AVALANCHE!

William Bleisch, PhD
on the trail below Api Himal

A musk deer, one of the first images recovered from our camera traps in Api Nampa. The third avalanche stopped us, but it was the fourth avalanche that convinced us all that we had been right to turn back.

 

I am in the Api Nampa Conservation Area in western Nepal again, back to try to retrieve the camera traps that we set high up near the source of the Chemaliya River last October, just below the cliffs of Api peak itself. We need to retrieve the traps to see what wildlife they have caught and also to bring them down the mountain before thousands of caterpillar fungus collectors enter the protected area later in the month. Unfortunately, a bit of freak weather has left several feet of snow accumulated in the upper reaches of the valley.

Avalanche debris covers our path. We arrived from Kathmandu after a two day drive from Danghadhi airport in the far southwest of Ne-pal. Reaching the small town of Latinath at the end of the road after a long winding drive, we were met by dancing in the street, as it was the start of the Hindu festival of Holi. Bishnu Pandey and I were joined by local porter, Birendra Singh Bista from Marmate Village. Even though this is a remote region, like many people from this part of Nepal, Birendra has worked abroad. He used to work in India as a security guard for a government telecom company, but the company was privatized and the new owners hired retired Indian army as the guards, so he returned to his home.

We immediately set out hiking, continuing up the valley of the Chemaliya River. We managed to cover only 7.3 km that first afternoon, and we spent the night in a simple tea-house lodge beside the trail in Raobade Village. Tea houses are common along the trail. Since the valley has many villages but not one road, people walk in and out, and all goods are carried in on horses and mules in caravans.

Looking up the shoot. The wind howled and it rained heavily during the night, but the day dawned clear, and we got an early start at 7:00. Soon we were making the “horrible” climb up the steep right face of the valley. Nearing the top, Bishnu and I heard a sharp thud as a falling stone landed near us. Then another stone, about the size of a baseball, went zinging by my head. I estimate it was not less than three meters away. I ducked for cover as Bishnu scanned the sloped above, but no more falling rocks came down our way.

At the top of the climb the trail levelled off at about 2400 meters above sea level, winding through vil-lages perched on the steep slopes high above the river. We stopped briefly for lunch at the familiar inn with a pet Himalayan Tahr. There we were joined by our local guide and partner, Dalbahadur Lothyar, and soon set off again, after registering with the local conservation area authority. We had had cloudy weather all day, and as dusk approached and we descended back to 2014, it began to sleet. It felt good to reach the last house, the place I call the Forest Inn, and have a hot meal. We had put in 11 hours of steady walking to cover 21 kilometers, climbing up 1,750 meters. My route recorder app also noted that I had burned an estimated 2,186 kilocalories. It was a good day’s work out, but I was too exhaust-ed to do much more than change into dry clothes, write a few notes and fill my thermos.

Local guide Lotyar and the author. The next day dawned clear and cold. Usually we start to travel early, after just a single glass of hot, sweet and spicey masala tea, but today we had a big breakfast of rice, bean soup and spicy vegetable curry. Lotyar and the porter prepared rubber boots for walking on snow by gluing pieces of an old rub-ber shoe to the bottom as cleats. Bishnu and I spent some time watching a group of Himalayan Langurs above the hut. We saw a large flock of Snow Pigeons. It seemed that the snow above had even forced the Snow Pigeons down the mountain to seek a more suitable climate. A Himalayan Griffin circled the snowy slopes above us.

We set off at 9:45, ascending the valley beside the Chemaliya River, first through sheep pastures and then up into old-growth forests. Repeatedly, the trail climbed up steeply to cross above cliffs that line the river, and then, just as steeply, descended back to the riverside again. I was still feeling the effects of the long day before, plus the added handicap of not being acclimatized to the 2,000 + meters of ele-vation. And, I had to face it, I was out of shape, paying the price for that week of dumplings and tang yuan in Beijing during the Spring Festival!

As we climbed, we could catch glimpses of a large white flood of snow debouching into the river up ahead. When we reached it, we found a ridge of white in our path that was piled up 100 meters from its base. With Lotyar in the lead kicking steps, we climbed to the top of the snow ridge. From there we could see into the shoot of the avalanche. Scoured by slides, it looked like a giant toboggan run, stretching up into the snow peaks high above us. As we crossed, I cast nervous looks up the shoot, but Bishnu, seemingly unconcerned, stopped on the snow to observe a troop of rare Assamese Macaques that were calmly foraging on the opposite bank of the river.

Holi dancers on the trail. I was happier when we descended from the snow back into the forest and out of the path of any new snow slides. As we hiked on, however, occasional patches of snow in shady spots became a continu-ous sheet of snow that gradually deepened until we were calf deep in snow with every step. We found wildlife tracks in the snow, and passed a simple forest shrine beneath an old fir tree. We crossed another avalanche, but it was a smaller one with well-compacted snow. By now, however, the steep climbing and the snow, combined with my lack of stamina, was really slowing me down, to the point that I started to doubt whether we could reach our intended destination before dark. We stopped to discuss our options. I had brought a light one-man tent with me, but the others were counting on reaching a large cave shelter that night. The map showed that it was still 6 kilometers and several hundred meters of climbing ahead.

I suggested that I could stay behind in my tent, but the others would not hear of it. I suggested turning back. Lotyar said he knew where all of the camera traps were placed, and he agreed to bring them down in a week or two, as soon as the path was clear and the danger of avalanche was reduced. We finally agreed to push on. Bishnu and I had good headlamps, and the two of us could continue to fol-low the others’ footsteps in the snow after dark if necessary.

A few more steps, however, brought us to a third avalanche. This one was a vast field of loosely com-pacted snow covering branches and trunks of fallen trees. The loose snow would not support our weight. The porter, in particular, carrying an additional 25 kilograms, was sinking up to his waste with every step. In the end, it was he who called it quits, but this time, there was no discussion. With only three hours of daylight remaining to reach the hut below, we quickly turned around and started back.

First glimpse of the avalanche path ahead. I was starting to have second thoughts about wimping out when we saw the fourth avalanche in our path. The shoot was filled with fresh snowballs the size of basketballs and larger. They looked as if they had been rolled down the mountain by playful children intending to make hundreds of snowmen. We did not dally to make snowmen, however. This avalanche had not been here a few hours before when we had climbed up this way. There was no way to know how much more snow was waiting and ready to come down above us.

I was relieved to get across the last of the avalanche shoots and get on the clear trail back to the hut. We had made a good effort, but we had failed. All was not lost, however. Unless they had been swept away, the camera traps were still safe above. No caterpillar fungus collectors were likely to make the trip before Lothyar could retrieve them.

Still, I was disappointed. It was a long trip for nothing. To make matters worse, my route app told me that we had only reached 2,687 meters asl. Our cameras were placed up to 1300 meters above that. And, worse still, as if to mock me, the app claimed I had only expended 203 kilocalories that day.

But then, it was never programmed to account for snow and avalanches.

Post script: On April 25, 2015, after this reports was filed, Nepal was shaken by a 7.8 magnitude earth-quake with its epicenter 77 kilometers northwest of the capital, Kathmandu. Avalanches and landslides triggered by the quake caused additional destruction and loss of life, particularly devastating the Lang Tang region near Nepal’s border with Tibet. Thankfully, Professor Mukesh, CERS’s partner in Nepal, has been in touch and reports that he and the team are OK, although “a bit shaken up.” As of this writ-ing, however, more than 8,500 people are known to have perished in that quake and the subsequent aftershocks. CERS has provided modest funding to Professor Mukesh and NEBORS, the Nepalese NGO that he founded, to support their relief efforts.