drain (about a 3.5 foot drop in water level) in one of the lake basins already.  There is no evidence to suggest that the water ended up in the next basin, so, likely, it has gone down-glacier through an outlet point.

Glacier Geyser

First Impressions (by Sam)

After an exhausting 14 hours in the airport the day before, waiting for a flight and even making it into the air before getting turned around ~15 minutes from Lukla, we finally were able to get on a helicopter flight from Kathmandu to the start of our trek in Lukla. Our Italian pilot, Pierre Jorge, was “vacationing” in Nepal, running rescue missions to the Everest base camp and beyond.

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We had to touch down on a small patch of farmland, about a mile from Lukla, until the fog cleared. There was an instant sense of peace and rejuvenation as we stepped out of the helicopter into the crisp, mountain air. After a cup of tea and a short chat, we were again off to Lukla. The differences between Kathmandu and Lukla were drastic, to say the least. It was like exiting the subways of New York City and arriving in the mountains of western Washington.

After meeting with our guide, Neema, and a quick breakfast, we were off to begin our 5 day trek to Gokyo. We journeyed under thick blankets of fog, and along milky blue rivers peppered with boulders the size of school buses. The terrain that loomed above brought to mind images I had seen of the limestone cliffs in Thailand.

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After a night at the Mount Kailash Lodge in Monjo, we began making our way to Namche Bazar (~11,300 ft). We passed over high suspension bridges, beside waterfalls, and were followed by the occasional stray dog looking for a friend or, more likely, a bite to eat. The final push to Namche is a steep, sustained stretch of switchbacks crowded with trekkers and Sherpas carrying everything from roofs to propane tanks to refrigerators. I was in awe of their unbelievable strength but couldn’t help feeling sorry for them and the price their body must have to pay for these trips.

Arriving at noon, we now have the luxury to lounge around reading, checking emails, and exploring the town of Namche. At this point the team is healthy and our spirits are high. I am looking forward to the weather clearing so that I can finally catch my first glimpse of these magnificent mountains that I have been drooling over for years. Honored to be here and looking forward to getting into the upper regions filled with rock, snow, and above all, ice. That’s it for now. More updates soon to come.

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: 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.

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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: 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.