29 July 2009, Flight Islamabad-Skardu: we’re headed north, toward Baltistan and Skardu, the “gate to the Karakorum”. The next day, a Jeep travel day across the spectacular valleys of the Indus, Shigar and Braldu bring us to Askole, the last civilised outpost on the way to the Baltoro glacier: a 60-kilometre giant, the fifth longest in the world.
From Askole, we set out for the two longest stretches of trekking, thirty kilometres to cover in two days at a relatively low altitude (3100-3400 metres), in intense heat, sometimes over 30 degrees. Just before reacing the Payu camp, as soon as the view of the Baltoro opened up, we repeated a photograph taken by Massimo Terzano, photographer of the Duke of Spoleto’s 1929 expedition: after 80 years, at first glace no major changes on the glacier front are noticeable.
The day after, we head closer to the front to repeat one of Terzano’s most famous images. With great regret, we find that this could be one of the latest chances to enjoy this astounding view: the area of Terzano Rock seems to be greatly undermined at its base because of the erosion of the Baltoro river, and is doomed to collapse soon.
In the following days the exploration around the Baltoro continues. On 4 August, thanks to the in-depth bibliographic, iconographic and cartographic research done in preparation for the expedition, we are able to find the same photographic point of the beautiful panorama of the Baltoro, also taken by Terzano.
After a week of trekking on the infinite moraines of the Baltoro, we arrive at the splendid Concordia amphitheatre at 4650 metres of elevation, one of the largest glacial spaces in the world, surrounded by some of the highest mountains on Earth, including K2. Here, we set up our base camp, just like the early Italian expeditions in 1909 and 1929, and we immediately begin our study and research on the historical photographic points, together with the surveys necessary to assess the technical difficult of the incline, and to make the narrow tracks we’ll follow at night, during our ascent to reach the peaks in time to use the best morning light.
On 13 August, we leave the base camp at two in the morning, with our three high-altitude carriers and our guide. We advance on very steep scree. After ten hours, we’re at the peak, at almost 5500 metres, tired but happy to reach another mythical place: from this same peak, Massimo Terzano took, eighty years ago, a splendid 270° panoramic image of the Concordia Circus, still used today by glaciologists to study glacier dynamics, including in relation to climate change.
We take this important image again for the scientific community and to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that guide the lives of glaciers.
After a two-day stop at the K2 base camp for some geographical surveys, the time has come to undertake the long return trip, that with about 60 kilometres of trekking in five days, brings us back to the village of Askole. We are satisfied, almost all of our mission objectives have been met. We’re heading back with a rich trove of images and information, and we are sure we can provide science with an excellent comparison to understand the possible fluctuations of the glacier in the last century: at first glance, comparing the current view with the 1929 images, the front seems to have undergone a significant loss of thickness, although in terms of retreating, it can be considered stationary.
30 July 2011: this year, our expedition brings us to the Georgian Caucasus. The goal is to reach the Tviberi glacier, an important debris-covered glacier, in order to monitor its fusion trend with special instrumentation, and repeat photographs taken by Mor Von Dechy in 1884 and Vittorio Sella in 1890 of the region’s most important glaciers, such as Tszaneri, Kazebi, Chalaat, Leskir and Lardaadi Adishi.
On 2 August, after an entire day of searching over land at the limits of practicability, we find the spot where Vittorio Sella took his historical photo of Chalaat, which, with its front, reaches the lowest part of all of Georgia, 1860 metres. The survey, besides demonstrating that Chalaat is heavily receded (by about 3 kilometres, with a loss of thickness of 200 metres), also showed us the impossibility of reaching Leskir: the bridges to cross the river had collapsed, the path had been swallowed up by vegetation and the imposing frontal retreat of the glacier had modified the morphology of the front, making it completely inaccessible.
Around 15 August, to repeat Vittorio Sella’s masterful image of Lardaadi Adishi, one of the most spectacular glaciers of the Svaneti, we had to undertake a challenging 3-day expedition, with carriers and horses.
Reaching the front of the glacier at the bottom of the valley with great difficulty, we managed to carry out surveys of the numerous lateral-frontal moraines that demonstrate this ice colossus’ dynamism and reactivity to climate change. The retreating of the front compared to the greatest historical expansion, which probably occurred before the first half of the 1800s, is just over a kilometre, while the loss of thickness of the entire valley strip is much more evident. The relatively contained contraction, compared to other glaciers in the region, is perhaps due to the high altitude (well over 4000 metres) of the two reservoirs.
