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Climbing Mount Everest: Base Camp Bound, After a Glacial Detour

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: Ulyana Horodyskyj and her team of scientists and Sherpas were scheduled to reach Mt. Everest base camp this morning, just when a massive avalanche occurred above the camp, killing 12 Sherpas who were already working there. She sent us a message at 9:01 EDT today saying she and her group were all okay, and that they had actually been delayed by one day because of illness. Thus far they have learned that a friend of one of the Sherpas who is assisting them was killed. Horodyskyj had just sent us a new post, below—the second in her series—before starting the trek up to the camp.

Namche Bazaar village located at 3,440 metres (11,286 ft) above the sea level in Khumbu region, northeastern Nepal. / Photo courtesty of Steve Hicks via Flickr.

NAMCHE BAZAAR, NEPAL—Greeting from the Sherpa capital of the Mt. Everest region, known as the Khumbu Himal. For the past 10 days Jake St. Pierre, a former police officer turned climber-scientist volunteer, and I have been working in the Gokyo valley, the next valley over from Mt. Everest. It is home to Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest peak in the world. From its slopes flows one of Nepal’s largest glaciers, the Ngozumpa. As you read this we will have just departed for Mt. Everest base camp, but before leaving Jake and I had to take a detour to Ngozumpa that lasted several days.

Why? First, we wanted some extra time to acclimatize (get accustomed to the higher altitudes) before heading over to base camp. The elevation at Namche Bazaar is about 11,500 feet, and climbing around on the glacier would get us higher, a good practice because Everest base camp itself is already at 17,600 feet.

Second, I had left research stations up on Ngozumpa earlier in the year, and I wanted to check on them. They have been tracking air temperature, relative humidity and albedo (reflectivity) changes during snowfall events throughout the winter. This information provides insight into how quickly the glacial snow and ice melts during the coldest time of the year.

Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest peak in the world, viewed from the Gokyo valley. / Photo by Ulyana Horodyskyj.

I’ve been working on Ngozumpa since 2011, tracking how supraglacial lakes change. These lakes reside on the surface of glaciers, and given enough time, gradually “eat away” at the exposed ice, melting it or calving (collapsing) it, sometimes in chunks that are more than tens of feet thick during the summer melt season. I had installed a combination of time-lapse cameras on slopes looking down at the lakes, put thermal buoys in the lake waters, and staked meteorological stations on the adjacent rocky land. Over the past three years the cameras have captured spectacular lake fills, drains, and refills, as well as large calving events that have continued into the present winter (you can watch some video here). It seems that there really is no “quiet” season on the glacier.

I’m happy to report that the stations recorded good data and imagery that I will be processing after we return from Mt. Everest and Mt. Lhotse. One station is still up on the glacier and will continue to record data on the supraglacial lakes through the spring and summer thaw. I should make it back to the instruments in June, for some final data downloads and resets for the subsequent 2014 monsoon season. It is important to get a continuous data set over multiple years, some of which will be wet and some dry, to start to look for patterns. Jake and I took apart a second station and carried it back down, so we can use it on Everest.

There is no trail to get to my research stations. We create it as we go, and the route changes every month. To give you an idea, imagine walking for about a mile. Now imagine walking, or scrambling, that distance on large, unstable boulders that move underfoot every step of the way. And do all that at higher than 15,000 feet. It is incredibly tiring and sometimes dangerous, especially when carrying heavy loads. This time of year the snows come in the early afternoon. Getting caught out on a glacier in the heavy snow bursts can be very disorienting. It takes extra vigilance and caution to stay safe when working out there.

We are currently back at Namche Bazaar. The journey back down the valley was in a spring blizzard, with each of us carrying about 40 pounds of equipment. Thankfully we had some porter support from Thamserku Trekking. We had a quick rest, but the rest of the Mt. Everest–Mt. Lhotse team had already arrived and we were set to head off for base camp on the morning of April 15, lugging hundreds of pounds of scientific equipment and climbing gear.

The route from base camp to Mt. Everest.

We are scheduled to arrive at base camp on April 18 or 19, depending on the weather, which is looking a bit unsettled at the moment. To get a sense of the base camp location see the rough map at right, or plug the following coordinates into your favorite online mapping program: 28 0′ 26″ N, 86 51′ 34″ E. We will spend a few days at the base adjusting to the new altitude before climbing on to Camp 1 at 19,600 feet. After that, we will make a push to Camp 2, at over 21,000 feet, where we will have to spend even more time adjusting to the rarified atmosphere. Camp 2 will be our science staging area. From there we will set out on the glacier to put up a weather station and to measure snow reflectivity over the next month. All the effort is to help figure out how much soot is settling on the mammoth glaciers of this region, which could greatly affect how fast they could melt in the future, or not. For more on that, see my first post in this series.

More to come.

Ulyana Horodyskyj About the Author: Ulyana Horodyskyj received a B.S. in earth science at Rice University and M.Sc. in planetary geology at Brown University. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in geosciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For the past few years, she has traveled to Nepal to study how glacial lakes evolve with time. She is currently spending a year abroad on a Fulbright scholarship and has expanded her project to study the effects of black carbon on snow melt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. tuned 11:38 am 04/18/2014

    Good luck
    but
    whatever happened to robots?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Carborundum 5:37 pm 04/18/2014

    So pleased you are safe Ulyana. Admire the great work you do.

    Link to this

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