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Father and Son Document Perilous Journey Across the Himalayas

Photo 1-Hongu valley from Mera Peak.jpgCrossing the Mera La (5400 m) into the Hongu valley.

Photo by Daniel Byers

Cut off from the world while crossing treacherous mountain passes in deep snow was all in a day’s work for a father-and-son team determined to trek through the remote Hongu Valley in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal.

Alton Byers, mountain geographer and National Geographic Society/Waitt program grantee, was in the forbidding region to make a scientific assessment of glacial lakes and the potential threat they pose to populations downstream. If warming global temperatures weaken and cause the natural ice dams to burst, catastrophic floods could be unleashed down mountain slopes.

Byers was also there to capture images for comparison with photos from a 1960s expedition that barely made it out of the Hongu Valley. The experience of that team foreshadowed the hazards and challenges the 2010 expedition would face.

Daniel Byers, a young film-maker, accompanied his father to document the mountains and record their adventure. Their two-week expedition was met with frigid temperatures, snow blindness — and ghosts.

This is their story, as described by Alton Byers in his expedition journal, about the trials and tribulations of their expedition to the highest and most inhospitable places on earth.

–Posted by Fabio Esteban Amador, program officer for the NGS/Waitt Grants Program.

Photo 2-Khumbu Alpine Conservation Committee.jpg

The Khumbu Alpine Conservation Committee (KACC), the world’s first alpine conservation non-government organization, stands in front of its new Headquarters, visitor Ccnter, and kerosene depot.

Photo by Daniel Byers

Expedition Journal by Alton Byers

Lukla, 21 October 2010: From Lukla we were basically cut off from all electronics and means of communication, thus the hiatus in keeping this page updated. However, Daniel has done a great job of covering the first leg of the journey in the Everest region (see: http://skyshipfilms.com/blog/), filming interviews with local people about glacial lakes and outburst floods, of me retracing the footsteps of the early climber-scientists to replicate their now historic photos, or meetings and receptions hosted by groups such as the Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council (KACC), a project co-financed by the NGS Conservation Trust and American Alpine Club that since 2004 has been helping local people protect and restore the fragile alpine ecosystems of the Everest region–the first locally-driven alpine conservation project of its kind.

Prior to the formation of the KACC in 2004, hundreds of thousands of kilograms of fragile and slow-growing shrub juniper was being ripped from the ground each year and burned for fuel by climbing expeditions, trekking groups, and lodges, creating a high altitude wasteland that Sir Edmund Hillary had observed and lamented in several of his books. Today no alpine vegetation is used as fuel, with all lodges substituting kerosene, a temporary solution at best. Thus we’ve starting working on plans to help the KACC develop a more sustainable source of energy, such as hydropower, using the abundant water draining from nearby glacial lakes and tributaries.

Photo 3-Crossing the Chetra La (4615 m).jpg
Crossing the Chetra La (4610 m), gateway to the Hinku khola and Makalu-Barun National Park

Photo by Alton Byers

Chutanga, Chetra La, and Khare, 22-23 October: Because we were so well acclimated from over two weeks of work in the Everest region, we both felt strong and comfortable pushing the normal route and skipping what normally would have been acclimatization days.

I normally place a very high priority on having sufficient time for myself and my staff to get sufficiently acclimated, spacing out the ascent days, climbing high/sleeping low, drinking 4-5 liters of water a day, eating well, etc. since I’ve seen far too many people get needlessly ill, and in a number of cases die, when not paying attention to the warning signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS).

In fact it seems to me that during the past several years the number of cases of horrible chest coughs, headaches, and nausea has increased dramatically among trekkers whenever I happen to be in the Everest region. I’m convinced that this related to trekking companies shaving off days of the itinerary to make the trek appear to be cheaper, and thus more competitive, when what they’re actually sacrificing are the acclimatization days–and thus the trekker’s or climber’s health.

