Travelling with climate change

 

In the last 10 years we have seen several indications of climate change during our journeys. The first was the most severe and traumatic. In 2010 I went trekking in Ladakh in Kashmir, India with a group of people I had met the previous year on a fund-raising trek in Kerala. The tour company we went with have been running treks in Kashmir since 1874 and we had planned to do the Markha Valley trek. After a couple of days in Delhi, we flew to Srinagar with the first sight of snowy mountains peeping through the clouds from the plane. On Dal Lake we relaxed

before exploring the local area including three Mughal gardens, taking us up to 2000m.

The following day, woken by the muezzin and the cockerel at 5am, we were soon on the road to Kargil; stopping for a rest at Sonnamarg, an alpine meadow at 2,615m.

In order to leave we had to wait an hour for the convoy which we had to join in this disputed territory. We continued and passed the High-Altitude Warfare School, arriving in Kargil at 8pm.  The following morning, we left to continue on the road; crossing the Fatu La which at 4,140m is the highest point on the Leh-Srinagar Highway.

After getting stuck on a hairpin bend and a puncture, the bus finally arrived in Leh at 10pm. We spent a day sightseeing and then met the pony train at Spituk bridge. Our walk from there to our first camp was long and hot in the sun. Camp was at 2700m at Zingchen. The next day we climbed to 3900m and I started to become centrally cyanosed so completed the last 45 minutes on horseback. Day 3 began the ascent to the 4,900m summit of the Ganda La. I did the last bit on horseback and even the horse was struggling for breath. There were great views from the top.

Descending the gorge, we reached Skiu: a small village at 3400m and set up camp in a field by the river. During our rest day, we did some yoga, walked to a gompa and relaxed. Ladakh gets all its water from snowmelt and it had not rained in summer for 100 years. However, that night it rained heavily in the early hours. This delayed our departure the next day but we reached Hamunsho in the afternoon. Our leader was beginning to wonder if we would be able to get to Markha as the river may have become impassable. There was a major storm overnight and another which had swept away some campers. Markha was inaccessible so we turned around and took a shortcut back to Skiu. That night we had to evacuate our camp as the river rose and flooded it.

We moved our tents to higher ground in the village and spent the morning filling bottles with spring water and sterilising it. We assisted some Romanian trekkers who had got caught in the gorge by the flash flood and had sheltered overnight on a ledge scraped from the cliff face. One Romanian and one Danish woman had died. Later some French guys arrived covered in mud and hypothermic having lost everything and one of their group had died. They had cuts and abrasions which needed dressing. One of the villages had a radio and we heard an English language Indian News broadcast saying that flooding and landslides were widespread and that 150 had been killed, homes demolished and 800 were missing. We would have been counted among the missing as we had entered but not left, a National Park. Even in Skiu, the stream that bisected the village was now a muddy river that had destroyed houses and some people did not know what had happened to their relatives on the other side.

Later that day, another flash flood came down the gorge. We climbed up the scree until it was clear that the waters were receding. We had hoped to be able to walk to Chilling and return to Leh but learnt from a French trekker who had come from that direction that a landslide had blocked the Chilling to Leh road. That night we slept fully clothed with our boots on in case we had to evacuate quickly. We woke to more rain and the news that our ponies would not be able to get over the landslides to Chilling so that even if we got there, we would have no shelter and there were many tourists stranded there. Two of our guys made two attempts to get over the landslides to walk to a village which had a satellite phone to try and let our relatives know what was happening. Another two rainy days followed and we set up a management group to figure out how to deal with 150 foreign nationals, 40 Ladakhi support staff, 31 ponies that needed feeding and traumatised villages living in very basic conditions. I did a drug inventory, some was in charge of sterilising water, my son checked the tents and fly sheets, I have a health talk to the youth to ensure handwashing, using the composting toilet, keeping eyes clean and avoiding fungal infections in flexures. Another doctor and I dealt with some wounds and minor injuries. We learnt that the floods were very widespread; much of northern India was affected; Jammu and Kashmir had declared a state of emergency and 10,000 were dead in Pakistan after a French guide managed to get to the phone and speak to his office in Leh. We were rationing food but were told that a food, water and medicine drop would come soon. The dead Romanian had still not been buried and the Ladakhis said that it was not an auspicious time. There was not enough depth of soil in the valley to dig a grave and in Ladakh air burials are the norm. The Muslim person in the village cuts up the body, it is taken into the mountains to a stone bier and left to the vultures. This was not acceptable to the deceased’s companions.  An American couple in our group did their washing and hung it on a prayer wall next to their tent. Incense had to be burnt and prayers said to atone for this. We were woken at 5am by the sound of helicopters. They sounded too small to be dropping off supplies and turned out to be the stripped-down Puma helicopters the Indian Air Force fly at high altitudes.

We were being rescued and got back to Delhi in time to get our flight home. The following year we went on a walking holiday in the outer Canaries.  They were having their wettest spring for 25 years. You are supposed to be able to see North Africa from the top of La Gomera but cloud removed any views. When our ferry returned to Tenerife, the beach at Los Christianos was flooded and seagulls were wondering where the people were.

In 2017, while touring New Zealand, we visited the Fox Glacier; somewhat smaller and quieter than the Franz Josef Glacier. You walk up a lane which marks where the face of the glacier was in 1915 and 1935 and it had retreated. It advanced between 1985 and 2009 but since then there has been a significant retreat.

In Iceland in February 2017 there was not enough snow to do a snowmobile drive which was on our itinerary. We are now trying to reduce the impact of our travels on the climate. In Western Europe we drive, take the train and/or ferries. With our campervan we are exploring more of our own island and limiting long-haul travel to one big trip per year. The coronavirus pandemic has had little impact as this was the year, we planned to sell our house and therefore had not booked any major trips.