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Father and Son Climb to the Highest Valleys to Save Lives

Update: Dangerous Trek Begins, October 21, 2010 From Alton Byers:  We just arrived in Lukla and head out to the the Hongu valley tomorrow, and will be out of touch for three weeks.  Once we enter the valley over the 4200 m Mera La pass, we’ll trek up valley, climb to and film the dangerous...

Update: Dangerous Trek Begins, October 21, 2010

From Alton Byers: 
We just arrived in Lukla and head out to the the Hongu valley tomorrow, and will be out of touch for three weeks.  Once we enter the valley over the 4200 m Mera La pass, we’ll trek up valley, climb to and film the dangerous Lake 464, then walk the entire Hongu river channel out the the first villages about 10-12 days south.
Only two Westerners have attempted this in the past 60 years, and both became lost and nearly starved to death.  For example, in 1962 the Austrian climber-cartographer Erwin Schneider and party walked down the valley in the course of producing the beautiful Hongu map. They became lost, ran out of food, and had to boil and eat the leather head bands of the porter’s namlos (tumplines) in order to survive before finding their way out. 
I’ve hired an old Rai shepherd from one of the villages south who says he knows the way, so we should be fine.  Nevertheless, we’re taking along a good supply of namlos with leather head bands, belts, leather boots, etc. just in case…
Imja Lake basecamp.jpg
Photo: Imja Lake basecamp with glaciers in the background. Photo by Daniel Byers.

The original post:

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Panorama of the Hongu Valley and glacial lake, Nepal. Photo by Alton Byers

By Fabio Esteban Amador

This is no ordinary trek or family vacation. Alton and Daniel Byers are a father-and-son team trekking to the Hongu Valley in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal. Their study combines remote-sensing technology with ground-truthing research, and is critical in enhancing understanding of newly formed glacial lakes in the Nepal Himalaya region. The study also incorporates an important risk assessment that could save the lives of thousands of Sherpas who live downstream.

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Glacial lake, Hongu Valley, Nepal. Photo by Alton Byers

What is a glacier lake and what threat does it pose?

Glacial lakes are bodies of water at high altitudes that have grown significantly over the past 20 years as a result of global warming and climate change. Warmer temperatures cause the glaciers to melt, thus forming the lakes.

These lakes, however, are contained by natural dams of loose boulders and soil. But a number of factors could make the dams collapse, such as increasing pressure from the melting glacier itself; seepage; lake water level change; and surge wave by rockfall and/or slide and ice calving.

Outbursts would unleash the lake water, causing enormous devastation downstream that can include high death tolls as well as the destruction of valuable farmland, villages and costly infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

“The increasing global warming experienced during the twentieth century has had a tremendous impact on the world’s high mountain environments, particularly in the form of glacial recession and disappearance,” Alton explained.

“As glaciers melt and recede, dozens of new lakes form. These new lakes grow to dangerous and unstable

sizes. Catastrophic outburst floods can occur when triggered by an ice-fall, debris flow, or natural breach in the lake’s fragile dam of loose boulders and soil.

“These new lakes hold millions of cubic meters of water and are unstable, thus the need to assess their capacity and potential damage.”

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Makalu Barum National Park, Nepal. Photo by Alton Byers

Alton Byers is the Director of Research and Conservation at the Mountain Institute, a world-renowned mountain geographer, and a talented photographer. He has spent the last decade dedicated to developing monitoring and evaluation methods for mountain parks and protected areas, climate change impact analysis and resilience-building, as well as alpine ecosystem protection and restoration.

His current research is funded in part by a National Geographic Waitt Grant. The project’s title, “The Threat from Above,” represents a multidisciplinary approach to document and assess glacial lake formation due to global warming. It is also a simple yet elegant way to show how global warming is real and a threat to the lives of many

downstream populations.

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Trekking up to the Hongu Valley, Nepal. Photo by Alton Byers

“The team’s interdisciplinary approach, and very helpful participation of local people, in the past have resulted in a number of important new discoveries regarding the lakes, recent impacts of climate change, and methods for reducing the likelihood of flooding,” Alton said in an interview.

Directions to the Hongu Valley, please!

Reaching the study area is not as easy as rolling into a U.S. national park. Getting to the Hongu Valley requires an eight-day trek from the nearest airstrip (Lukla) to reach the Everest region. It is an extreme and unpredictable environment and getting there is just as amazing as the data that is collected.

This is precisely the reason why Alton’s son Daniel is with him. Daniel is a young film-maker recently graduated from Brown University with a BA in liberal arts focusing on film and video production. Although this shoot is not his first, it is by far the most challenging of his young career, given the conditions and the remoteness of the region. You can follow Daniel’s blog at “The Hongu Valley Expedition.”

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Trekking up to the Hongu Valley, Nepal. Photo by Alton Byers

The Himalaya Mountains in Nepal are among the highest peaks in the word. Many have died climbing their summits.

Climbers have observed that the dynamic landscape is evolving quickly. What is causing glacial lake formation? There is no doubt that the region is experiencing rapid environmental changes, and Alton’s data as well as those collected by many of his colleagues agree that global warming has played a mayor role.

What is really important here is that the research has a practical significance in saving lives.

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Tama Pokhari is in fact not a lake but a series of meltwater ponds within the Khare and Hinku Shar glacier valleys. Photo by Alton Byers.

Science Saving Lives

Alton and Daniel make photo and video assessments of the lakes to provide populations with an early warning of their possible collapse.

Daniel is there to capture the experience of getting and being there, and most importantly, learning about the Sherpa, their culture, their land and their multilayered world in the most beautiful and inhospitable place on earth.

Alton is the lead scientist, mountain geologist and photographer taking his son to his “office,” the highest valleys on Earth.


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 Fabio Esteban Amador’s blog posts

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