But we had no problem ascending to the small Goth (traditional herder’s hut, now increasing being converted to tourist kitchens or lodges) on the way to the 4610 m Chetra La, then down to another Goth cum trekker settlement named Kharkateng for a visit with some old Sherpa friends, then down a very steep mountain to Khote (4100 m) on the Hinku river, the first river of five east-to-west in the Makalu National Park and Buffer Zone.

Khote was a Maoist stronghold during the 10-year insurgency in Nepal, but is now a growing tourist center catering to the thousands of climbers who come each year to climb Mera Peak (6,400 m).

Photo 5-New Makalu-Barun National Park building and friends, Khote.jpg
New Makalu-Barun National Park and Buffer Zone Sector Office in Khote.

Photo by Alton Byers

For me the real joy of visiting Khote again was to see the positive impacts that the Mera Alpine Conservation Council, also formed with co-financing from the NGS Conservation Trust and American Alpine Club in 2008, was having on the conservation and restoration of the Mera Peak alpine zone, where I had recorded thousands of kilograms of shrub juniper, dwarf rhododendron, and cushion plants being stored and burned each year by the dozens of lodges that have sprung up along the river since Jack Cox’s trip in 1995, when there were essentially no tourists and no lodges.

Likewise, seeing the beautiful new Makalu Barun National Park building and visiting with the Game Scout was also a highlight, as I had lived with my family (Elizabeth, Barbara ( then 4), and Daniel (then 6)) in a remote village in the park between 1993-95, working as its first Co-Manager with my dear friend Narayan Poudel.

Narayan was tragically killed four years ago in a helicopter crash along with most of Nepal’s other conservation heroes such as Mingma Sherpa, Tirtha Man Maskey, Chandra Gurung, and Harka Gurung, following the inauguration of the new Khanchendzunga Conservation Area Project (KCAP).

Photo 4-Interviewing Lhakpa Sherpa, with remains of the Tama Pokhari glacial lake outburst in the background.jpg
Daniel interviewing lodge owner Lhakpa Sherpa, who had witnessed the 1998 outburst of the Tama Pokhari in the background.

Photo by Alton Byers

Tagnag, 24 October: W continued up the beautiful Hinku river for an overnight at Tagnag (4465 m), where Daniel interviewed Lhakpa Sherpa who actually witnessed and photographed the outburst of the Tama Pokhari on 4 September, 1998. The tremendous damage that resulted can be seen in the background, and for at least 60 miles downstream on Google Earth.

Photo 6-Approaching Mera La (5400 m).jpg

Crossing the Mera La (5400), en route to the Hongu valley.

Photo by Daniel Byers

Khare (5297 m), Mera La (5433 m), Kongmadin (4948 m), and Chamlang Basecamp (4770 m), 25-31 Oct: Again because of being acclimated we didn’t feel the need to stay the traditional two nights at Tagnag, leaving instead the next morning, filming the Tama Pokhari (4410 m), and then proceeding on up to Khare (4885 m) the same day. The next day we crossed the 5400 m Mera La, a heavily crevassed glacier that needs to be crossed in order to arrive at the destination of some 98 per cent of the people who visit the region, i.e., the Mera Peak basecamp, high camp, and summit (6400 m). As always, when we climbed it in 2009 the amount of garbage and human waste left behind by climbers and trekking agencies was of concern and, frankly, unforgiveable given all the work The Mountain Institute and American Alpine Club have put into educating climbers and trekkers about this sort of thing over the past 10 years. Still, it made me realize how much work still remains to be done, and that achieving anything worthwhile is never easy.

 

Photo 7-Lake 464, Oct 2010, probably the most dangerous new lake in the Hongu valley.jpg

Lake 464, possibly the most dangerous lake in the valley because of its overhanging ice that could break off, cascade into the lake, and cause an outburst flood.

