Mountains as Water Sources - Himalayan Expedition Part 2

One of Nepal's largest development projects is taking place just upstream from where you crossed the Arun River. It is called the Arun III Hydroelectric Project. What does hydroelectric mean? Since most of the valleys in Makalu-Barun drain into the Arun, developers are trying to harness the waterpower of this river to generate electricity for the people of Nepal. How will this project affect local people? How will it affect the environment?

At about 11,480 feet (3,500 meters), you notice several long scratches in the rock surface beneath you. Looking around, you realize that this whole section is covered with scratches. They are all facing the same way, parallel to the slope of the mountain. What could have caused these scratches? You try to get some clues from the surrounding landscape. The only thing that strikes you as odd is the random boulders located nearby. How did these boulders get here? Where did they come from? After thinking about it for a little while you are able to figure out that both are the result of glaciers. Glaciers have rocks (sometimes as large as boulders) and debris frozen in them. As they travel down the mountain, these rocks scratch the surface. As the glaciers melt, some of the boulders get left behind. These boulders are called erratics because they are in odd, unexpected places.

High altitude trash. Photo: TMIHigh altitude trash. Photo: TMIAs you continue climbing, you see more and more trash. The side of the mountain is littered with bottles, cans, glass, tent parts, and ropes. One of the Sherpas, somewhat embarrassed, explains that when the weather gets really bad at high elevations, expedition teams leave everything behind and get down to safety as quickly as possible. Not only does this trash look ugly, but it also impacts the mountain environment, including the water supply. To alleviate the problem, Sherpas are now being paid extra to bring the garbage produced by their expeditions back down the mountain.

This makes you think about the other activities you have seen during the expedition that might have an impact on the water quality. You've seen small streams contaminated with human and animal waste. You've also seen land cleared for farming and grazing, trees cut for firewood, and plants removed for various purposes. You've even seen the bare land that is left behind. Without vegetation, erosion must be taking place, washing soil and agricultural runoff into the rivers and degrading the water supply. Are people other than those in the Himalayas affected by the quality of this water? Are other species besides humans affected?

Suddenly you hear thunder in the distance. Even if it isn't monsoon season, you still need to be careful because thunder is usually a sign of things to come. Things like landslides and flash floods. As expected, it starts to rain. While you and your teammates put on some waterproof gear, your porters looks around for cracks in the mountain slope and curved trees. These are both signs you are in an area that has experienced-and is likely to experience again-landslides. Landslides occur naturally on steep mountain slopes. When the soil becomes saturated with water, the pull of gravity causes soil and rock to slide along the surface of earth at a quick, and sometimes destructive, pace. This event may be triggered by an earth tremor or can occur on its own during the monsoon (wet) season. All clear. The guide gives you the go-ahead and you continue to climb.

High altitude climbing in the Himalayas. Photo: Johan ReinhardHigh altitude climbing in the Himalayas. Photo: Johan ReinhardAt 18,000 feet (5,490 meters) you realize you aren't feeling very well. In fact, you haven't felt well for quite a while. It is difficult to breathe or walk very fast. On top of being wet, you haven't been hungry for hours and are starting to feel really nauseous. Your head hurts, too. You felt great yesterday. Could you be coming down with a cold? The flu? Even though you don't want to admit to not feeling well-for fear you might miss out on the final stretch up to the peak-you ask a few teammates how they are feeling. Some are fine, others don't feel well either. What could it be?

Your Expedition Leader thinks it is probably altitude sickness. After all, you have many of the symptoms and have reached an elevation where it is possible. Think back to when you were planning for the expedition. What should you do now?

After resting for quite a while you continue to the summit. Looking back down the mountain, you notice a lake. Come to think of it, you've seen quite a few high-altitude lakes on this expedition. You wonder how they are created. It must have something to do with the glaciers. You know that as snow builds at high elevations it turns to ice. Eventually, gravity pulls this ice down the mountain. On the way down, these glaciers grind away rock and create valleys. Maybe as they move down the mountain, they also carve out basins that fill with snowmelt and precipitation. You remember reading about a glacial lake outburst that took place in Makalu-Barun in 1964. It happened after a period of warm temperatures and heavy rains. During the warm spell, many more glaciers melted than usual. This combination caused lake surfaces to overflow, wiping out bridges, houses, and agricultural land, and killing people. With global warming, these glacial lake outbursts may become more common.

On the way down, you look back toward the peak, relieved that it has stopped raining. The glaciers look red as they reflect the setting sun. The cold has already started to set in, and at these elevations you need to be concerned about frostbite. The mountain is very peaceful. Although you wish you didn't have to leave, you are very excited to return to the United States and share everything you have learned about Mount Makalu.

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Last updated on 10/22/2014
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