THE UPPER SHYOK GLACIERS, 1939
Lieut. I. H. LYALL GRANT and Lieut.-Colonel KENNETH MASON
I. Introduction (K. M.)
IN response to my request for reports and photographs from recent travellers to the upper Shyok glaciers, I have received some very interesting photographs and details of the condition of these glaciers from Lieut. Lyall Grant and Captain K. R. Brooke, who both visited the region during the summer of 1939. The first sent with his report some notes obtained from Mr. Durgi, the engineer overseer at Leh, whose duties now include the inspection of the glaciers. This report and the notes are printed below.
Lyall Grant crossed the Ladakh range, east of Leh, by the Chang La in early May, travelled up the upper Shyok to Murgo, and across the Depsang plains to the Karakoram pass, which he reached on the 20th. There was a good deal of snow on the Kadpa Ngonpo La, and the Karakoram pass would have been difficult for laden animals at this early season of the year. Lyall Grant then visited Gapshan, the site of the upper end of the lake formed when the Chong Kumdan glacier blocks the Shyok valley, some 12 miles lower down. As expected, the lake bed was dry. He then took the short cut from Gapshan over the Depsang to Kizil Langar, whence he reached Saser Brangsa. From here he visited the two Aktash glaciers, the Kichik Kumdan and the Chong Kumdan, and then crossed the Saser pass to Panamik, and after some difficulty on the Khardung pass on the 6th June returned to Leh.
Brooke was in the region later in the year, probably in August, though he does not specifically give the dates of his visit to the glaciers, or his route.
Those readers who have not followed the behaviour of these glaciers during the last fifteen years may be referred to back numbers of the Himalayan Journal, where the reports of various travellers have been published.
Briefly, it may be stated that the Chong Kumdan glacier, which was in a degenerate condition in 1923, advanced suddenly and blocked the Shyok valley, probably in the winter of 1924-5. Floods due to the bursting dam occurred in 1926, 1929, and 1932, the glacier trunk healing completely after the bursts of 1926 and 1929, but only partially after 1932. After the1926 flood the two subsequent floods were forecast with considerable accuracy in these pages, from a careful study of records and travellers’ reports covering a period of nearly a centuary; and it was suggested that after 1932, or 1933 at latest, the Ghong Kumdan glacier would degenerate and cause no further trouble for a considerable time to come. At the same time, the Kichik Kumdan glacier, which was in a very degenerate condition in 1929, was expected to be ready to advance about 1935.
Himalayan Journal, vol. i, 1929, pp. 4-29; vol. ii, 1930, pp. 35-47; vol. iii, I931 PP- 1
55-71 vol. iv, 1932, pp. 67-74; vol. v, 1933, pp. 98-102; vol. vii, 1935, PP- 163-4; vol. x, 1938, 193-4.
The gap between the Chong Kumdan glacier and the Shyok valley wall, 28th May 1939, showing frozen lake downstream of the glacier
A near view of the gap, showing remnants of Chong Kumdan glacier ice-blocks clinging to cliffs, and terminal moraine on dead ice in foreground. Note the large erratic boulders A and B, and the old lake levels on the hillside upstream of the glacier, shown by arrows
The Chong Kumdan glacier, 28th may 1939, from the summit of tongue of old ice downstream of it, looking north. Compare with panoramas in Himalayan Journal, vol. iv, 1932, pp. 68,72. Over the ice may be seen on the hillside the old level of the impounded lake shown by arrows; on the cliffs to the right of the snout the height of the dam in 1928 is shown just below the line of white dots. Considerable degeneration has occurred since 1932.
At an afternoon meeting of the Royal Geographical Society held in London on the 19th November 1934, I summarized the data and put forward certain views regarding these glaciers.
