Pad Yatra: A Himalayan Journey

Environmental degradation and a rapidly changing climate have left populations in the Himalayas vulnerable. Cloudbursts and mudslides have destroyed villages while growing levels of plastic wastes and other kinds of trash pollute rivers, harming the people who drink from them.

In a journey as spiritual as it was physical, 700 voyagers trekked through the land of 15,000 glaciers in 2010 to spread a message of love and ecological compassion. The journey, led by His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka, a Buddhist spiritual leader in the region, passed through 725 kilometers of some of the world’s most dangerous and most stunning landscapes. Pad Yatras, or pilgrimages on foot, have taken place annually since 2007 in different parts of the Himalayas and South Asia.

“Many of the problems in this world are based on selfish and egoistic kinds of fighting,” said His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka. “But the spirituality is the kindness – real kindness – not only just being kind but real, true kindness to not only human beings, but nature. Including the trees and rocks and mountains.”

His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka, the twelfth incarnation of Drupka. Source:  Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary
His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka, the twelfth incarnation of Drupka. Source: Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary

The current Gyalwang Drupka, Jigme Pema Wangchen, is believed to be the twelfth reincarnation of the first Drupka, Tsangpa Gyare, who was born in the 12th century. Today’s reincarnation of the Drupka is known for his environmental activism. In 2007, he launched Live to Love, a humanitarian organization that aims to address the environment protection, education, relief aid, medical services and heritage preservation.

For the Drupka, sharing a message of kindness and compassion is essential for people living in high altitudes who often feel forgotten by their country when faced with natural disasters and uncertainties caused by a warming world. In an interview, he said he wanted people in the Himalayas to feel they played a role in the protecting the world.

The group survived conditions well below freezing, off-season snow storms and came close to starving when weather conditions made it impossible for them to carry some of their supplies through the mountains.

Followers of the Drupka wind their way through the perilous Himalayas. Source:  Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary
Followers of the Drupka wind their way through the perilous Himalayas. Source: Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary

The experience was documented by Himalayan monk Ngawang Sodpa, who used solar power to charge his camera, in a film produced by Michelle Yeo. Nearly a third of Sodpa’s footage was lost from weather and physical damage at altitudes higher than 5,000 meters.

Along the path, the voyagers, all followers of the Buddhist Drupka Lineage, encountered hundreds of remote villages, passing on knowledge about the dangers of non-biodegradeable waste and planting trees. Native communities from the Himalayas were accompanied by travelers from around the world. As they walked, they picked up half a ton of waste, which they carried with them to the end of the journey.

“While modern products have made their way to these areas, they have not come with a sustainable means for disposal,” narrated American actress Darryl Hannah.

Voyagers take time to pray on their environmental journey. Source:  Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary
Voyagers take time to pray on their environmental journey. Source: Screenshot of Pad Yatra Documentary

Trekkers planted more than 50,000 trees and rescued trapped and hurt animals. To avoid unnecessary suffering in the world, they gently blew ants off the paths they traveled along so the ants would not be crushed under hundreds of feet.

“A respect for life, no matter how small, is a defining character for this philosophy,” said Hannah. “It is the same philosophy of compassion that motivates this effort to motivate the national environment at large.”

The legacy of the Pad Yatra continues from year to year as one of the largest environmental movements the world has ever seen. Numerous villages in the Himalayas have banned plastics in their communities and have undertaken projects to plant trees.

Watch the trailer here:

Ice Merchant Tradition Melts Away with the Glaciers

Preparing raspadilla (shaved ice) Source: Cornell University Library
Preparing raspadilla (shaved ice) Source: Cornell University Library

On the slopes of Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador, it’s just Baltazar Uscha and the ice. For more than 50 years Baltazar has made his way up the mountain twice a week to chip ice from the glaciers of the closest place on Earth to the sun.

“The natural ice from Chimborazo is the best,” Baltazar told film maker Sandy Patch in a short documentary for the New York Times. “Full of vitamins for your body… no one wants natural ice from Chimborazo anymore.”

There was a time when as many as 40 ice merchants would wind their way up the mountain to bring ice back to the community. The ice was used for local treats, including raspadilla, or shaved ice. But those days are almost gone – only a few places in South America still make raspadilla from glacier ice.

Baltazar is a relic of a way of life that existed for centuries. Now, ice is mainly made in factories, though a few juice and ice cream makers continue to rely on Baltazar’s ice supply from the ancient glaciers.

For every 80 pound block of ice Baltazar harvests from the Chimborazo glaciers, he earns $2.50. On a weekly basis, he earns roughly $25. His brothers, who like Baltazar were brought up breaking away ice on the slopes of the 20,564 foot mountain, have since found other occupations.

Mount Chimborazo Source: Photo Friday

“When I was little, I thought I would always have work because I was raised on the ice,” Baltazar’s brother Gregorio told Patch. “But times are changing and nobody needs us to bring ice anymore.”

