Despite the increased focus on water in the world view, precious little attention is paid to the great Himalayan glaciers which form the headwaters of some of the planet’s most vital waterways that affect 1.35 billion people. Obsessed with the rapid decline of these ancient temples of ice, award winning explorer Jeff Fuchs and China Water Risk’s Debra Tan undertook a month-long quest to live upon two of the India Himalayas’ great stalwarts of ice – the Bara Shigri and the Lasermo Glacier. Their journey allowed them to collect local tales and witness first-hand the urgency of the Himalayas’ water and ice issues.
Below is Fuchs’ reflections on the retreat one of India’s longest glacier – the Bara Shigri. A more day-to-day account of the entire journey can be found in his blog. Meanwhile, read Tan’s thoughts on the journey here.
All photographs published in this article are courtesy of the author. All images © Jeff Fuchs, all rights reserved
It aches and groans as it has for the past years, it is the sound of pain. Like thunder gone astray in the earth rumbling and cracking. At close to 4.5 kilometres into the sky, the sound of the great glacier shifting is the only sound apart from the winds, which seem eternal up here.
Sitting upon the glacier tucked underneath an ice shelf, I’m gifted an unparalleled 180 degree spectacle of unobstructed views and sounds as well as space to take in this mass. Above all else it is the intermittent groans that take the breath even more so than the spectacle of light and ice before me.
Bara Shigri is one of Asia’s longest glacial bodies. It is a body in flux that needs desperately to be seen as more than simply something sumptuously aesthetic. It is a body in decay that literally is liquefying and morphing from something solid into something vital yet temporary; ice into water. It is perhaps one of the most tangible examples of something entirely finite.
Bara Shigri is one of Asia’s longest glacial bodies
It is a body in decay, morphing from ice to water…
…a tangible example of something entirely finite
That water will by extension end up being a part of one of the great waterways of the planet; the Indus. Once liquefied, the ice then becomes part of a great and wandering (but temporal) journey. A faucet a thousand kilometres away is turned and liquid will be regurgitated with little regard to from where it has come. It is from a multitude of sources identical in all but size to Bara Shigri spaced all over the Himalayas.
The journey to and onto Bara Shigri has been far less ambiguous. Through a gateway of eskers and rock, and up onto its broad body, the trek is one of grinding persistence and of tendon straining efforts. Our team has taken time to ascend, and it remains one of the mountains’ great mantras “One goes slowly; one arrives”.
Even before the ascent, high mountain evidence of the glacier lies awash in scattered ponds and a fast moving glacial streams. Small proglacial lakes and powerful streams of green force hint that what appears solid is very much in flux ahead. The sheer amount of water that courses out of the grand dark tunnels in the ice is worrisome.
Travelling a single kilometer onto the glacier took hours as the moraine has become an accordion-like series of ascents and switchbacks. The journey that took me six hours two years ago almost doubles in time as the moraine has shifted and recreated the entire ice-mass.
“The journey that took me six hours two years ago almost doubles in time as the moraine has shifted and recreated the entire ice-mass”
Isolated in Himachal Pradesh, the long hidden 28km glacier (and indeed the entire Chandra River Valley) has remained something that is passed by, known by locals but rarely acknowledged or visited. “A big space that is passed when one travels” is how one local describes it.
The boulder-strewn landscape of steep ascents isn’t simply a space of graceful ice flows and brilliantine blue. It is a brutal landscape that is morphing in the present tense. Ice here is gigantic, rubble covered and in perpetual flow rather than anything crystalline and delicate.
Simply arriving to where we are upon the ice has taken days, acclimatization, and will. It isn’t a palace of wandering trails, ridgelines and spurs, but rather an amphitheater of mesmeric power and drama. The drama, it seems is never ending. It is a space where mortals do not go unless to climb nearby spires … or to travel to a mountain crucible and source of water.
Before our team had begun to ascend, a veritable sage of the mountains and shepherd of the valley imparted the kind of ‘direct speak’ that flourishes when one is ready to listen. Biari Singh herded sheep and goats through the Chandra Valley for 55 years and sitting with our team to take tea, his words were matter of fact. He spoke of very little changing in his life of shepherding … the wolves still come from the same valley to hunt, and the winds still bludgeon from the north but he mentions that snow frequency and precipitation level have changed. They don’t come so regularly and this is coming from a man who has paced every nook of the land in his half century of herding. “The snows are going”, he said at one point lighting up a clove cigarette nodding his head as though it was the only certainty he knew.
Not much has changed in Biari Singh’s life but snow & precipitation …
“The snows are going”
Once upon the ice our little team of porters, guides, and friends are all in a kind of awe in this enclosed valley of landslides, groaning ice, and ever changing skies. The walls on either side are enormous and for every summit there is another, higher. For every massive slab of ice, there is another equal. But always there is the sound of movement and ice.
A walk into the jagged waves of moraine further reveals a world of change. Caves and chasms ring with the rivulets of meltwater that drip and drain into pools. Blue underbellies of ice run rampant, forming glacial lakes that in themselves are risky. Great tunnels burrow into the ice and roar underfoot. They are the melt-water channels that often cruise unseen under ice bodies. It is as though the assault is from top and bottom simultaneously.
Caves and chasms ring with the rivulets of melt water
Blue underbellies of ice run rampant … the assault is from top and bottom simultaneously
Sitting under a shadow of the ice mountain above, the glacial melt flows down a thousand little wedges carving intricate little paths as they plunge to disappear into a mass of milky water. It is a day I will spend much of simply marvelling and worrying.
In the 18 years between 1977 and 1995, the Bara Shigri recorded an average annual retreat or loss of more than 36 metres1 and Himalayan glaciers across the span are receding faster than in any other part of the world.
While statistics don’t always reflect something tangible (particularly so in such remote regions), statistics along with the vital words, observations and thoughts of locals like Biari surely carry a measure of the human touch. The numbers are in themselves frightening, suggesting a rapidly diminishing bulk. In the cavernous ice cave, my own senses are active to the transition of ice to water. It is perhaps in this moment, in this taking in of it all, that it becomes clearest.
This ‘third pole’ that holds and supplies so much water, and supports so much culture, needs recognition beyond an image. Bara Shigri is but one of many such glaciers that is increasingly talked about and fretted over. Hundreds like it are the vertical providers of freshwater that literally fuel millions of bodies.
“This ‘third pole’ that holds & supplies so much water, and supports so much culture, needs recognition beyond an image”
Bara Shigri’s plight was perhaps best summed up by the head porter. Days into our stay upon the glacier he said, “It isn’t good to stay to long here. It is a place that is always moving”.
Two days later we move off of the great slab of ice under a white hot sun. White plates of ice high up the slope glisten above the grey moraine and all the while the glacier’s meltwaters flow.
1International Panel on Climate Change/IPCC, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/ch10s10-6-2.html
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