Where do we go from here? Hiking on Mighty Himalayas in the Times of Climate Crisis

‘The mountain makes its own weather’, one remembers the adage while traversing the high mountains. While climate forecasts can have some degree of accuracy in the lower climes, unless one is paying a bomb for scientifically verified weather reports, one can often experience all moods of the weather at high altitudes in a single day.

We were hiking from Gamshali village (3,400 meters) in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, taking the trail to cross the high-altitude pass of Bhyundar Khal (5,100 meters) and descending into the Valley of Flowers (3,000 meters), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The trek falls in the Zaskar range of the Himalaya, and one goes from a relatively drier landscape bordering Tibet to the lush green environs of the Valley of Flowers.

The 6th Assessment Report of Working Group 1 of IPCC (titled ‘The Physical Science Basis’) had come out a little while back and was lingering in my mind as we were going on the trip. The constant barrage of landslides and rockfalls while we were driving towards Joshimath seemed to be mocking the efforts to build an ‘all-weather highway’ without taking the time to understand the fragile nature of the landscape.

As we drove up from Joshimath towards Gamshali, the scars of the recent flash floods in 2021 were all too evident, so much so that we had to camp by the roadside for a night as the road was blocked by a massive landslide and constant rockfalls hampered construction workers from clearing it. Extreme precipitation is projected to increase in major mountainous regions, with potential cascading consequences of floods, landslides and lake outbursts, the IPCC report says. The consequences are not ‘potential’ anymore, they’re very much ‘kinetic’, we pondered, sitting glumly by the roadside waiting for a passage through.

We managed to get through the next morning, albeit only by crossing over another landslide on foot and changing vehicles. The impact on disaster preparedness and ecotourism will be assessed in the Working Group 2 report to be released early next year, but the taxi drivers tell you how the weather is laying waste to whatever they could salvage from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grateful was all we felt, finally bidding adieu to the road and climbing up a lush green meadow adjoining Gamshali. We met another trekking group descending from an unsuccessful attempt of Gupt Khal (5,800 meters), another high-altitude pass in the region. They were battered by constant snowfall for 3 days forcing them to retreat.

There is this brief time window after the monsoons recedes when most people plan high-altitude excursions before the onset of winter, with the former now erratic, that little bit of certainty also disappears. The instances of mountaineering casualties have been rising in the Indian Himalayan Region in the past few years. Since these activities are by their very nature inherently risky, we tend to overlook the impact of climate change, but things are getting even more challenging now as that little bit of certainty of feasible time windows is also disappearing.

The sound of rain at 2 am in the morning was a bit disconcerting, since this was the first night of our trek. The weather cleared by the morning though and we left the comfort of the meadows for the moraines of the Bankund glacier. Making our way precariously through loose boulders and mud, our guide lamented the size of the rockfall, much higher than the previous years. They’re like teeth, these large boulders, held together by the gums that is the ice and snow. With the gums receding and getting weaker, the teeth are bound to fall. It is virtually certain that snow cover will decline over most land regions during the 21st century, in terms of water equivalent, extent and annual duration, surmises the report. Here we were, looking at one and wondering.

And to add to the irony, amidst cathedrals of snow, we found ourselves unable to find any water source, the glacial debris having buried most of the running streams. With some luck, our guide managed to sound one out that we could reveal after dislodging some rocks, but this was a rude shock. Runoff from larger glaciers will generally increase with increasing global warming levels until their mass becomes depleted.

We did manage to complete the trek without any incidents, the weather, apart from its usual moodiness, held out. Of course, there is no concrete evidence that the area we traversed is behaving so because of the climate crisis, but with the present climate modelling tools available, we can at best try to accurately ‘guess’ anyway.

So where does one draw the line that separates long term change from the usual seasonal fluctuations? This is a question that bothers everyone, from the villager to the tourist to the policymaker. Erring on the side of caution, it would be wise for us to ‘hope for the best and prepare for the worst’. Glaciers will continue to lose mass at least for several decades even if global temperature is stabilized, the report warns.

The next decade will define how these changes will impact the adventure and mountaineering industry. Until then, we need to significantly enhance our search and rescue capabilities to make sojourns to the outdoors as safe as possible.

About the Author

Parth Joshi is a Climate Reality Leader at The Climate Reality Project Foundation. He is also the National Livelihoods Specialist, SECURE Himalaya at UNDP. He is an enthusiastic expeditioner/ mountaineer.

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