Still, without fail, Baltazar, now in his 70s, continues his lonely work. He carries his pickaxe and prepares large chunks of ice for loyal customers in the city market. As he climbs to the glaciers he collects grasses and twists them into sturdy, thick chords he can wrap around his ice chunks, which are then carried down the mountain by his three donkeys.

But numerous factors are slowly eating away at Baltazar’s livelihood. Global warming and a volcano not too far away mean the mountain’s glaciers, like many glaciers around the world, may be on their way out. For Baltazar, this means climbing higher and higher to reach ice.

Baltazar hopes his sons and grandsons will carry on his legacy, but his brothers think this is unlikely.

“When I die, this might be gone,” said Baltazar. “As long as my body allows me to, I still want to work.”

Watch Baltazar’s story here:

Ice Worm Guts Tell a Story of Partnership

Researchers develop new insights into ice worm and bacteria evolution by looking into ice worm digestive tracts.

Deep in their gut, Alaskan ice worms have an average of 10,000 individual bacteria , including one species that until recently had never been discovered, as researchers from the Department of Biological Sciences at the Tokyo Institute of Technology found.

Ice worm s can only survive at temperatures close to freezing. Source: Rutgers University
Ice worm s can only survive at temperatures close to freezing. Source: Rutgers University

Living in ice is no easy feat, but ice worms, relatives of the earth worm and members of the annelid phylum, make it work. The tiny worms burrow through many North American glaciers, surviving in temperatures that would kill most animals. Ice worms cannot be found anywhere else in the world and researchers suspect this is due to the fact that ice worms can only exist within crawling distance of glaciers. Still, some ice worms live on glaciers that were never connected by the Cordilleran ice sheet, posing an interesting conundrum for scientists.

While these one-inch worms can manage living conditions that don’t favor life, they don’t do well in temperatures above freezing. Just a few degrees above freezing is hot enough to kill the creatures, and it’s not a nice death; ice worms will literally melt when it gets too hot, their membranes breaking down. But luckily for them this doesn’t happen too often since they can safely burrow into the depths of glaciers, where temperatures remain fairly constant. They feed on algae that grows on glaciers as well as other forms of organic matter.

Their metabolism is adapted to freezing temperatures and they can go for long stretches without eating – a handy skill in an environment where food can be difficult to find and nutrients are hard to come by.

Part of the secret to ice worms’ survival on glaciers lies in a symbiosis between worm and bacteria. Scientists trekked to the Byron Glacier and Harding Icefield in Alaska where they scooped up worm samples and began their painstaking analysis of contents in worm innards.

They returned to the site three times over a four year period – once in 2010, once in 2011 and again in 2014.

Some of the worms they collected were stored in a solution at -30 degrees Celsius and later dissected, while others were placed – alive – in Petri dishes filled with double distilled water and fasted for as long as two months to flush out any bacteria that were transient inhabitants. After the fasting period, scientists took scalpels to the worms and looked at what was left inside. The starvation process also replicated conditions worms face when food resources are low.

Researchers know that a worm-bacteria symbiosis allows worms to get digestive assistance from their bacteria helpers. With so few food resources available, worms need to get every last nutrient out of their food–mostly hardy algae that grow on the ice surface. Bacteria help break down tougher food molecules that are harder for worms to digest. Meanwhile, bacteria get a (relatively) toasty home in their worm hosts and get meals delivered to them via the worm’s foraging activity.

By separating two worm samples – one that was fed and one that was starved – the researchers were able to discern which bacteria lived inside the worms, and which bacteria got a ‘free ride’ through worm guts and then came out the other end. Any bacteria that were left inside ice worms after months of starvation were likely to be permanent residents in ice worms rather than just passing through with the most recent meal.

Harding Icefield, where ice worms live. Source:  Ianqui Doodle
Harding Icefield, where ice worms live. Source:
Ianqui Doodle

Some of the bacteria microbiologists found in ice worm innards are the same as ones that can be found in soil and other species of worms, but that can’t be found on glacier surfaces, which could suggest that ice worms were not originally ice-dwellers. Earthworms have gut bacteria that help them digest organic matter in soil. At the same time, this allows them to play a role in mixing soil, which has cascading ecological benefits for other species and for the worms as well.

As the ice worms evolved from their terrestrial worm forebears, bacteria would have helped them take advantage of algae on the ice surface by helping the worms digest tougher molecules. This suggests bacteria played a role in the evolution of ice worms, and even that bacteria would have evolved at the same time, making them unique to ice worms.

Among these bacteria, the researchers discovered a new species now named Mollicutes phylotype Ms-13. These bacteria do not exist on the glacier surfaces, which suggests worms are passing the bacteria between one another through a process of eating each others’ feces.

Researchers can use these findings to conduct future research on the role ice worms and their gut bacteria play in shaping a glacial ecosystem and perhaps get some clues about why ice worms only exist in specific parts of North America.