F. Ludlow

DURING the summer of 1928 the Shyok glaciers suddenly leapt into prominence in the Home and Indian press. Alarming accounts appeared in various papers describing exactly what would happen when the dam which had formed across the Shyok valley collapsed, and the pent-up waters were let loose.

But the dam held despite prophecies to the contrary. As far as we know, the lake still exists, and now that winter holds the region in its icy grip, the public has lost interest.

With the approach of summer, however, the dam may again loom large in newspaper head-lines. It seems an opportune moment, therefore, to describe in plain language the situation in the upper Shyok as I saw it in August, 1928.

The newspaper reports referred to above reached me in July at Panamik in the Nubra valley, where I was busily engaged in natural history pursuits. I had already arranged to visit the Karakoram pass. Being so near, I decided to go to the upper Shyok and see for myself what all the ' pother ' was about.

Before proceeding to details let us first glance at the country we are to visit. Some 30 miles-due west of the Karakoram pass, at an altitude of about 20,000 feet, is the head basin of an enormous glacier -—the Rimo. We knew little about this glacier until it was surveyed by the De Filippi expedition in 1914, when it was accurately mapped. It consists of three main branches, the Northern, Central, and Southern Rimo. The Northern Rimo throws a tongue of ice over the Central Asian watershed, forming the source of the Yarkand river which flows northwards into Chinese Turkistan, and after traversing the Taklamakan desert, ultimately loses itself in the marshes of Lop Nor.

The Central and Southern Rimo branches, draining the northeastern slopes of the Karakoram range, unite about ten miles south of the watershed and form the main source of the Shyok river, which flows south-east and then south through a broad plain for a distance of some nine miles. The valley then rapidly contracts and the river enters a narrow gorge.

On the eastern side of the gorge, red limestone cliffs fall almost vertically to the river from the Depsang massif. On the west the slopes, though less precipitous than on the east, nevertheless descend steeply from the main Karakoram range. Here, almost overlooking the gorge, are half a dozen magnificent peaks, every one of which is over 22,000 feet, and one, K31, 24,690 feet. From these descend three glaciers which in order from north to south are called the Chong Kumdan, the Kichik Kumdan and the Aktash. South of the Aktash glacier, are two others, smaller and of no importance.

The upper shyok glacier

The upper shyok glacier

In the event of a heavy accumulation of snow on the east of the main range, these three glaciers owing to their steep beds, advance suddenly and rapidly—rapidly, that is, for glaciers,—into the Shyok gorge. On occasions they flow right across the river until they strike the precipitous cliffs on the left bank. Sometimes the force of the waters above maintains a channel past the snouts by erosion, and ice-floes are torn from the glacier. Sometimes the river maintains channels under the ice. At other times the glaciers not only extend across the whole width of the Shyok, but they turn down the riverbed for hundreds of yards, completely obstructing its flow. The waters of the Rimo are then held up, and a lake is formed on the broad plain referred to above. The size of the lake will of course depend on the height and strength of the obstructing dam.

But the lake cannot increase for ever. Sooner or later the accumulated waters must overcome the obstruction and find an outlet along their natural course. In the past this appears to have been effected in one of two ways. Either the dam suddenly collapses and the waters thunder down in one appalling cataract, or the waters eat a tunnel through the dam and disperse in a more gradual and less terrifying manner.

In a subsequent article in this Journal, Major Mason has given a brief history of these glaciers during the past 150 years, and discussed the effects of their floods.

Leaving Panamik in the Nubra valley on the 24th July, I travelled by the ordinary summer route used when the glaciers are in the valley, via the Saser La and Depsang plateau to Daulat- Beg-oldi; which I reached on the 30th July. The next day I descended the Chip-chap river and encamped on the eastern shore of the Gapshan lake slightly to the north of the Chip-chap confluence.

The lake was shaped like an irregular crescent with its two horns pointing north-west and south. At the widest part, probably opposite my tent, it was about 1 ½ to 2 miles broad. Southwards towards the gorge it narrowed rapidly to a breadth of only a few hundred yards. Towards the Rimo glacier it contracted more gradually, and seemed to be still at least half a mile wide at the point where the streams from the Rimo emptied into it. The lake was approximately 10 miles long, and by a rough calculation based on a fall of 30 feet per mile ill the Shyok river, I estimated its average depth to be about 150 feet. Along the eastern shore I noticed small terraces indicating the height of former lakes. One such terrace must have been 100 feet above the surface at the time of my visit.

