Of chillies and rain - glaciological fieldwork in Bhutan

By Inka Koch/ICIMOD
Field team walking on Thana glacier with a safety rope

My feet have long forgotten what it means to be dry. With every step I tread newly accumulated water in my shoes as we are climbing up the muddy nomad trail through a dense forest. I am glad that I packed another pair of boots for fieldwork on the glacier. It has been raining for days now. The monsoon is late, and this year, still in full swing in early September. Behind me, I hear the bell of one of our trusty 18 horses that carry up our gear to 5000m. They are also carrying bamboo stakes with which we hope to spike a glacier — like toothpicks on ice cream— to measure its annual surface melt or snow accumulation as a response to changes in temperature and precipitation. 

Field camp en route to the field site at 4550m 

We are aiming for Thana Glacier in Chamkharchhu, northern Bhutan on the border of Tibet, China. In Arabic ‘thana’ means 'happy occasion'. It is indeed a happy occasion to indulge in lush Bhutanese rain forests on steep pristine mountain valleys en route to our high altitude field site. And it is a happy occasion to share this experience with scientist from many other nations. We have one Norwegian, one English, one German, one Nepali and two Bhutanese on our trip. In this collaborative effort of the Cryospheric Monitoring Program in Bhutan (CMP-B), the Interational Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is working together with the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) to support the Department of Hydro-Met Services (DHM-S) in Bhutan setting up a glacier mass balance field site.

Team members in order of height: Inka Koch (ICIMOD), Jostein Aasen (Mountain guide), Tshering Tashi (DHM-S), Sharad Joshi (ICIMOD), Miriam Jackson (NVE), Pema Namgyal (DHM-S)

It takes time to reach the glacier. No helicopter can shorten our journey since Bhutan does not own one. Thus, we're spending a minimum of seven days in transit and on the trail until we reach the glacier front. That means 14 traditional Bhutanese chilli-spiced lunches and dinners! (Did you know that chillies are a vegetable?) The persistent rain makes adjustment to altitude harder; one scientist and several trekking staff decide to descend to a lower altitude to sleep, whilst the more seasoned team members venture up to 5300m — higher than horses can go — turning into porters for half a day. Only to be trimmed down yet again, one scientist is called home due to a personal emergency, 'rushing' home in five days. 

Thana Glacier ablation area. The border to Tibet is in the top right 
Photo credit: Sharad Joshi/ICIMOD

Greeted by early morning clear skies, the four remaining team members take to work on the dust-covered glacier in a barren landscape that reminds me of Mongolia. It is a friendly bench mark glacier; no big crevasses are looming and the wind decides to hide until evening. The small team makes good progress installing a total of eleven new bamboo stakes on the glacier and surveying the surface mass loss of the glacier in its lower altitudes with differential GPS. The weather pattern does not change too much; rain returns by lunch time. Lunch merges into dinner as the field team becomes absorbed in their task. A tasks that lasts three long days for the reduced team. We spent three days slogging through wet snow, keeping the glacier safety rope extended between people, drilling holes through ice lenses and hoar snow and merging bamboo stakes into long ‘toothpicks’ that disappear deep into the glacier. The intense Himalayan sun turns the snow and ice of the glacier into water. It will disappear down valley to quench the thirst of our horses and feed the lush Bhutanese trees and chilli plants.

Field team and two trekking staff enjoying a late lunch on the glacier
Photo credit: Sharad Joshi/ICIMOD

About the Author

Inka Koch
Glacier Hydrologist, 
Water and Air, ICIMOD