A month around Mt Everest
My 13 month in the UK are coming to an end. I have just completed my Masters in Glaciology at the University of Aberystwyth, and I'm ready to join one last adventure with my fellow scientists. Not just any adventure! One I have been dreaming about forever, we are going to the Himalayas!! I am lucky to join then PhD student Matt Westoby, then PhD student Sam Doyle, and my classmate Pippa Cowley for a month of fieldwork investigating Glacial Lakes Outburst Floods in Nepal. My very first high-altitude field campaign!
We spent about a week in busy Kathmandu to finalize our preparations for the field. What a mission it was to get equipment we couldn't fly with such as batteries to power our gear in the field! We got lost in Thamel, bought take The North Face down jackets, fake The North Face sleeping bags, fake everything. Luckily we also had plenty of time to explore, armed with our Lonely Planet book, bumping into tourists... holding their Lonely Planet book.
Kathmandu was mysterious, noisy, busy, diverse, frenetic city. Every day we spent there was rather intense. Fortunately, it was already time to head to the mountains. We fly in a small plane from Kathmandu airport to Lukla. Two week prior our journey, a plane had crashed into the runway because of the lack of visibility. Let's say that I was not super confident about this flight. But once in the air it was absolutely magical. We flew over thousands of rice fields, the hills were growing bigger and bigger, and the plane was steadily gaining altitude. Eventually we could see it, the runway. A tilted runway sloping up toward the mountain. This is the time when everybody in our flight started praying, true story! Our great pilot landed safely on the little runway, from now on we will only have to rely on our own two feet to travel.
THE PLACE WITH MANY GOATS AND SHEEP
We made it to Lukla, 2860 m, "the place with many goats and sheep" and extraordinarily beautiful scenery. Lukla is a busy place, fairly touristy. We got to meet our dream team of guides and porters to help us make this field campaign a reality. As soon as the introductions were made we repacked our equipment and started the long walking journey to our first study site. You cannot rush fieldwork in high altitude. Altitude always wins, no matter how fit you are. You have to respect the process of acclimatization. Never more than 300 m of altitude gain between 2 nights is the motto we followed for this whole journey, and that prepared our bodies for the lack of oxygen we will have to endure later on.
On this first day of walking we entered the Sagarmatha national park, following the path to the Everest Base Camp, or EBC as everyone calls it there. It felt completely surreal to be there, in Mt Everest backyard. Every night on the trail we slept in tea houses/lodges all so welcoming and with the most delicious food. Besides the jaw-dropping landscapes we were crossing, we were all amazed by the generosity and hospitality of the Nepalese people.
Our guides and sherpas were absolutely extraordinary, we are lucky to have them!
After three or four days of crossing beautiful bridges, walking through dense forests, stopping everywhere for tea and momos, we finally made it to the legendary Namche Bazaar. This village is the staging point for expeditions to Everest and beyond. Nested in a perched amphitheatre around 3400 m high, Namche is a historical trading hub for yak cheese and butter and today the one place where you can find a german-like bakery and cheese fondue. We spent 2 nights in Namche getting acclimatized and going on short walks around the village.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
After a little pit stop in Namche it was high time to get into the thick of things. We finally left the crowds of the EBC trail to explore a lesser known valley to the West of Namche Bazaar, near Langmuche. The entire valley was bulldozed by a lake outburst flood in 1985 over tens of kilometers. This was our first field site. The formation of these lakes all across the Himalayas was becoming (and still is) a growing danger. As the glaciers retreat faster and faster, their meltwater becomes trapped behind weak moraine dams, that eventually break under the enormous pressure of the lake, creating GLOFs. Our goal was to create 3D models of three different moraine dams that have produced GLOFs by taking thousands of pictures of these sites from different angles, and to measure the size and orientation of the boulders left behind.
This place seemed to come straight out of a geography textbook. A 6943 m high peak, Tengi Ragi Tau was dominating the valley, draped with steep hanging glaciers all around it. At the base of the mountain, an enormous moraine complex, the biggest I had ever seen! The moraine were easily 100 to 150 m high, with, in the middle, a small milky glacial lake.
