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A month around Mt Everest


October 2010


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. 


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.



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.