Alton Byers’ Perilous Journey Across the Himalayas

Investigating danger levels of glacial lakes in the Hongu Valley…

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Lake 464, possibly the most dangerous in the valley because of its overhanging ice that could break off, cascade into the lake, and cause an outburst flood. Photo~Danial Byers

NGS/Waitt Grant Recipient: Alton Byers

In the remote Hongu Valley, nine potentially dangerous glacial lakes have formed in just the last few decades. Because this area is so isolated, the lakes have received little study. With expeditions in 2009 and 2010 led by the Mountain Institute and Hokkaido University, mountain geographer and NGS/Waitt program grantee, Alton Byers, began the process of studying the physical characteristics of these lakes.

Listen here:

Recently, Byers was interviewed about his journey for National Geographic Weekend Radio. To listen, click on the link above.

Due to rapid climate change, melting glaciers are forming new lakes - and they are starting to burst their terminal moraines, destroying lives and livelihoods downstream. In 2009, Byers journeyed to the Hongu Valley with colleagues to conduct the first on-site scientific investigation of each lake’s characteristics and danger levels. A year later, he returned with his film-maker son, Daniel, to assess downstream damage that would occur in the event of a GLOF. Together they completed one of the few downstream surveys of the remote Hongu river valley conducted by a Westerner in 60 years.

The Journey

In October 2010, an expedition set off to discover just how dangerous the Hongu Valley lakes of Nepal are, and navigate all the way down their river channel to assess the damage they might cause to local villages. This is a route so remote and treacherous that it has never before been completed by an expedition group - two previous attempts by research teams resulted in getting lost in the jungle and nearly starving.

byers-crossing.jpgCut off from the world while crossing dangerous mountain passes in deep snow was all in a day’s work for a father and son team determined to trek through the Himalayan Mountains. Byers 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.

byers-hongu-valley-map.jpgThe resulting route map 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, providing a fantastic view of the entire Hongu valley that would have been impossible had they been down at the river channel. 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?

Byers does not believe in either of the above statements, but these are just two of a number of difficult questions that are arising out of the research. Their work was helped immensely by the fact that they haven’t spent all or their 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.

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Small Sherpa village of Bokswanr. Photo~Daniel Byers

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, Byers hopes 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.

Updates

- Recently, Byers gave a presentation on the “outburst” phenomenon at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society. His story “The Rise of the Climbing Scientist” was also featured in the American Alpine Club’s blog, Inclined.

- Congratulations to Alton Byers for being named one of the 2010 NG Blackstone Innovation Challenge Winners! Collaborative-minded NGS/Waitt Grantee, Byers is joining forces with Emerging Explorers Ken Banks and T.H. Culhane to protect and restore the world’s alpine ecosystems. Starting with a few small villages in Nepal, near Everest base camp, they intend to use innovative technologies and education to mitigate the ongoing damage to these fragile ecosystems through awareness building, improved conservation practices and high-altitude alternative-energy development. The Innovation Challenge Grant encourages new and innovative projects resulting from the collaboration of two or more National Geographic explorers, and to encourage explorers to develop new ideas, methodologies or projects that advance a major strand of their work in exploration, the sciences or education.

Resources/Media

NGS/Waitt Grants: Glacial Lakes Risk Assessment Project
The Mountain Institute Website
Outburst: Story of the Hongu Valley Expedition
Hongu Valley Expedition Blog
NatGeo NewsWatch: Father and Son Document Perilous Journey Across the Himalayas
NatGeo NewsWatch: Father and Son Climb to Highest Valleys to Save Lives
National Geographic Weekend Radio: Alton Byers Discusses Glacial Lakes