Himalayan fieldwork: what’s it really like?

As a glaciologist working in the Himalayas, I am fortunate: I get to travel to some incredible places and work with fantastic people. But the majestic photos of 7000 m peaks, impossible glaciers, lush valleys, and inquisitive yaks tell a story that is potentially misleading. For the most part, Himalayan fieldwork is about putting one foot in front of the other, over, and over, and over (and over) again.


One foot in front of the other on Yala Glacier, October 2014. Langtang-Lirung (7200 m) looms in the background.

On an average Langtang Valley fieldtrip, which covers about 18 days, our team typically covers 80-90 km on foot. Which may not seem like much, but most of that is over 4000 m in elevation, which means the oxygen content is lower and you tend to move sllloooooowwwlllly. We also ascend (and descend) over 7000 m in elevation, as knees and quads will loudly attest at the end of the trip.


Our October 2015 route in Langtang Valley, Nepal, as recorded by our SPOT tracker. Google Maps version available here: https://goo.gl/p9qoFQ

One of the many perks in working for ICIMOD (the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, www.icimod.org) is that there is a budget for expedition support. So our trips actually wind up being quite comfortable foodwise, tentwise, and loadwise. There are tea breaks and cookies when you get back to camp, hot soups to start the evening meals, and endless portions of the Nepali classic dal bhat.

The weather and the field work itself is another story. I’ve been tentbound by typhoons, convincingly charged by yaks, sunburned and snowburned, and listened to avalanches and thunder crash around in the mountains while huddled in a flimsy nylon shell. The earthquake in April 2015 deposited house-sized boulders along the hiking trail that we have walked before, and continue to walk now. An unanticipated side effect of high-altitude fieldwork is sleep deprivation and sleep apnea, which manifests itself as dreams of drowning (AKA lack of oxygen). And then, on top of everything else, there is the constant gnawing stress of the conducting research in the field: did I bring all the tools, sensors, and hardware I need? Will the generator still work with dirty siphoned petrol? Did I pack pants? [self-edit: keep in for the Brits]


“I forgot the wrench.”

LED glasses for tent-bound entertainment.

The success of our work ultimately depends on the team that supports us. We have been incredibly fortunate to work with strong, dedicated, and amazingly resilient and helpful porters and guides. As I finish this post (6 months after starting the draft), the dry and dusty Kathmandu winter has given way to hot mornings and pop-up thunderstorms. And I look forward to putting my feet in front of each other over and over again in the mountains this spring.


Pasang Sherpa (left) and Ngawang Sherpa (right) near the end of a trip.

A video of our recent fieldwork in Langtang, shot by Susan Hale-Thomas (@susanhalethomas) and produced by Science Media (Netherlands), can be seen here: https://youtu.be/JJ_ZtoC90Jo

Susan has also posted a behind-the-scenes look at the fieldwork here: https://vimeo.com/148851544




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