During the two days I spent on its shores, the lake rose rapidly, and on August 2nd, I calculated that in 24 hours it had risen 1 ½ feet. These days, however, were particularly warm and sunny and the several glaciers feeding the lake must have been melting at very nearly their maximum rate. I can quite imagine that on a cold and cloudy day, the rise observed on August 2nd, might have been halved or even quartered.

The combined snout of the Central and Southern Rimo is about seven miles from the Chip-chap confluence although it appears to be considerably nearer. The route to it presents no real difficulties, and lies along the northern shore of the lake for four miles, when it ascends gently along the base of a spur lying parallel to the river. Now and then it crosses boulder-strewn nullah beds, but it is not until the actual snout of the Rimo is reached that the going becomes at ail difficult. Here a series of deep ravines descending at right angles to the glacier have to be crossed, but they are tiresome rather than formidable.

I crossed two or three of these ravines and reached a position on the eastern side of the Central Rimo about a mile north of the junction. Time prevented me from going on though I could see no obstacle to stop me. Having returned to the glacier's snout I ascended the ridge of hills to the east to a height of about 400 feet, to obtain a clearer view of my surroundings.

I normally avoid glaciers. They are not happy hunting-grounds for a naturalist. Nevertheless, I have viewed from close quarters the glaciers that descend from Chumalhari and Haramosh. I have gazed on the Masherbrum glaciers from the top of the Hushe ravine, and once I spent a whole day—much to my shikari's disgust—watching the Ganri glacier from Nun Kun discharging into the Suru river.

But I had never seen a Karakoram glacier of the first magnitude before, and here was one spread out before me in all its grandeur. The sight was impressive beyond words. I had never dreamed of anything half so magnificent. From the west and north-west I could see the Southern and Central branches, each from 2 to 3 miles wide, snaking their way downwards from a series of beautiful snow peaks in the far distance. Down, down they came, mile after mile, their sharp-pointed ice-pinnacles gleaming like silver in the sun. They met at my feet, and beyond the junction I could see issuing from their snouts countless streams which branched and meandered in all directions as they wound their leisurely way down towards the lake.

I had chosen the Chip-chap confluence as my base, in the hope that I should be able to visit both the Rimo glacier to the north and the Chong Kumdan dam to the south. I wished to see not only how much water was entering the lake, but also how far the lake-level was from the summit of the dam.

Ordinarily, when neither dam nor lake exists, traders descending the Shyok valley ford the river just below the Chip-chap junction to the right bank, as it is impossible to descend along the left bank on account of the perpendicular cliffs in the neighbourhood of the gorge. Since the lake existed, this course has been impracticable, and, as I had no boat in which to cross the lake, my only hopes of gaining the right bank were either to ford the Shyok below the snout of the Rimo glacier, or to traverse the glacier above its snout.

As I had made my way up the lateral moraine of the Central Rimo earlier in the morning, I had found that the ice-pinnacles, which from a distance of seven miles had looked so insignificant, were in reality seracs over a hundred feet high. As far as I could see, there was no way between them. One hope was therefore already shattered. To ford the streams below the snout of the Rimo was my only chance, and I therefore hurried downwards to test the possibility of such a venture.

Descending a steep nullah bed, which cut through the lateral moraine, I reached the base of the glacier a short distance above its snout. In front of me ran a turbid torrent fed by cascades of water which splashed into it from the melting seracs above. Feeling very Lilliputian amidst my surroundings and following the torrent downstream until I was clear of the glacier's snout, I tried to ford the stream.

At my very first step I plunged into the icy water almost up to the waist. It was futile to proceed. Even ponies or yaks would have been useless owing to quicksands; I was therefore reluctantly forced to return to camp, determined, if possible, to reach the dam from Saser Brangsa on the south.

On the 2nd August, I left the lake and ascended to the Pulo en route for the Karakoram pass. Of all the miserable bone-strewn encampments between Panamik and the Karakoram, I found this Pulo the most unsavoury. My map (52E)1 informed me that it boasted of ' three huts.5 It did. And when I arrived I found them all occupied—-one by a dead pony, the second by a dead donkey, and the third by a dead Yarkandi. Nor was this all. A few yards from the third hut, a pile of stones and mud had been erected against the face of a cliff to form a shelter from the wind. I looked inside this shelter and found it contained three skulls and other gruesome human remains. I passed on to Chajoshiiga.

The following day I went up to the pass where I shot birds, picked flowers, and chased butterflies, and then returned along the Trade Route—avoiding the Pub—to Saser Brangsa.