We set up our camp near a small yak herder's house. The man told us that he could not remember anything about the 1985 event. At the time, he had just come back from a big party on the other side of the mountain. When he reached his home, he was so drunk that he did not notice any changes even thought the entire valley has been completely bashed by a catastrophic flood. It is only the next morning when he woke up that he realised how lucky he had been, that his little hut was one of the very few buildings that had withstood the flood.
Dig Tscho was out first experience of doing fieldwork at altitude and it was not easy. This is when we realise that our equipment is not just as good as we hoped, that my sunblock was not blocking anything, and that these are not chocolate pancakes but yak poop that we use for the fire. What a wonderful time we had. The nights were cold but the days were crazy warm. I spent most of my time with Pippa counting and measuring rocks, and going up and down these huges moraines, while the guys were taking pictures all over the place (these were the pre-drone days!). Mission one complete, time to go to the other side of the EBC trail, to the base camp of what must be my absolute favorite mountain on this planet, but first, a stunning monastry.
Our next destination was Tengboche a village at 3800 m high with a stunning buddish Monastery. This is a place where Everest mountaineers often come to rest at before attempting the last journey to the summit.
AMA DABLAM BASE CAMP
It felt great to reach lower elevations again after a few taxing days above 4400 m. Tengboche relieved our lungs and our spirit. A place out of space and time, surrounded by thick forests giant rhododendrons and junipers. From there we walked East, guided by the sculptural silhouette of "Mother's necklace" aka Ama Dablam, culminating at 6812 m. Few mountains can captivate mountaineers like this one, and it certainly hypnotized us for our entire week of fieldwork.
A large outburst flood came down the western flank of the mountain in 1977 and this is why we absolutely wanted to map this location. It was my also my first time staying at a proper himalayan base camp, and the whole experience was rather exciting. We were in peak season for the ascent of Ama Dablam, and our favorite game was to spot mountaineers on the hanging glacier just below the summit ridge. But staying at a base camp is not all joy and butterflies, it is also where we all got terribly sick, using the compulsory "bathrooms" of the camp. Taking antibiotics at 4500 m is not fun, we all took turns in having a rest day at camp trying to drink and eat. After feeling a bit better we also broke our altitude record, making it to an impressive 5364 m, a personal best for all of us!
We were quite keen to get away from the dirty Ama Dablam base camp asap. We wrapped up our fieldwork and headed for the other side of the mountain, to the village of Chukung. The walk was beyond spectacular. We definitely got away from beaten paths and tried to find shortcuts to reach our destination. We finally got the most amazing sights of Mt Everest, Lhotse and Nupste, a dream come true. Now well acclimatized and regaining energy, we could enjoy this journey to our last camp to the fullest.
We camped at around 5200 m high. The nights were getting increasingly cold, and the morning "wash" was becoming a real challenge. But there was nothing more magical than seeing the "Head of the Earth touching the Heaven" from morning to night. I would wake up extra early to see the first rays of sun warming up the summit of Mt Everest, and go to bed late just to see this light disappear among the stars. Mt Everest exerted this irrepressible attraction on me, and still does.
We had our plate full in terms of fieldwork. The Chukung study area was a bit of a mind bender, a place that gives birth to outburst floods every now and then, the last one was in 2016. With hanging glaciers covering every inch of the north face of Ama Dablam and weak moraine systems everywhere, this place looked like it only needed the first domino to fall to trigger a significant flood. We investigated a series of lakes and dry moraine dams.
This place will forever be in my heart, just look at it:
December was starting, bringing with it heavy snowfalls and cold weather. The mountains were telling us it was time to go home. It took us another week to make it back to Lukla, a week full of red cells and higher oxygen levels, and a certain sense of accomplishment.
Many thanks to dream team of guides and sherpas, to Matt, Sam, Pippa for the amazing time in the field, and memories for a lifetime.