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.

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: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: 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: 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.