Friday, July 17, 2009

Living on the Glacier

Our base camp is situated on the Godwin-Austen Glacier. Looking at a picture of base camp (I'd post one, but satellite phones are pretty expensive) it would appear we're on solid ground, but this is not the case. Our camp is located on a debris covered portion of the glacier. As they flow through a valley glaciers pick up a lot of rocky debris that falls from the mountains above. On the lower stretches of large glaciers, below the nieve line (the point above which more snow accumulates than melts in a year), the surface is covered in this debris. Small quantities of dust or debris can hasten the melting of a glacier due to the absorption of solar radiation, but as the layer thickens, it actually starts to insulate the glacier. It also makes for a bizarre landscape.

Our camp is on rubble not far below the nieve line; the ground is covered in rocks the size of pebbles up to tent-sized boulders. The debris is not very thick and when the sun shines you can hear the glacier melting, a sort of crackling sound all around you. In the few weeks we've been here there have been large changes in the topography around us. My tent, for instance, is now situated on a platform as the ice under the debris has melted all around it. Many large boulders sit on top of platforms of ice as a similar process melts the surrounding ice. Off to either side of our camp are rivers flowing down the surface of the glacier, their beds made of pure ice.

Above our camp, on the way to the base of our route (45 minutes away), the debris ends, but the landscape remains bizarre with towers of ice called nieve penitentes all around. There are also large pools of water out there, a bit frightening when the visibility is poor and they're covered in fresh snow. The second time I walked out to the base of the route I had a funny surprise. I was within site of the rocky ledge where we stash gear and begin the climb. I wasn't watching my feet and as I half-stumbled down an incline below some seracs I saw that where my foot was about to land looked like a frozen over puddle. I crashed through the ice and although the puddle was only a few feet wide I plunged past my waist into the water. This is a common hazard here. Thin crevasses open and fill with water. Small on the surface, they can be very deep. I crawled out and took off most of my clothes, wringing them out and putting them back on. Luckily we weren't heading up the route that day.

Another strange facet of living here are the sounds. Laying in your tent at night you can hear the glacier underneath you. Loud pops and cracks, amplified by the fact you're laying on the ground. Sometimes it seems like the ice might crack open underneath you. But that's slower process. When we arrived there were no crevasses to speak of. A few very small ones were around, just big enough to break an ankle. In fact, many climbers have ended their trips due to tripping in one of these small cracks. Now, many weeks later there are considerably more and larger cracks appearing. Some of them get filled with rocks as they open, but others fill with water and one is now a couple feet wide and drops down about twenty feet. Walking around after dark without a headlamp is not advisable.

The K2 Diet Plan

Expeditions are a great way to lose weight. We eat very well here; big portions and rich food prepared by our cook Didar, who used to work at the Islamabad Marriott. But despite this fact and the fact that we've spent most of our time here sitting out bad weather in basecamp I've still had to tie string around my waist to keep my pants from falling off. Living at 5200 meters burns calories. Unfortunately a lot of these calories are taken from your muscles: Burning muscle tissue is more efficient than burning fat. So with the altitude and the cold distressing your body, it responds by withering away your muscle mass. After several years of these trips, I'm starting to have two classes of pants, pre- and post-expedition. The positive spin of this: Even though I'm losing muscle mass, my lower weight makes me a better rock climber when I return home.

1 comment:

  1. Good thing you'll be a better climber, we are tearing in up back here. Can't wait to get out with you guys.