A trip to Bhutan last month provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the glaciers in the country along the crest of the Himalayas. I had hoped for such a trip since I first visited Bhutan in 2011, since I was curious to learn what local people thought about glacier retreat, but I had not previously had the chance to travel above the middle-elevation regions. In October, though, my colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I had received permits to enter the high country. We arranged for horses to carry our gear, and hiked in for two days to Jigme Dorji National Park. We set up our tent in the village of Soe, where we attended a mountain festival and met with local officials and residents. Ed and Paul spent several days to take samples in the old-growth forests close to the tree line; they drilled cores in the trees, which they would later analyze to reconstruct the climate history of the region.
I realized that this was an opportunity for me to take a day on my own and hike up to the glaciers. I kept an eye on the weather, since clouds had been building up every afternoon, sometimes bringing rain, and I did not want to be trapped in a storm high on a mountain. The national park officials warned me to be careful if I left the main trails; they had had difficulties in rescuing foreign tourists who had gotten lost, or who had slipped. They reminded me that Bhutan, unlike Nepal, did not have helicopters that could fly in to remote areas if an accident occurred.
On the morning of Friday 9 October, the skies were a clear blue, offering the promise of good conditions for at least several hours. Moreover, I had an excellent guide. Renzin Dorji, the man whose horses we had chartered for two weeks and who had led us up the trail, had grown up in Soe. He had herded yaks as a boy and knew the countryside well. At the age of 37, he was old enough to recall the mountain when the glaciers had been larger.
We set off from Soe and came to the valley that led up to Jomolhari. Its summit, 7326 meters in elevation, rose high up into the sky. We set off on the north side of the creek that flowed through the valley, ascending slowly on a trail that led through meadows. Seeing the dense groves of junipers and birches, I thought of Ed and Paul. Renzin and I slowly ascended to the first moraine—a line of boulders across the valley, which had been pushed downslope by the glaciers in earlier, colder periods when the ice masses on the mountain had advanced to lower elevations.
When we came over the lip of the moraine, we saw Haluphu, a broad flat area across which the creek meandered in broad curves. Sixty or seventy yaks were grazing on the pastures or standing the creek. Renzin explained that the herders had recently brought their animals down from the high summer pastures to these lower elevations (between 4000 and 4500 meters) where they would spend the winter. In a month or so, temperatures would fall below freezing, and the snows would arrive. But in early October, the temperatures, which seemed about 15 or 18° C, were so warm for the yaks, with their thick dark wool, that they would enter the creek to cool off.
The massive peak of Jomolhari loomed in front of us beyond the grass-covered slopes. I looked up at the mountain and asked Renzin about it. He recalled that the ice had reached much lower down when he was a boy. The warm summers of recent years were the reason for the shrinkage of the glaciers, he said; much more water came rushing off the glaciers than in the past. It would be very serious when all the ice was gone, he thought. In fact, life might end altogether in the area. But that would be far in the future, since there was still a great deal of ice left. And the streams were still full, the pastures still abundant. Local people cared about the mountain, he added. Every household sends at least one person to the large festivals to honor Jomolhari that are held at a temple in another valley that came off the mountain. A monk came from Lingzhi, a village a day’s walk away, to lead these festivals. Renzin seemed to suggest that the mountain did not feel neglected.
We walked down from the moraine to the side of the creek in Haluphu. Renzin pointed out signs of new economic activities. He indicated a crude fireplace, a sign that people had come in the late spring or early summer to collect a medicinal fungus, called Cordyceps, which they sell for very high prices, either in government auctions in Bhutan or to buyers a day’s walk away across the border in China. He also showed me a large pit where local people had come to dig sand which they would mix with cement for the construction of government buildings, shops and houses in Soe and other villages. Earlier in the last century, stone buildings, sometimes chinked with mud, had replaced the yak-hair tents of the more nomadic pastoralists, and now cement was becoming common. The Cordyceps and sand-collecting were linked: flush with income from sales of fungus, local residents were constructing larger houses than they had had before. Renzin pointed out a new risk as well: there were large rocks on the flat areas along the creek. Rockfalls from the sides of the valley, especially in summer months, are more common than they had been in the past—possibly a sign of melting permafrost at high elevation, I thought. Renzin mentioned that yak-herders remained in higher pastures during the period of rockfalls, though others, eager to obtain products that they could sell at high prices, came then to collect Cordyceps and sand.
There were a number of animal trails that led up beyond Haluphu. Renzin led us on one which took us to a second moraine, composed of larger boulders than the first. Beyond that was a lake, named Haluphu Tsho, with strings of prayer-flags stretched across the point at its base where the creek emerged. The waters of the lake were a pale green, filled with fine glacier sediment. We saw a few yaks here as well, fewer than below.
The trail continued on above the lake to a third moraine. Here, at an elevation of about 4750 meters, the boulders were larger still, and had sharper edges. We stopped to look closely at Jomolhari, its immense mass filling the broad space at the head of the valley. The upper sections of the mountain were white with snow, but lower down the last winter’s snows had melted, revealing ice that was quite dark, almost slate gray in color. Was this local dust, or soot that had blown in from the diesel vehicles and wood fires of India? It would be possible to trace the history of this dark ice by taking cores, and seeing what particles were contained in the older ice, below the surfaces. Perhaps I would return some day with a glaciologist for such work, I thought. I recalled as well the warnings of the national park officials. The climbing had become difficult, and I did not want to risk a fall if I clambered over these large boulders to try to reach the ice. Moreover, this ice was further from the moraine than it had once been, since the glacier’s edge had moved upslope, revealing bare rock. The growing cloud masses on the summit removed any impulse to continue further: I did not wish to risk being caught in a storm higher on the mountain.
We sat in silence, staring at the mountain. After a while, I reached into my backpack and retrieved some snacks—Power Bars, a favorite of Ed’s and Paul’s, which we had both taken a liking to. We shared them, and then started our walk back. I reflected on the mountain and on the changes that Renzin had seen in the decades since he herded yaks in Haluphu as a boy. Renzin himself was taking part, in a small way, in the growth of tourism, by renting his horses to trekkers. The sale of medicinal fungi and of sand, the possibilities of trade (nearly all clandestine) with the growing towns just over the border in China: these new sources of income for local villagers were growing, perhaps as fast or faster than the glaciers were retreating. The final demise of the glaciers lay far in the future, while the trajectory of the new economy was uncertain. In the meantime, some features of earlier decades remained. Renzin’s wife and son cared for their yaks during the months when he accompanied foreign visitors, and their family sent a member to the festivals at the temple.
As we crossed the pastures below the first moraine, Renzin signaled to me to stop. He pointed out, just below us, a herd of blue sheep—a wild species, quite shy and rarely seen close up. Several yaks were grazing in their midst. I was pleased by this unexpected mix of the wild and the domesticated, at a spot not far from the villages in the main valley below Jomolhari. The presence of these animals gave me hope that the mix of old and new forms of human life high in the mountains might continue well into the future.