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.


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

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.

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.

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.


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: 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.