Letter from Lhasa: A painsworthy journey of discovery

letter from lhasa: a painsworthy journey of discovery

Letter from Lhasa: A painsworthy journey of discovery

Members of a Chinese expedition team display the Chinese national flag at the summit of Mount Qomolangma on May 23, 2023. (Photo by Lhagba/Xinhua)

by Cao Bin

MOUNT QOMOLANGMA BASE CAMP, Tibet, May 25 (Xinhua) — There’s a popular saying among scientists: Where there are unknowns, scientists venture forth.

This is what occurred to me when I witnessed a bunch of researchers, wrestling with wind and heat, resolutely engaged in the scientific expedition on Mount Qomolangma. Inspired by them, I was desperate to join them to explore the lesser-known facts of the world’s highest peak of 8,848.86 meters.

But when I did join one of the research squads to collect water samples from a glacier lake some 5,400 meters high, I found it literally the most grueling six hours of my life. The jolting encounter of being struck by a plummeting rock served as a reminder that conquering and researching Mount Qomolangma was not merely an act of heroism but also carried inherent dangers.

Since late April, a total of 170 scientists divided into five teams have been diligently conducting research on the water, ecology and human activities in the vicinity of Mount Qomolangma. Their collective objective is to unravel the intricacies of environmental changes and enhance the effectiveness of the plateau’s ecological security barrier system.

letter from lhasa: a painsworthy journey of discovery

Members of a Chinese expedition team maintain and upgrade equipment at the 8,830-meter weather station on Mount Qomolangma, May 23, 2023. (Photo by Lhagba/Xinhua)

The shrinking glaciers are a reliable indicator of subtle climate changes in the region. As part of the Qomolangma scientific research expedition, the sampling task I was assigned to cover aims to analyze the glacier lake’s water quality and collect data for further study on climate warming.

It was a fine start from the base camp at an altitude of 5,200 meters. The gravel road was gentle, and the weather was sunny and warm. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Lhasa, I had grown somewhat accustomed to the effects of mountain sickness — or at least that’s what I had thought.

As the altitude rose, my pace gradually diminished. The final section was even more tiring, as there was no easy way down to the lake. Our path was obstructed by loose gravel and boulders left behind by the retreating glacier, creating treacherous terrain that demanded utmost caution. The slippery surface posed a constant threat of slipping and sliding down at any given moment. Although the lake appeared within reach, it took us a full hour to finally reach its shores.

letter from lhasa: a painsworthy journey of discovery

This photo taken on May 12, 2023 shows a lake formed by water melted from Rongbuk glacier, in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. (Xinhua/Jigme Dorje)

Upon arrival, I gratefully settled down to take a well-deserved break, while the scientists wasted no time in initiating their work.

Using a portable water quality monitor and a bucket-like water-air interface device, the researchers obtained first-hand data on the lake swiftly. With the fresh samples and lab data, they can better understand the deaeration process of the lake and further discern whether the formation of the lake had slowed or accelerated the loss of glaciers in the area.

After about an hour or so, the scientists concluded their work. We were just retreating from the lake when a falling rock struck my right knee with intense force. The pain was excruciating, rendering my right leg completely devoid of strength, and my inner down jacket became drenched with sweat.

letter from lhasa: a painsworthy journey of discovery

A scientific research member tests water quality near the Mount Qomolangma base camp in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, May 14, 2023.  (Xinhua/Sun Fei)

The intense wind and setting sun prompted me to move despite the pain so that we could arrive at the base camp before dark. With the support of my colleagues, I painstakingly advanced, taking one slow step at a time. Everyone generously offered their supplies: portable oxygen, energy drinks, delectable chocolate, and even slices of cake.

After nearly three hours, we finally arrived. My colleagues rushed me to the nearest hospital, which was about two hours’ drive away. Thankfully, I didn’t have any bone fractures.

This incident has instilled in me a profound respect for the members of the expedition team. It serves as a reminder that danger may lurk at every corner, yet humankind’s unwavering spirit of climbing and exploring the world’s highest peak remains unyielding.

While mountaineers from around the world continue to conquer the mountain time and again, researchers have also elevated Mount Qomolangma’s scientific expedition to unprecedented heights.

In a series of remarkable achievements, several notable milestones were reached during the scientific exploration of Mount Qomolangma. Last year, a self-developed floating airship designed for atmospheric observation reached a record altitude of 9,032 meters. An automatic meteorological monitoring station at an altitude of 8,830 meters, the highest of its kind in the world, was established, with its components upgraded this year. In 2020, China conducted a gravity survey of the summit and obtained its height with the highest accuracy in human history: 8,848.86 meters.

During my time at the Mount Qomolangma base camp, it became challenging to differentiate between the scientists and the mountaineers. Both groups exhibited a striking resemblance, sporting deep sun tans and exuding a remarkable level of athleticism.

letter from lhasa: a painsworthy journey of discovery

Kang Shichang, a researcher with the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), poses for a photo at the mountaineering base camp in the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve in southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, May 22, 2023. (Xinhua/Sun Fei)

As their scientific journey carries on with lab analysis to last for months or even longer, the veil of mystery surrounding this enigmatic mountain gradually unravels, promising the revelation of further truths yet to be discovered.  â–

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