I then urged that three glaciers in the Karakoram-the Yenguts Har, the Minapin, and the Kichik Kumdan-should be carefully watched during the next few years in order that we might have first-hand information of the actual movement of ice during these rapid advances. With reference to the Kichik Kumdan glacier, I remarked that 'another advance is already due or overdue. It is therefore most important that the Kichik Kumdan should be visited next year (1935).' As will be seen from Mr. Durgi's notes below, he visited the glacier in November 1935, when the glacier was still miles from the left bank of the Shyok; on revisiting it in June 1936 he found that it had advanced to within about 350 feet of the left bank of the Shyok. In other words, in the seven-months' interval, glacier ice had advanced no less a distance than miles. In my opinion the advance was much more rapid than appears from this statement. In all probability the advance occurred in one month, during the period from March to May 1936.
No reports are yet forthcoming regarding the state of the two Hunza glaciers, the Yenguts Har and the Minapin, and it would be of very great interest to know whether they have yet come forward. The photograph of the Minapin glacier published in the Himalayan Journal, vol. xi, 1939, p. 184, was taken as long ago as 1933, and showed great accumulations of ice in the collecting region, and a very degenerate tongue.
II. Lieut. Lyall Grant's visit to the Upper Shyok, 1939 (I. H. L. G.)
(a) The Chong Kumdan glacier.
(i) General. We visited the Chong Kumdan glacier on the 28th May. Crossing the small frozen lake just south of the glacier we worked our way about two-thirds of the way round the snout to what appeared to be the narrowest part of the gap between it and the cliffs opposite. The river flows close up against the rock-face through a gap about 60 feet wide, and between the snout of the glacier proper and the river is a mass of crevassed and shingle- covered old (?) ice. At the narrowest place this ice was about 130 feet wide, i.e. the total distance from the 'living' glacier snout to the cliff-face was from 190 to 200 feet.
(ii) Height of the glacier. I am no judge of the height of ice, but I estimate the height of the glacier above the river-bed, where the central axes of the two valleys meet, to be from 150 to 200 feet.2
[The depth of the impounded lake just before the burst in 1929 was given by Gunn as 400 feet.-Ed.)
(iii) Width of the glacier. The glacier is clearly much narrower than in 1931. My panorama (No. 3) is taken from the top of the tongue of ice south of the glacier, now completely covered with moraine (that is, from a point which may be measured on Captain Gregory's panorama opposite p. 72, Himalayan Journal, vol. iv, 5 ½ inches from the left edge). The large mass of moraine-covered ice shown from 1 to 10 inches on the same panorama of Gregory has now completely disappeared, its place being presumably taken by the frozen lake shown in my panorama (see plan in Fig. 2).
(iv) Other points. The route past the snout of the glacier is still impassable for loaded animals, owing to the crevasses and irregularities in the dead ice. Coolies could pass with a certain amount of difficulty while the small lake is frozen, but it might be impossible for them once the ice has melted. We did not go completely through the gap between the snout and the river, but the rest of the way appeared easy. In winter a route along the frozen river itself is presumably passable, but in summer several deep-looking pools make it impassable. It is interesting to note that there are still some large blocks of glacier ice wedged on the cliffs opposite the snout.
(b) The Kichik Kumdan glacier.
(i) We visited this glacier on the 26th and 28th May. It is apparently in the same position as in 1936 (see Durgi's notes, below), i.e. the tip of its snout is resting on the outcrop of marble about 350 feet from the red sandstone cliffs, but the remainder of the snout stops a yard or so short of the outcrop. The Shyok river-bed appears to be particularly porous here, for the water melting from the glacier at once sinks into the sand. The river itself runs underneath the glacier, disappearing at a distance of from 1 to 1J miles- I did not check the distance-above the glacier, and reappearing nearly half a mile below it (see illustration 6).
(ii) Prospects of a dam. I should say that the possibility of a dam here is slight. As the Kichik Kumdan has formed dams in the past, the marble outcrop can be no obstacle; but since the river now flows under the glacier-and has done so for four years-it seems unlikely that there will be a dam during this advance.
(iii) Other points. There is no difficulty at all in taking ponies past the snout of this glacier.
levels of the impounded lake above which I have shown by two white arrows in panorama 3. Compare also with the two panoramas opposite pp. 68 and 72 of Himalayan Journal, vol. iv, 1932. See also my remarks on the height of the glacier front on p. 73 of the same journal.-Ed.
