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18 Feb 2021 | Cryosphere

Studying glaciers during the pandemic

Arbindra Khadka

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Frozen Kong Ma lake close to the Kong Ma La Pass, between Imja lake and the Khumbu Valley. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

A small team of researchers from ICIMOD and the French National Research Institute (IRD), completed the annual field expedition to research sites in the Everest region from 14 November to 14 December 2020.

Despite many challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the team was able to complete the expedition to Mera, Pokalde and Changri Nup glaciers. Field work in the Himalayas is always challenging and requires months of careful planning. Given the restrictions due to the pandemic, this was more difficult than other expeditions in the past.

Following strict COVID-19 protocols, we assembled a small research team of five people, including a porter. The team members managed their own logistics, prepared their own meals, carried equipment, and conducted field work. Given that the field work took place much later in the year (these are usually autumn expeditions), the team had to work at extremely low temperatures, sometimes dropping as low as -15 °C.

This photo story follows one of our team members, Arbindra Khadka in one of his most challenging expeditions so far.

Sites: Mera and Naulek glaciers (10 days), Pokalde and Changri Nup glaciers (5 days)

Maximum elevation of the field work: ~6400 masl

Team members:

Phadindra, our porter for the expedition, gets his nasal and throat swabs taken at the Nomad Hotel. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

13 November

Taking care of the logistics

The first thing we had to do was to pass the PCR test. Everyone tested negative.

Our team members from France quarantined at the Nomad Hotel, Kathmandu after arriving in Nepal.

Patrick Wagnon (R), Fanny Brun (M), Ilan Kouchner (L) waiting to board the flight to Lukla. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

14 November

The journey begins

We got on the first flight (around 40-minutes long) to Lukla at 08:00 from Kathmandu.

From the get-go, we could see how the pandemic hit all parts of the mountains.  Many teahouses and lodges were closed. For most of the trek up to our research sites, we did not meet anyone. Coming down, we only met a few local people and tourists.

Usually, the flight to Lukla has more tourists than local people. For this flight, though, most of our co-passengers were local people.

The usually crowded Lukla Airport wore a deserted look. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

Five hours trek to Kharketeng (4000 masl)

At Lukla, only a handful of the hotels and tea houses were open.

We trekked to Kharketeng, reaching there at 17:00. This was the highest elevation we would cover in a day during the expedition, from Kathmandu at ~1300 masl to Kharketeng at ~4000 masl.

Closed tea houses in Kothe with the Mera peak of Mahalangur range in the background. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

15 November

Second day of the trek

From Kharteteng, we trekked for about 10 hours to Kothe. Located by the Inkhu River, Kothe provides a nice breather after a long trek. This has been our regular stopping point for the second stopover en route to the field.

The tea houses in Kothe were all closed. The pandemic cut off the flow of tourists, the major source of cash income in these communities.

Patrick Wagnon with his stack of bamboo stakes. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

16 November

Almost there

We stayed in Kothe (3500 masl) to adjust to the climate and prepare for field work.

Bamboo stakes are used to measure glacier mass balance. On every expedition, we take fresh bamboo stakes to extend the network of bamboo stakes that are used to record glacier mass changes at higher elevations. We also replace stakes that are damaged.

Between the five of us, we were able to collect and prepare 70 bamboo stakes.

Inspecting the condition of the AWS at Khare with Fanny Brun. Photo: Patrick Wagnon, IRD

17 November

Keeping it slow

We slowly trekked to Thangnag (4200 masl) from Kothe, reaching our destination in four hours.

Experts recommend not climbing more than 500 masl a day at high elevation. This way we were able to acclimatize as the air got thinner. We kept it slow, gaining elevation each day in the recommended range.

The next day, we hiked to Khare at 4900 masl. We collected meteorological data from the Automatic Weather Station (AWS) and performed regular maintenance work.

Tam Pokhari glacial lake. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

Still in Khare: Hike to Tam Pokhari glacial lake

In September 1998, an ice avalanche hit the lake, triggering a wave that breached the moraine dam. This Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) reportedly caused NPR 156 million in damages and some lives were lost.

Even today, the visible water lines tell the story of the lake before and after the event.

Digging out the mini-AWS at 6400 masl on Mera Glacier, with Mount Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, and Chamlung in the background. Photo: Patrick Wagnon, IRD

20 November

Fieldwork on Mera and Naulek Glaciers
Phadindra Bahadur digs out the mini-AWS
At 6400 masl, Phadindra Bahadur digs out the mini-AWS covered in fresh snow. In the background, Patrick Wagnon measures the bamboo stakes. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD


We also carried out a differential Global Positioning System (dGPS) survey of the glacier surface and measured snow density. In the background of these photos, you can see some of the highest peaks of Nepal – Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, and Cho Oyu.

The dGPS survey measures the surface change and change in position of glacier tongue and bamboo stakes. Data from multiple dGPS surveys can be used to measure the changes in glacier thickness.

Fanny Brun carrying out the dGPS
Fanny Brun carrying out the dGPS survey on West Changri-Nup Glacier. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

Daily commute to field sites – crossing the Mera Glacier from Inkhu to the Humgu Valley. Photo: Patrick Wagnon, IRD

01 December

Field work on Pokalde and Changri Nup Glacier

4 December: The field work on this day was one of the toughest of any expedition I have been part of. To get to the field site itself, we had to cross a high mountain pass Ming Ma La (~5800 masl).

We hiked up the glacier to get to our field site where we carried out field data collection and measurements. We then returned to our camp at the Pyramid Laboratory crossing the Khumbu Glacier.

When returning to our campsite one day, we crossed a field of broken ice, the aftermath of an ice avalanche close to the Mera Glacier base camp. Blocks of ice from the adjacent glacier had fallen from the ice cliff, covering the area with shattered pieces of ice.

Ice cliff in 2017
Ice cliff in 2017 and after the avalanche in 2020. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD


Ice cliff in 2020
Ice cliff in 2017 and after the avalanche in 2020. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD


Generally, the field visit to collect data is carried out in autumn, between October and November. This year, due to the pandemic, we missed the ideal time for field research.

As it was December, the temperature became a factor when carrying out work on the glaciers. Sometimes it dropped as low as -15 °C. Some of us struggled with altitude sickness making it one of the toughest expeditions so far.

Amphu Lapcha
Crossing the slippery glacier part of Amphu Lapcha Pass (~5800 masl). Amphu Lapcha is one of the technical passes of the Great Himalayan Trail (GHT). Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

Frozen Kong Ma lake close to the Kong Ma La Pass, between Imja lake and the Khumbu Valley. Photo: Arbindra Khadka/ICIMOD

11 December

Descent back to the valley

11 December: After almost a month scurrying from one glacier to another, we finally completed all our tasks and descended to Lukla through Pheriche.

However, at Pheriche, we discovered that the battery from the AWS had been stolen. I hiked back to the Pyramid Laboratory by myself to retrieve the extra battery and re-joined the team early the next day. Having worked in Khumbu region since 2016, I am very familiar with the routes and terrain and have occasionally hiked alone during fieldwork. We then fixed the AWS and resumed the descent to Khumjung.

Research team at Pyramid (L-R): Arbindra Khadka (ICIMOD), Fanny Brun (IRD), Phadindra Bahadur (NMA), Patrick Wagnon (IRD), Kaji Bista, Manager, Pyramid Laboratory, Ilan Kouchner, IRD

14 December

Back to Kathmandu

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