Photo by Daniel Byers

We didn’t climb Mera Peak again this year since our objectives had changed and, as mentioned, felt strong from the previous two weeks work above 5,000 m. Instead we descended to Kongmadin (4785 m), another Goth that’s the usual overnight camp for groups either descending or ascending, and the next day down to our first base camp on the Hongu river. Following that we spent the next five days climbing throughout the Hongu valley and up to film lakes that we concluded last year were not dangerous, and ones that definitely were.

The non-dangerous lakes are those that are shallow, and do not have the “triggers” that could cause a glacial lake outburst flood–for example, overhanging masses of ice, actively calving glaciers, or other geomorphic features that could break off and cascade down into the lake, causing a swell that breaches what is often a small, thin, and fragile terminal moraine composed of loose boulders and soil.

On the other hand, take a look at Lake 464 (5235 m) with its abundance of overhanging ice, huge size, millions of cubic meters of water, and small terminal moraine or dam holding it all in–a time bomb waiting to happen. All of the nine lakes within the upper Hongu will need further investigation and work before we can predict with any confidence and accuracy what the future holds, and what can be done about it, and we have several major proposals in the pipeline now that would fully fund the bathymetric surveys, modeling, field work, remote sensing, and social science that would be necessary to complete the project, and our understanding of these recent changes (that is, if you look at Schneider’s 1964 map of the Hinku khola that also includes much of the Hongu to the west, these lakes didn’t even exist 50 years ago).

But so far we’ve been able to come out with the only quantitative data on lake characteristics that’s ever been completed, and have demonstrated the critical importance of blending traditional “muddy boots” field geography with the best of modern remote sensing and computer modeling techniques. (Lake 464, for example, was completely missed by the 2007 remote sensing survey since the glacier and ice “triggers” on the north face of Chamlang were completely obscured in shadows). In the meantime, we left a small cairn and half a dozen prayer flags at 464 in hopes of stalling things a bit (and no doubt with the unspoken thought that we were about to walk down the river that would be devastated in the event of a glacial lake outburst flood!).

Photo 8-Charging batteries with solar chargers.jpg

Charging batteries using solar panels, Chamlang camp, Hongu Valley

Photo by Daniel Byers

Ghosts and other aspects of camp life, 31 Oct-1 November: As mentioned, there are no villages in the upper Hongu so everything needs to be carried in, including solar panels for recharging our camera, computer, and video batteries. In order to even reach the lakes we had to spend a day first making bridges, making sure to get back not too late in the afternoon when the daily thaw increased the volume of water in the river, making return on the slippery or now-underwater rocks hazardous.

Photo 9-Hongu valley looking north.jpg

Hongu valley looking north.

Photo by Daniel Byers

On the morning of 31 Oct around 6 am, I heard J.B. Rai, our sirdar, and Kamal, his assistant, walking around outside and talking about something. At breakfast, J.B. was very quiet, worried looking, and staring out the tent, and then suddenly said, “Last night, Kamal was visited by a ghost.”

Kamal said that he awoke around midnight to hear a noise like someone pulling up grass, occasionally slapping the tent. Sure that the porters were playing a joke on him, he jumped outside and ran around the tent, but found nothing. Sometime after returning to the tent he heard the same noises, but this time with a sound like a nasal, high pitched ‘neh neh neh’ that would begin in front of the tent, then start again behind it, then to the side, etc.

By this time thoroughly frightened, he dug himself into his sleeping bag until the morning, when I heard him and J.B. walking around the tent and murmuring something. Immediately behind their tent, about 10 feet away and between two large boulders, was a fresh grave covered by slabs of alpine turf and stones, most likely that of a porter who died while on expedition (not the first I’ve encountered in the backcountry).

They decided not to tell any of the other porters for fear of a mutiny, and shortly afterwards we departed again for Kongmadin, the starting point for the descent of the Hongu river. Nepali friends that I’ve told the story to see nothing really remarkable about it–since the body wasn’t cremated, and the skull never cracked open, the soul was never properly released.

