Yaks, rocks, and altitude: fieldwork in the Nepalese Himalaya.

Morgan Gibson (Deputy Chair)

Getting to go on fieldwork is one of, if not the main reason, I took up my PhD place a year ago; my supervisor tentatively asked me early on whether I would be interested in going to the Himalayas and base my project on Khumbu Glacier; the glacier that flows down from Mount Everest, as if I would say no. Of course I jumped at the chance, and this April I set off on a 6 week trip to Nepal to collect data for my project with 3 (of my 4) supervisors.

Our first task on arriving in Nepal was to sort through our 40 kg of equipment, ready for it to be transported to our study site by yak. Then, after three days in Kathmandu, we headed to Lukla in an incredibly small plane which magically landed on a very short runway, and started the long ascent up the Khumbu Valley. The walk up took 8 days, with 3 acclimatisation days as we were going from 3000 m to 5000 m. The altitude was to become the greatest challenge for the team, causing headaches, breathlessness and very frequent trips to the loo (your body flushes out carbonates to make you acclimatise).


Lukla airport. Yes, that is the end of the runway you can see!

Lukla airport. Yes, that is the end of the runway you can see!


As we climbed higher the scenery got more and more spectacular, and arriving at Khumbu Glacier was breathtaking; I had looked at so many satellite images and photos of this place in the last 9 months, but nothing prepared me for the huge amounts of debris lying on the glacier surface, and the towering moraines and mountains which surrounded it.

Over the next three weeks we lived in a camp, being treated like royalty with great food and a brilliant guiding team, and headed off to the glacier every morning in blinding sunshine. We were on a mission to get temperature data for the debris surface – both on the surface and in profiles through the debris layer, to gauge the main outlet river of the glacier and to produce a high resolution DEM of the glacier surface using structure from motion. Over the 3 weeks we installed our 40 kg of equipment throughout the glacier’s ablation area, between the terminus and Everest Base Camp, by huffing and puffing our way over numerous boulders and scree slopes.


Looking up glacier towards Mount Everest

Looking up glacier towards Mount Everest


The aim of my project is to collect data on the debris layer that lies on the glacier surface, and look at the surface energy balance and mass balance of the glacier through the monsoon season. So we have left the equipment on the glacier surface until November, when we will return and spend 10 days madly collecting it all. Ultimately we want to model the response of Khumbu Glacier to current and future climate change, incorporating the debris layer into the model for more accurate results.

As our fieldwork came to an end and we started to think of showering (I had a sum total of one shower in May…) and large amounts of coffee, we were surprised by a huge dump of snow which abruptly finished our time in camp and caused us to speedily make our way back to Lukla and then Kathmandu. The fieldwork was the most challenging thing I had ever done, but also the most rewarding. We now just have to keep everything crossed that when we return in November all our equipment has survived the monsoon, and that we can find it!


What else can you do, other than build a snowman, when you’re snowed in?

What else can you do, other than build a snowman, when you’re snowed in?


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