Saturday, July 19, 2014

Adventures in Tibet: Five Treks, Two Koras, a Packraft Loop and a High-Altitude Train Ride

Looking for ice worms in Tibet was tough.

First there was the lack of good maps. I had a handful of old Russian military topos at the 1:250,000 scale. Horribly out of date, with unpronounceable names in an unreadable language made them not too good as road maps, and the contour intervals combined with the extraordinarily steep terrain made them good for little more than dreaming.

The best nav tool was an iPad Mini, cellular version that has a GPS, combined with Gaia GPS. Gaia is an iPhone or iPad ap that allows you to save images and maps to device disk when you have an internet connection and then acts as a GPS with those images/maps when you are away from cellular or other connections. It is a game-changer for wildland travel when maps are hard to get.

Second was what's needed to find ice worms: warm, wet glaciers in the dark during the summer monsoon. This meant hiking up muddy trails to yak pastures to make a camp. Then building a cairn chain across the moraine in the afternoon, generally between 14,000 and 15,000 feet; the best cairns were three rocks with the middle rock contrasting with the outer rocks, reflective white being best. Then hiking up slippery bare ice, hopping crevasses and getting above snow line as darkness fell with rain, now at about 16,000 feet, to stumble around in the darkness looking fruitlessly for worms. Then stumbling back down across the glacier, trying to follow our cairns across the moraine by headlamp in the dark and rainy mist after midnight, back to our tent, or maybe a cabin if we were lucky.

Third were the Chinese police and their Tibetan informers who eyed us Western foreigners suspiciously, as they have watched Western foreigners for maybe a half millennium or more. With tension between Chinese and Tibetans, Chinese and Americans, and the general xenophobia of superstitious mountain people isolated from others by Himalayan mountains, rivers, gorges, and glaciers (their dialects were hard for our Lhasa guides to decipher), we were hassled every few days and eventually chased out of the region and back to Lhasa by the authorities who did not trust what we were up to.

I'd scouted out potential ice worm locations as glaciers in the Yarlung Tsangpo drainage. The Yarlung is the primary Himalayan watershed, draining the north side from as far away as Everest, and runs east a thousand miles before cutting the arguably deepest gorge in the world past Namche Barwa, last 25,000 foot peak to be climbed (1992). Swinging south past Namche Barwa, the Yarlung flows into the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which Brad M. visited after the Megalaya Show up and Blow up) and becomes the Brahmaputra. While hundreds of miles from the Indian Ocean, the summertime high pressure air lifting off the Tibetan Plateau sucks warm wet air off the Ocean as wet, summer monsoon winds. These winds bring daily afternoon thundershowers as they rise up the Brahmaputra and Yarlung valleys, making the region luxurious in conifers and glaciers, like a beefy Cascades or BC Coast Range, but twice as high and three times the distance to the ocean.

The main valley we followed was T-shaped and two hundred miles long -- more if the western extent -- totally off-limits to foreigners -- were accessible. The valley we wanted to visit is called the Yigong Tsangpo and it has been off-limits to climbers chasing granite spires rising off the biggest glaciers in the eastern Himalaya, kayakers looking for the steep-creek style but Grand Canyon scale rivers, and trekkers after untouched Tibetan nomads in lush mountain forests. It is also the valley reputed to have the Tibetan ice worm.

Using Google Earth we'd found a half-dozen 3-4 day trips that went from the road to 16,000 feet or at the firn line on monsoon glaciers.

The first was near Gyala Peri. We all went as far as a meadow filled with blue poppies the first night and then all but one of us went to the yak pastureland between glaciers, and then Thai and I went up to the glacier between Sendapu (22,349 ft) and Tiba Kangri (22,460 ft), to prime ice worm habitat.

Bridge across Wrong Chiu on the way up to glaciers in the Gyala Peri Range

The entire expedition on our first hike: we had one horse for the eight of us.

Mike in the low mid elevation birch forest.

Could be Alaska: log cabin with elder-berry

Iris and something familiar in yellow.

So familiar yet foreign: cabins, conifers, and cloud

The part of Tibet that looks like Alaska

Thai follows a yak trail bordered by willows.

Bear track -- this bear killed a yak calf.

This pasture was bounded by two glaciers and a mountain. The 35 yaks were herded by two young girls and an old man.

Yak camp below Sendapu (22,349 ft)

Pasture camp view -- spruce and steep, Himalayan headwalls.

Young yak herders up for the summer.

Tibetan hospitality. The radio played music off a USB stick.
On the fire is milk being heated to make butter.
Hanging above the fire pit is dried cheese on a string.
The girl was 18 years old.

June young.
Making yak butter tea, Tibetan style.

Heading out for the night.

Most glaciers are fed by avalanches from high above.

Thai went for simple spires on prominent rocks as cairns (on rock to right of him). Not always identifiable as cairns in the dark, though.

Excellent ice worm habitat but without any ice worms.

Looking for a spot to wait until dark.

North American ice worms like these creeks during the day.

Where we hung out for hours until dark, sheltered from the rain.

Marking our high point on the first of two glaciers we visited that night.

Future yak pastures?

Huge avy cones and moraine rubble.

It would soon start raining all night long.

Hanging out, brewing up, staying dry, waiting for dark.

This trip set the pattern: we'd drive to the valley coming out of the glaciers we wished to visit and make camp at the end of the road. Then our guide would talk to some locals who'd bargain for horses, if we wanted them. Then we'd pack light and head up in the morning, taking most of a day or more to get to the last yak meadow before the glacier moraine. This meant we'd encounter herders, up high for the summer, who'd share salty tea, yak butter, rock-hard dried cheese on a string, and if we were lucky the best yogurt I have ever eaten and maybe some greasy yak-meat stew.

After the first trip Thai and I were usually on our own, without any language save pidgin-sign. This meant for some good times with locals as we tried to explain where we were from, where we'd come down or up from, what we were doing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Month in Tibet

Last summer, July 2013, Thai Verzone, Mike Tetreau and Prof. Dan Shain and I went to southeastern Tibet, the part that doesn't look like what you'd expect Tibet to look like. And we went in June and July when most Himalayan trekkers don't go. Why don't they go in summer? Because the summer monsoon winds bring wet weather every day and the shining mountains the walkers want to see are hidden.

Southeastern Tibet in June looks more like the Cascades in winter than the Himalaya in summer.

We also went to Lhasa, the place that looks more like your imagination -- yaks and prayer flags, no trees, rounded mountains with smooth, polar glaciers, yurts and nomads, the high grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. But we spent just a week there in high Tibet, if you will, at the end, after three weeks in the Yarlung Tsangpo's tributary valleys.

Potola Palace at night from our hotel in Lhasa

This was the third time I'd gone to the tall, glaciated mountains of Asia, the largest alpine tundra expanse in the world, I'd guess.

A Himalayan tundra plateau steaming after a summer monsoon shower below Tsima La (16,200 feet)

Summer 2012 Young Roman and I visited Bhutan.

Tiger's Nest: Taktsang Monestary

 Summer 2011 Thai and I went to far western Yunnan Province, where China bumps up against Burma and Tibet at the headwaters of the Mekong River.

 Each of these trips we searched for the Tibetan ice worm. While we we unsuccessful with ice worms all were enormously successful otherwise.

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