The last photographic goal of the expedition is the repetition of the famous panoramic photograph taken by Vittorio Sella 121 years ago from the peak of Mount Banguriani, at 3885 metres. Once at the top, the exhaustion of the ascent disappears and the excitement of looking out onto the opposite side takes over. The panorama surrounding me is breath-taking. I observe the seven images by Sella that I brought with me as a visual reference, and I immediately notice heavy retreating and the colossi of the many surrounding glaciers: some of them are smaller and some of them have disappeared completely.
At the end of the expedition, which took two years of preliminary studies and logistical organisation and over a month of groundwork, the report is: four main glaciers examined, twenty comparison photographs taken from the same vantage point as the historical ones, many instrumental surveys, three helicopter surveys.
A few days from our return, the early results, based on photographic comparisons and scientific observations, are already clear: the glaciers in the Caucasus chain unfortunately show significant retreating of their fronts and an equally conspicuous loss of thickness.
27 July 2013. The team reaches the base camp at Gustavus, a small village that acts as logistical base and entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, where our photographic activities will occur. Before entering the park, we had to do a course on wilderness safety: Glacier Bay is an full reserve where humans are found in complete isolation, and the black bear and grizzly are a constant presence that should never be underestimated.
For our first objective, we head toward the slopes of Mount Wright to repeat the historical photo of the glacier Muir taken by Frank La Roche in 1893, exactly 120 years ago.
We move forward in thick vegetation, and since we are in a full reserve we can only move the branches without damaging them: with our rucksacks weighed down with photographic material, it takes us more than an hour to go one kilometre. Going up a narrow canyon, we arrive at a splendid hill where the panorama stretches from Mount Fairweather, 4600 metres above sea level, to the eastern branch of Glacier Bay. The glaciers are now far, more than 50 kilometres further north, while at the end of the 1800s, they took up almost the entire visual horizon.
In the following days, the goal was to repeat a few photographs of the front of the Muir glacier, taken in 1891 and 1941. After approaching by boat, we land and are forced into an up-close encounter with grizzly. Later, we manage to identify the point where William O. Field took his photograph in 1941: the thick vegetation means we can’t take one from the same point, but the vantage point is identical.
After a few days, we manage to reach the White Thunder Ridge. Here, 300 metres perpendicular to the fjord, Field placed his historic photographic station in 1941. At the time, the fronts of the glaciers Muir and McBride were united and almost at your fingertips, while today you can barely see the front of McBride. I repeat Field’s images and I notice great changes in the landscape in just a few decades.
When weather conditions prove favourable, we decided to dedicate a few days to a boat survey in West Arm, the starting point for climbing the summits where the explorer A. J. Brabazon, in 1894, took several photographs that showed the confluence of the two greatest glaciers of Glacier Bay, Grand Pacific and Johns Hopkins. We also manage to reach the Reid glacier, where, roped together, we climb with crampons to carry out monitoring and take a few images of the huge open crevices on the front, that help us understand if this glacier is in an advanced stage, as hypothesised by our glaciologist Riccardo Scotti.
On 27 August, after four weeks on the ground, the expedition report is a success: 28 photographic comparisons, six panoramic, all the images georeferenced, and documentation on the incredible withdrawal of the glaciers. In just over a century, the fronts of Johns Hopkins and Grand Pacific have retreated over 15 kilometres, and those of Reid, three and a half. According to the opinion of glaciologists, the stunning disintegration of the Glacier Bay cap from the Little Ice Age to today implicates a volume loss of 3450 cubic kilometres, equivalent to an ocean level rise of one centimetre.
21 February 2016: we’re at the Torres del Paine National Park, in Chile, searching for the exact point where Alberto Maria De Agostini, the Salesian explorer who worked in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego for over half a century (from 1910 to 1960), took his photograph of the famous peaks.
In the early morning, we saddle the horses and quickly arrive at the edge of the forest, at about 750 metres above sea level. Taking one of the horses with us, loaded with rucksacks of equipment, we reach the saddle. Here, the wind is very strong and I continue on the ridge up to the summit alone. I position my tripod and camera with great difficulty: the gusts are over 120 kilometres an hour, it’s very cold and my hands are numb. The moment I take the shot is exciting, as always: I take advantage of a ray of sunlight to expose the plate. Just after that, I realise the peaks of a mountain on the left of the frame are covered by clouds, just like in the historical photo.