On August 9th, the day after my arrival there, I set off on foot once more for the dam up the right bank of the Shyok, taking with me a Ladakhi pony-man and my Kashmiri tiffin coolie. For three- quarters of an hour the going was all that could be desired, for a well- constructed path crept along the mountain slopes, 400 feet above the river. At the end of two miles we encountered a large land-slip, which had completely destroyed the track, and we were compelled to scramble over boulders and down the face of a cliff to the sandy riverbed. This we now followed for a short distance and then cut over a rocky spur. Here we struck the path again and the going continued good until we reached the moraine of the Aktash glacier, where it suddenly ceased.

The Aktash presented no obstacle as it was in retreat. Its ice- pinnacles were for the most part 200 yards from the Shyok, and only in one place did they actually reach the right bank. After passing the glacier, we marched up the river-bed towards some wonderful red limestone cliffs, opposite which the Kichik Kumdan appeared to descend and stretch right across the Shyok. My Ladakhi now remarked that this was the dam, and for a time I was tempted to believe him, so completely did the glacier seem to bar all onward progress.

I was not satisfied, however, and after an hour spent in crossing the Kichik Kumdan stream and in endeavouring unsuccessfully to worm a way between the ice-pinnacles of the glacier, we at last reached a point from which we could plainly see there was no lake immediately ahead. Obviously, therefore, this glacier was not obstructing the Shyok. We then followed the left bank of the Kichik Kumdan stream downwards, and found that the glacier's tongue terminated some distance—probably 80 yards—from the left bank of the Shyok. Keeping to the Shyok river-bed we reached the north lateral moraine of the Kichik Kumdan and here right ahead of us, two miles or so to the north, we at last saw the dam.

The Chong Kumdan Dam from the South.

The Chong Kumdan Dam from the South.
Photo.F. Ludlow. Copyright. Times of India.
Photo.-engraved and printed at the Offices of the Survey of India, Calcutta,1929.

There was no mistaking it this time, for we could see the great mass of ice stretched across the river-bed from bank to bank. Simultaneously we exclaimed, " There it is," each in our own language.

Ten minutes later, after a hasty meal, we were on the move again, but soon found ourselves in difficulties. A few hundred yards north of Kichik Kumdan, the Shyok flows at the base of some steep cliffs on the right bank. These were not impassable, but they reduced our progress to a snail's pace. We had very little time at our disposal since we must return to our camp at Saser Brangsa that evening- We therefore abandoned the right bank, forded the river, and marched up the left bank. On we went at a good pace, the great ice-barrier growing larger and larger as we progressed.

Suddenly to our dismay, when within half a mile of the dam, we discovered we had entered a veritable cul-de-sac. Below us lay a long deep pool of the Shyok, above us rose a precipitous cliff. In vain we tried to surmount these obstacles. We could neither ford the river nor scale the cliff. The only possible way of reaching the foot of the dam was to follow our tracks back to the ford and proceed up the right bank. But by this time the afternoon was well advanced, and already we could hardly hope to reach Saser Brangsa before dark. To reach the dam, climb the cliffs above it, and see the lake beyond, would have meant a bivouac in the open at nearly 16,000 feet, without food, fire or blankets. I confess I was not prepared to submit to this ordeal, so I reluctantly gave the order to return, and we reached Saser Brangsa in the dark, tired, footsore, and sadly disappointed. The next day I tried to persuade my Ladakhi pony-men to carry some of my baggage up to the dam, but they refused.

A word about the dam's dimensions. As I saw it through glasses from a distance of half a mile from the south, the glacier had evidently turned down the Shyok river-bed for 500 to 600 yards. From bank to bank of the main river the dam must have been between 350 to 400 yards long. At its snout, it could hardly have been less than 200 feet high, from whence it rose steeply upwards towards the lake. It was a black ugly-looking structure covered with rocks and debris. The weakest part of the dam seemed to be the part immediately adjoining the left bank. I doubt if there was much percolation through the glacier from the lake above. It seemed to me that the water Issuing from the snout was mainly due to the melting of the glacier itself.

I am painfully aware of the imperfections of my story. To write usefully on such a subject I ought to have possessed an elementary knowledge of glaciology and engineering. Then, perhaps, I might have judged whether the present dam will collapse suddenly, and if go, when the catastrophe will take place. As an amateur naturalist, I know none of these things.


  1. The old atlas sheet, from reconnaissance surveys in 1864. A new map of this area from modern surveys is now available.

⇑ Top