View southwards of the snout of the Kichik glacier on the 26 th May 1939. The glacier snouts rests on a rocky outcrop. Compare the position and iceforms with those in Ludlow’s photograph taken 1929
View north towards the kichik kumdan glacier, from downstream, on 26th May 1939. Note the Shyok river appearing on the left after percolating through the shingle undr the glacier. Compare the compact ice-forms with the dead ice-blocks of 1929
Note by the Editor (K. M.).
Captain Brooke sends me a rough sketch of the position of the glacier in August 1939, which I have combined with Lyall Grant's and reproduce here, together with one of his photographs (No. 8). He gives the narrowest gap between the snout and the cliffs opposite as 100 yards, the ice-front varying from 50 to 80 feet in height. From his notes I gather that the glacier then extended into the Shyok river and that water in the river bed prevented him from finding time to visit the Chong Kumdan. This is interesting, for it shows that when the ice and snows farther up the valley are melting rapidly in July and August, the porous river-bed of the Shyok becomes saturated, and the river flows past the snout and not under the klacier as it does earlier in the year. Brooke confirms from local report the fact that the Kichik Kumdan advanced in the winter of 1935-6, and that it has remained in much the same position since then. He did not think that it showed any very definite signs of degeneration but received the impression that it had reached its limit and was unlikely to advance farther.
I have included among the illustrations of the Kichik Kumdan two earlier ones for comparison. No. 7 shows the glacier as seen by Professor Giotto Dainelli on the 16 th July 1914. This should be compared with Brooke’s view of it (No. 8) in August 1939. We know from our records that the glacier advanced farther in the winter of 1902-3 than in 1935-6; in fact, the Joint Commissioner of Leh attributed a flood in 1903 to the bursting of the Kichik Kumdan ice-front. It seems certain that the glacier advanced in 1899, much to the position that it reached in 1935-6, and subsequently in 1902-3 made a further slight advance and blocked the river. On the present occasion all reports seem to indicate that this second extra push will not occur, though it cannot be altogether ruled out for a year or two. The appearance of Karakoram glacier snouts in August is notoriously deceptive, for summer seasonal melting is great enough to incline the observer to note signs of degeneracy. A comparison of illustrations 7 and 8 shows that the ice of the trunk in 1939 is less degenerate than in 1914.
These two photographs should, however, be compared with Mr. F. Ludlow's view of the glacier trunk in 1929 (No. 4). The dead-ice pinnacles and moraine masses in that year show great degeneracy, and it is very difficult to realize that this shows its position and condition between the years 1914 and 1939.
In his letter Brooke remarks on the heavy scraping and scouring of the rocks on the left bank of the Shyok opposite the Kichik Kumdan, which must have been caused on a previous and much more extensive advance. -K. M.
(c) The Aktash glaciers (I. H. L. G.).
(i) General. These glaciers were visited on the 27th May. On the Survey of India map 52 e they are shown united. There is about ¾ mile between the two branches now. The northern half stops about 200 yards short of the right bank of the river-bed. The big moraines on either side rise high above it; the snout is sloping and covered with stones. The southern half is high up the hillside, perhaps 800 feet up. I foolishly did not visit it. It may, however, be in rather an interesting condition, as the snout, which looked fresh and clean and steep, is now on the brink of a steep slope falling down to the river-bed.
(d) The Sultan Chhushku glacier.
I passed the snout of this glacier above Kataklik (mentioned by the Vissers in Himalayan Journal, vol. iii, 1931, p. 108) in May 1939. The snout was sloping and jutted out about 250 yards into the Shyok river-bed. The ice was dirty and discoloured, and though the surface was uneven there were no pinnacles.1
I formed the opinion-based on complete ignorance of theory- that the Chong Kumdan and Aktash North were retreating and that the Kichik Kumdan and Aktash South were advancing. This was entirely from the appearance of the ice at the snout, i.e. whether there was any dead ice, &c. Since reading past volumes of the Journal, however, I see that such signs are only one of many factors. I mention it because, surprisingly enough, my guesses about the Chong Kumdan and Kichik Kumdan appear to have been correct.
