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.

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

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.

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!

Ulyana: Small Treasures

The past few days have been quite busy with research on the glacier.  Photographers and cinematographers from GlacierWorks arrived earlier in the week and we’ve had a great time explaining our work, as well as including locals and students in the research.  From chopping ice holes, to sampling the bottom of the lake with a dredge, to recovering instruments, to mapping out the terrain using a field spectrometer, we’ve gathered a lot of interesting information.  Today’s cool discoveries include finding a small ice cave and a beautiful nearly intact garnet (gemstone) embedded in a rock.  Finding something like this is quite rare.  Tomorrow, we move to our next field site, further up the glacier.  It has been getting quite cold here.  In fact, we got some snow flurries today!

James: At the Ngozumpa Glacier

Today we went out on the glacier. It was amazing to see how different this glacier is from the Lirung glacier! There were lakes all over it, and walking on there frozen surface is both nerve-racking and exhilarating. Today’s job consisted of chopping holes in the ice’s surface so we could take various measurements from the water below. Using ice axes and a 40-pound metal pole, we were able to make openings in the ice that were about 2 feet by a foot. When we finally hit open water we took measurements of the temperature, the levels of dissolved oxygen, and the PH balance of the water. With all of this information, the scientists hope to find out about the behavior of the lakes and the water that flows through them.