Journey to Yala Glacier

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Yala Glacier inspires those who dares to come and seek the answers it holds. 
Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

The handset shortwave radio finally crackled, 'Chimi ji, are you still there? Over!' asked Ngawang, the leader of the expedition checking on me. I felt safe. I had been sitting alone on the glacier for about 45 minutes, as I could not keep up with my colleagues and I was exhausted. Unrelenting fog that refused to clear up had awakened the fear of being kidnapped by yetis, courtesy of my grandmother’s stories I had heard growing up in eastern Bhutan.

'Yes, I am still here. I will start to climb down if the visibility improves. Over’. I replied back, relieved to hear a human’s voice. 

I was on a two-week field expedition with the cryosphere researchers from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) as part of the spring expedition to carry out annual mass balance measurements on Yala Glacier. As the communication officer for the ICIMOD’s Cryosphere Initiative, my job during the expedition was to get a better understanding of glacier dynamics in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. 

Langtang-Lirung,Drapoche, Gangchhenpo and Naya Kanga peaks surround Yala Glacier, a benchmark glacier of Nepal and one of the most studied. Spanning 5170 to 5750 m above sea level (a.s.l), Yala is a plateau glacier among its surrounding peaks. It looks like a palm as if offering answers to those who have dared to seek them out. In autumn, The glacier is also used for conducting training on field based cryosphere activities by ICIMOD.  

Dorothea Stumm, Senior Glaciologist (left) takes the stake measurement while I try to be useful. 

It snowed most of our time in Yala. The weather forecast we received from colleagues back in Kathmandu grew gloomier as the days went by. On the day we started our hike from Kyangjing to Yala Low Camp, Dr. Rishi Ram Sharma, Director General of Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Government of Nepal said, 'the westerly wind is coming’. Weather would be a factor in completing our research work successfully. 

Nothing deterred my colleagues, not even ‘snow shower AM to PM’ weather forecast. We started our day in the wee hours of morning, as early as 4 AM, getting dressed, putting on one boot, catching our breath, and carrying on with the other. By 4:30 AM, we were struggling to walk up the glacier with boots weighing no less than a kilo each, or more, if your boot size was bigger. 

The team covered more than seven kilometers on foot to reach Yala glacier from the road head at Sybrubesi. Raised in a mountain village of Bhutan, I am familiar with harsh mountain terrain, but working on the glacier is totally a different story. The physical strength and mental commitment required for research work on the glacier is immense. Led by Dr Dorothea Stumm, Senior Glaciologist and Sharad Joshi, associate glaciologist, the team conducted mass balance measurements, collected snow samples from different altitudes to analyse for black carbon, conducted differential GPS (dGPS) surveys, and deployed temperature loggers for permafrost study, all in challenging terrains and weather conditions. Our work entailed drilling holes in the glacier to insert bamboo stakes, digging snow pits, weighing snow for density measurements, and drilling granite rock to set up a base station for the dGPS measurements. Tests and measurement were repeated several times to ensure that the data they collected are accurate.  

Setting up base station for dGPS survey. ICIMOD Researchers (L to R): Tika Gurung, Research Associate, Sonam Sherpa, Research Associate and Sharad Joshi, Associate Glaciologist. 

Another team of researchers from ICIMOD led by Dr.Joseph Shea, Senior Glacio-Hydrologist, installed a weather station on Yala Glacier. The station records climatic parameters such as wind speed, air temperature, humidity, solar radiation, and glacier surface height changes due to snow deposition or ice and snow melt. The data are necessary to understand climate and glacier melt relationships.

Temperatures on the glacier can rise and drop within a span of few minutes. Caught between the changing temperature and the surrounding blanket of white, our faces did not fare so well. Within a couple of days of exposure to the mountain weather, most of us started to look like roasted potatoes, the sunburns mostly visible on our nose. Eventually, when the sky cleared, the mountain scenery was excellent, — the clear blue sky decorated with occasional fluffy clouds. Selfies were out of question.  

Having basic mountaineering skills is a must for glacier work. On our first day at base camp, we hiked to the glacier to learn basic mountaineering skills, an important lesson for the first timers on glacier. Ngawang Sherpa, who summited Everest twice and also happened to be the main guide of our expedition, demonstrated how to put on crampons, harness and carry ice axes like a pro. 'While walking on ice, always walk in a 'V' shape, kick out rather than walk straight, so your legs don’t catch each other with sharp edges of the crampons’, Ngawang said as he acted out the walk. 'If you slip, quickly hack into the ice with the ice axe and hold on to the handle’, he said. 

We learned to use our toes to climb up the steep glacier and our heels to climb down, tips to avoid frostbite, and how to look out for crevasses. 

At the first bamboo stake installed for the mass balance measurement, Dr Stumm took over. She gave an overview of mass balance and characteristics of Yala Glacier. The westerly winds that we were warned off finally caught up to us, and brought with them snow and wind chills that reached deep into our bones, as we descended to the camp site. When the light began to recede from our tents, the thought of better weather was in everyone’s mind. 

In action: Records and retakes. Carrying out mass balance measurements in Yala glacier May 2016. 

The Cryosphere Initiative of ICIMOD is funded by Royal Norwegian Government and focuses on monitoring of glaciers, snow, and glacial lakes and glacial hydrology with an emphasis on in-situ measurements, remote sensing, and modelling. Capacity building of its partner institutions is also an integral part of the initiative.  

Activities are carried out in collaboration with corresponding agencies in its regional member countries.  In Nepal, its main implementing partners are Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), Kathmandu University (KU) and Tribhuvan University (TU).  


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