Driving the world’s “highest road” as the glaciers vanish

Posted by on Aug 13, 2014

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Motorcycle trips along northern India’s Khardung La road are a popular tourist activity. The mountain pass is purported to be the highest motorable road in the world. (Motographer/Flickr)

When Showkat Ali began driving buses in the 1980s on the Northern India’s Khardung-la, the world’s reputed highest motorable road, the Khardung glacier was immense and represented a daunting obstacle for vehicle transport. One day, he saw the vehicles in front and behind him vanish in a sudden tide of snow while his bus was spared. “While driving, you have to stay focused on the road and avoid loud music, but the rest is in the hands of God,” the bus driver reflected, as he sought to explain his nearly fatal event.

The situation today on the Khardung-la pass isn’t what it was when Ali began driving in his early twenties, becoming the first bus driver in Ladakh to make the perilous ride from Leh to Diskit, braving the Khardung pass which reaches a dizzying altitude of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). “The temperatures rose tremendously in the past years,” Ali said as he spoke about the generalized recession of glaciers he observed in Ladakh during his three decades of bus driving, recalling also how in his childhood the snow was deep enough to cover his thighs in winter.

Though commonly known as the “highest road“, modern GPS measuring estimates Khardung-la isn’t as high as the Mana Pass, a Indian military road near the border with Nepal, but that doesn’t diminish the challenge of driving over the Indian pass. Showkat Ali’s driving feats are so impressive that National Geographic Channel India featured him on one of its programs. Back in the early 1980s, the roads were in terrible shape, snowstorms were more frequent than they are today and being trapped in a remote village for many days was common, said the now retired driver as we chatted over a cup of tea at Chotak restaurant in Leh, the capital of the former kingdom of Ladakh, on a cold winter morning in 2013.

In Showkat Ali’s view, “the glaciers of Ladakh are melting because of higher temperatures, but the problem with the Khardung-la is that too many vehicles are coming close to it.” In a place where cultural taboos prohibit human activity in the high mountains, regarded as the dwellings of divine spirits, there has been a recent proliferation of infrastructure development initiatives, such as road building and hydroelectric projects.

When Ali started driving, the only way to build a road crossing the pass was to carve into the glacier. Later, an iron bridge was built across the glacier when the ground underneath had become too unstable. Year after year, the bridge was swept away by avalanches and built anew. But about 20 years ago, the presence of a bridge became futile as the ice progressively receded. The structure that once spanned the pass was left shattered in pieces, some of its fragments still punctuating the landscape today. Warming temperatures nullified the need for a bridge across the Khardung-la. Afterwards, although weathered and beaten by the harsh Himalayan roads, Showkat Ali’s bus could traverse the mountain pass easily, trundling along a road where glacier ice had stood not long before. “Making the trip over the Khardung-la today is like child’s play”, Ali said.

Indeed, the region of Ladakh has seen a steady decline in snowfall in recent decades, although this has been poorly monitored on the ground and much of the existing data remains closely guarded by the army in this geopolitically sensitive region, further hampering the efforts of researchers. Nonetheless, Ali’s account and all other testimonies I heard in Ladakh unmistakably echoed one another: today the weather is warmer, glaciers are vanishing, there is almost no more snow in winter, and avalanches have become rare. Soon, so will the glaciers.

This guest post was written by Karine Gagné, an anthropologist and researcher at the University of Montreal. If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

 

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