This was not an evil spirit, just something that was just trying to tell us that he was still around, and most likely confused. Daniel said that he himself had felt as if were being watched ever since we’d arrived, especially late at night when he stepped outside to pee (I long ago discovered the virtues of a pee bottle when camped in cold regions–properly marked with duct tape to distinguish it from water bottles, of course).

Still, my Western brain continues to puzzle this one out, wondering if it could have been a Himalayan thar (goat-like creature) grazing around the tent (that could also vanish into thin air when it wanted), or Snowcocks with their nasal calls (that likewise could vanish at will), a Yeti crossing over into the next valley, or something else. Regardless, it was the best Halloween in years!

Photo 10-Emergency snow goggles.jpg

Emergency makeshift snow goggles–that worked!

Photo by Daniel Byers

Down the Hongu, 2-13 November: It snowed fairly heavily in Kongmadin that night, making the first day’s travel down the Hongu much more difficult. As usual someone forgot their snow goggles, so Daniel and I rigged up a pair of adequate substitutes using duct tape. When I asked the porter later how they were working, he said, “Fine, but I can’t see my feet,” but agreed that this was better than snow blindness.

Photo 11-Leaving Kholmadin in the snow, beginning of the trek down and out of the Hongu valley.jpg

Leaving Kongmadin in the snow, the beginning of the trek out of the Hongu Valley.

Photo by Daniel Byers

Here we leave the tourist trails. Proceeding north up the Hongu, and over the 5,800 m Amphu Laptsa pass into the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, as we had done last year, is gaining in popularity as an alternative to the overcrowded Everest trek, but to my knowledge no Westerner had attempted to walk out of the Hongu since Jack Cox tried in 1995, nearly starving to death in the process.

As mentioned earlier, Erwin Schneider attempted it while gathering photographs and data for his “Shorong Hinku Map” in 1962 and became lost as well. I wasn’t entirely sure what route we would be taking, and wasn’t really sure if two of the porters had indeed walked down for several days the week before to “fix bridges” and find a trail as J.B. had said.

The trail we followed along the river’s edge, as it turned out, was indeed a 25 year old sheep trail that Shankar and Nara, the two porters who also acted as our guides in this wilderness area, had traveled the year before as part of a local expedition to find Yarsugumba, the medicinal and aphrodisiac plant (actually a fungus that grows on caterpillar eggs, worth thousands of dollars per kilogram by the Chinese–and also responsible for the destruction of any alpine environment in which it is found. Fortunately, no one had apparently found it here in the Hongu and the valley is still very much the Strict Nature Reserve that it was designated to be when we worked with our Nepali colleagues in the early 1990s to map it out).

Photo 12-Finally descending into warm country! A Goth (herder's hut) above Bokswanr, our last camp.jpg

Finally descending into warm country! Our last camp before arriving at the small Sherpa village of Bokswanr.

Photo by Daniel Byers

We passed a number of old Goths that were no longer used (people from Cheskam these days used the much easier Chetra La and Mera La passes east of Lukla, instead of what we were to find was an extremely difficult trek, through jungles, up thousands of meters to the alpine, over dozens of snowed in passes). Days were long (10 hours on average), cold and wet from the ubiquitous snow, and camps somewhat arbitrary, sometimes wherever everyone could get to before dark–a birch forest, a rock overhang when we couldn’t reach the planned camping site, a high alpine pasture on the good days.

But a week or so later we were finally descending toward Cheskam. Nepal and the Himalaya are so vast–we had first seen Cheskam three days before, there in the distance looking like we’d reach it in three hours, and three days later were just approaching it! How in the world could anyone, including Prithi Narayan Shah in 1750, actually unite and consolidate such a place, given the huge distances to be covered and time involved? Khandbari, where we’d lived for two years in the mid 1990s helping to set up the new Makalu-Barun National Park, was also visible to the west, but five days’ walk away!