This glacier is sometimes referred to as the Kataklik glacier. It is shown on map 52 f as the Sultan Chhushku and descends steeply from peaks about 22,000 feet high.-Ed.
VIEW OF THE KICHIK KUMDAN GLACIER FROM DOWN-STREAM AS SEEN BY PROFESSOR GIOTTO DAINELFI ON 16TH JULY 1914. LUDLOW'S PHOTOGRAPHS SHOW THAT ALL THIS ICE HAD MELTED BY 1929
The h ii'hik Kumdan as seen by Lieut. Kenneth Brooke in August 1939. The glacier had advanced farther in the winter of 1902—3 than in that of I935 h trus farther advanced but more degenerate in 1914 than in 1939
As regards the chances of a dam, I do not think the Chong Kumdan will form another until it advances at some future date; and I think that the river will flow underneath the Kichik Kumdan even if the ice abuts against the rock-face. I do not believe that the Aktash or Kataklik glaciers will ever form a dam, as in both instances the formation of the valley is unsuitable.
III. Durgi’s notes, summarized by Lyall Grant (I. H. L. G.)
- General. These notes summarize information given me by Mr. Durgi, the M.E.S. overseer in Leh. He was rather vague about English dates, and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the years. The figures in (2) were provided from a report to the Punjab Government, written at the time, and I am fairly sure that the years in (4) are correct; but the figures in (3) were from memory, and the year is uncertain.
- 1929. The depth of the Gapshan lake some 2 miles below the Chip-chap confluence was 75 feet by sounding. One thousand yards of the river-bed were measured for slope, and from this the estimated depth of water was just under 400 feet at the dam. The height of the dam in the centre (of both the glacier and the riverbed, perhaps) was 415 feet, measured by theodolite.
Comments by Editor (K. M.).
We have exact details of the glacier immediately before the dam burst on the 15th August 1929, as Mr. J. P. Gunn and Mr. F. Ludlow visited it both from downstream and upstream, and the former wrote a detailed report. He then wrote: 'Seen from above, the ice in the river-bed appeared roughly square in plan; measurement showed it to be 4,000 feet long across the bed, and about 500 feet high.'2
The depth of the lake at the dam was approximately 400 feet.3
He added: 'The water never got to within 50 or 100 feet of the top of the dam at its lowest point, and was probably 150 feet from the top at the point where it burst.'4
Gunn gave the volume of water impounded as 1,095,500 foot-acres, enough water to fill a reservoir 10 square miles in extent to a depth of 170 feet. Though a trained hydraulic engineer, he emphasized the extreme difficulty of estimating heights and distances without actual measurement. Gunn believed then that the Chong Kumdan was degenerating and that the dam would not re-form. From a careful examination of photographs and data, however, I suggested that Gunn's arguments were insufficient to prove that the glacier was degenerating, and I concluded that after the 1929 flood the ice would heal again, form another block, impound another lake, which would burst in 1931, or at latest 1932.
Report on the Kumdan Dam and Shyok Flood of ig2g (J. P. Gunn). Published by the Punjab Government. 2
Himalayan Journal, vol. ii, 1930, p. 35.
Ibid., p. 41. 4
Ibid., p. 47.
- 1932. (I. H. L. G.) The dam burst at 5 a.m. in the morning and the flood lasted till 1 a.m. (possibly till 1 p.m.). The water tunnelled through the glacier, increasing gradually until it filled the whole nullah to a depth of 5 feet. After this flood the glacier broke its back, so to speak, above the tunnel.
Comments by Editor (K. M.).
The glacier trunk had healed during the winter of 1929-30, and impounded another lake. Degeneration, however, set in in 1931, and became more marked in the summer of 1932, when the lake waters found a weak line under the ice, much in the same position as the break of 1929 (Fig. 5). Throughout the 9th July water was scouring its channel through the glacier, and gradually the ice collapsed. The lake took nearly three days to drain and no great damage was done.
