On the Trail of the Glaciers: Himalayas 2018

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. 

Text by Parallelozero, loosely taken from: “The Travel Diaries of Fabiano Ventura © 2009 - 2018”