 

Photo 13--dancers at the reception held for us at the Makalu-Barun National Park Sector Office.jpg

The reception held for us at the Makalu-Barun National Park and Buffer Zone Sector Office, Bung.

Photo by Daniel Byers

But down we went to our last camp above Bokswanr, a small Sherpa village several hours above the Hongu, across the river to the village of Cheskam and Bung, location of a Makalu-Barun National Park Sector office. There the office put on a special reception for us, complete with dancers, speeches, dozens of garlands draped around us, and a really special day.

Bung and Cheskam are not visited that frequently by trekkers or climbers, and the hope is that the route we had just completed could become a tourist destination that could bring much-needed income to the region. It’s not an easy trek, but with camps spaced closer together so that the 10-12 hour days could be avoided, it does offer some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen in Nepal, not to mention traveling through a true wilderness region where you see no people, villages, or cattle for day after day. As a ‘nature trek’ I think that it does have great potential.

The next day we continued down river, and two days later we arrived at the confluence of the Hongu with the Dudh Kosi, and began the trek up to the airstrip at Phaplu.

Photo 14-Village on lower Hongu that would most likely be destroyed in the event of a glacial lake outburst flood.jpg

Village on the lower Hongu that would most likely be destroyed in the event of a glacial lake outburst flood.

Photo by Daniel Byers

24-A-Hongu2010-V2.jpg

Summary: A map of our route that I produced with a Garmin Summit GPS shows the first leg in the Everest region, and second down the Hongu. The route down the Hongu first stayed close to the river for two days, then climbed up to the Pal Pokhari ridge before heading south again, giving us a fantastic view of the entire Hongu valley that would have been impossible if we’d been down at the river channel, no doubt chewing on leather belts. The valley itself is so steep and precipitous, and loses altitude so rapidly, that a glacial lake outburst flood would most likely cause much more damage to the landscape, bridges, and cropland than that seen in the 1985 Langmoche flash flood in the Everest region, or 1998 flood of the Tama Pokhari in the Hinku valley. Loss of human life would occur as well, especially in the lower reaches of the river where settlements and cropland tend to descend all the way downslope to the river’s edge, as opposed to Bung and Cheskam which are located high above.

What can be done to prevent such a scenario? Are these new lakes simply “acts of the gods” as some scientists are now saying that, like it or not, are going to burst someday and create enormous downstream damage, all unpreventable? Are working conditions–remoteness, high altitude, logistical difficulties–too arduous to allow for any type of mitigation, such as controlled lowering as has been done for 50 years in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru?

We don’t believe in either of the above statements, but these are just two of a number of difficult questions that are arising out of our research. Our work was helped immensely by the fact that we haven’t spent all or our time in a laboratory, but have actually climbed to all of the nine lakes in question, walked or viewed much of the river channel that would be impacted, and visited the villages that would suffer.

By hosting the first Andean-Himalayan Scientific Expedition to the Imja lake in the Everest region next September, followed by a larger workshop of world-class physical and social scientists in Kathmandu, we hope to start exchanging information and ideas, developing new collaborative projects, and hopefully arriving at solutions to the many new problems–including the control and use of dangerous and remote glacial lakes.

Fabio-Amador.jpg

Fabio Esteban Amador is the program officer for the NGS/Waitt Grants Program at National Geographic and an associate research professor of anthropology at George Washington University. He is an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerican cultures and Pre-Columbian and historic earthen architectural conservation. Amador studied archaeology at Rutgers University and advance degrees at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He has worked in prehistoric sites in North, Central and South America and is presently conducting research in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Before joining National Geographic, he was a professor of archaeology  and a researcher for the Council for Scientific Investigation at the National University of El Salvador.

Read Fabian Esteban Amador’s blog posts

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Comments

  1. barbara hail
    Rhode Island
    February 11, 2012, 9:23 pm

    Boots on the ground research such as this is rare and invaluable. Congratulations to the Byers team!