From some brief notes I was able to obtain from Mr. Durgi through Captain Gregory, together with a photograph of the glacier taken after the collapse, it seemed to me certain that the glacier was now no longer in a condition to form a dangerous dam.-K. M.
- 1935-6 (I. H. L. G.). Mr. Durgi visited the glaciers in November 1935. Two of his ponymen died of cold when they re- crossed the Saser pass. The Kichik Kumdan was then about 1 ½ miles from the left bank of the Shyok river-bed. When he revisited the glaciers in June 1936, the Kichik Kumdan had advanced to its present position abutting the marble outcrop about 350 feet from the left bank (i.e. an advance of about1 ½ miles during the 7 months).
Comments by Editor (K. M.).
This advance of the Kichik Kumdan was forecast by me with considerable accuracy when I urged travellers to inspect it in 1935 or 1936. Mr. Durgi does not give any observations regarding the Chong Kumdan glacier in these years, and it may be assumed that degeneration continued uninterruptedly. From Lyall Grant's photographs it is now evident that a considerable portion of the ice on the southern flank of the glacier in the Shyok valley has melted, leaving quantities of moraine. Much moraine must, however, be swept away by summer floods (see Fig. 2). The ice pinnacles are beginning to become detached, and there appears to be no 'life' in the lower part of the trunk, the height being probably not more than 150 feet.-K. M.
IV. Conclusion (K. M.)
I believe that we have now sufficient data to predict with some confidence the future behaviour of these two glaciers, the Chong Kumdan and the Kichik Kumdan, and I now propose to indulge in some forecasting.
Previous dates of advance for the Chong Kumdan, derived from a mass of material, sometimes conflicting, appear to have been the winters of 1832-3, 1876-7, 1923-4, thus giving approximate intervals of 44-7 years. The middle date is to some extent conjectural, being based on river flood-levels at Attock in 1879 and 1882. The expected date of the next advance would therefore be about the winter of 1968-9. Degeneration will probably continue until at least 1965, the southern flank of the glacier and its end, being exposed to radiation from the rock-wall, suffering most. Moraine masses will extend between the pinnacles, which will become detached. Meanwhile great masses of ice will collect in the upper reaches of the glacier. A sudden advance of this accumulated ice will occur after 1965, and not before. Danger from the bursting of impounded lakes will last for 10 years after the ice has advanced. As I shall not be here to be proved wrong, I will be precise: the Chong Kumdan will advance rapidly during the winter of 1968-9; the Shyok valley will be blocked; a lake will form above it, some 10 miles long; and there will be floods caused by the collapse of the dam in the autumns (July to September) of 1971, 1974, and 1977, the first one occurring probably in the autumn 2 ½ years after the glacier has advanced.
The Kichik Kumdan's record is not so precise, as only one flood has been recorded, namely in 1903. It appears to have been at its maximum advance about the years 1865, 1901, and 1936, giving intervals of 36 and 35 years. Degeneration is now about to set in and should continue throughout the 'forties, 'fifties, and 'sixties, until the ice is from 1 ½ to 1 ¾ miles from the cliffs. Its next advance should take place about 1970.
We know too little about the Aktash glaciers, owing to insufficient data, but I anticipate that the ice of one of them will be in the main valley about 1962, though not far forward enough to be dangerous.
The position about 1970, therefore, should be particularly interesting. The Chong Kumdan should be blocking the river with a long lake formed above it. The Kichik Kumdan should be across the valley and projecting into the river-bed, though not, perhaps, Infilling a complete block. The full force of the bursting Chong Kumdan dam will be brought up against the Kichik Kumdan, which may act as a partial check on the released waters, but which itself would probably be swept away.
It must be remembered that it will be a coincidence that the Chong Kumdan and the Kichik Kumdan glaciers will both be at their maximum advance at approximately the same time, and that at their subsequent advances, the Chong Kumdan in 2013 and the Kichik Kumdan in 2005, they will again be 'out of phase'. We can perhaps leave any further speculation to our grandchildren!
Himalayan Journal, vol. ii, 1930, pp. 44-5.
Ibid., vol. v, 1933, p. 98.