On 20 March, a team of researchers from the Engineering Department at Rome’s Sapienza University and glaciologists from the Department of Earth Sciences at the State University of Milan join us to carry out the planned scientific activities.
Our next destination is the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, where we’ll carry out the most important work of the entire expedition.
Here, we decide to start from the Upsala glacier, the second biggest in Argentina, also photographed by De Agostini in the past. At the vantage point chosen by the explorer, the view of the valley is breath-taking. It’s a basin, 90 kilometres long and 10 wide. Comparing it with the historical images, it’s disheartening to see how such a wide valley has been completely emptied of its ice in a little over 80 years.
In the following days, we continue to replicate the historical photos on the Ameghino glacier (in this case, too, the withdrawal is noticeable. Where there used to be a long white strip, there is now a valley of debris and a lagoon, at least four kilometres long, that arrives up to the current front).
In the area of El Chaltén, in the mythical mountains of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, the next photo destination is the peak of Cerro Polo, where I try to replicate De Agostini’s panoramic photo showing the entire skyline of Fitz Roy from a frontal position. At the peak, I start searching for the right vantage point, with the historical photos in hand. I find it only after several attempts. Comparing the historical image, it is clear how the end of the Blanco glacier has lost several hundred metres.
Later, I repeat the historical photos taken by De Agostini from Loma de las Pizarras and Mirador Maestri, with a breath-taking view of the Cerro Torre: the Torre glacier has retreated dramatically on the front and has lost a lot of thickness.
On 18 March, we reunite with the team of Italian engineers and geologists in Chile, to continue to the Exploradores glacier, where they’ll perform scientific testing and modelling of the glacial fronts in 3D. This is crucial to the study of the consequences of climate change.
24 April 2018: we set out for the long journey to the north base camp of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. We are in the middle of the Nepali rainforest, and the glaciers are still far away. Our first destination is Jannu, where we try to reach the spot where Vittorio Sella took a panorama of its front during William Freshfield’s 1899 Italian-English expedition, but have to save it for our return because of heavy snowfall.
In the meantime, as we advance toward the base camp, I manage to identify the exact spot where Sella captured, in one of his extraordinary shots, the confluence of two glaciers, Kangchenjunga and Ramtang. A comparison with the historical photo highlights a dramatic change: more than a hundred years ago, the two glaciers came together in one single front, now they no longer touch.
On 4 May, we arrive at the base camp, at 5100 metres above sea level.
In the following days, with much difficulty, we find the place Vittorio Sella took one of his spectacular panoramic photos of the Kangchenjunga glacier. We’re at 5452 metres and the landscape is truly breath-taking, but unfortunately its transformation is very noticeable: the glacier has gone down about 200 metres.
From Kambachen, where we camped for the night, I climb a steep slope for about 500 metres and find the place where Vittorio Sella, 119 years earlier, took one of his exceptional photos of the Jannu glacier: in this case, too, my frame matches perfectly, except that the front of the glacier can now be found more than a kilometre lower than in 1899.
We then move to Tibet, where we set up at the Everest base camp, at 5200 metres.
From here, we go up the left moraine of the Rongbuk glacier. The elevation can be sensed and we are forced to stop several times. Finally, we arrive at the point, at 5500 metres, where I think I can replicate a historical photograph selected from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society. The loss of thickness is evident. At the centre of the glacier’s main branch, a huge glacial lake has formed, an effect of surface melting.
For the first few days of June, we are at the base camp of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. We notice right away that it will be very difficult to cross the Gyarag glacier, due to the collapse of its central part. We decide to try to reach the peak of a mountain above the front, at almost 5700 metres, to replicate the most important photograph, taken by E. O. Wheeler. At the peak, finding the right spot to position the camera is not easy: the top of this mountain is very wide and there are no recognisable reference points in the historical photo. After several climbs and descents, I manage to find the right alignment between the large rocks on the ground and some rocky ridges above the glacier moraine. The frame is right and I would have been ready to shoot, but the timing doesn’t match. The shadows aren’t in the same position as the historical photo. I have to wait another hour, in the cold, but the photo demands strict timing compliance, to get a precise result with scientific value.