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