Three Scientific Expeditions in the Himalaya and Karakoram and the High Altitude Laboratory-Pyramid


The 1988 expedition

IN OUR 1987 expedition to K2 and Everest,1 the figures we obtained from the surveys all turned out to be higher than those known earlier, and this could be a pointer to the fact that the two areas involved, Karakoram and Himalaya, were undergoing lift.

These circumstances induced me to apply once more to the Italian National Research Council (CNR) for backing for another expedition to the regions of Everest and K2, in order to carry out further geodetic surveys, and also geophysical and geological ones. Once again I gained npproval for my project so I immediately started the organization of a new expedition. The plan of the expedition had a two-fold target: on one hand, geodetic-geophysic and topographic measurements; and on the Other, geologic research between the Kun Lun mountain chain and the northern slopes of Karakoram.

The expedition consisted of 15 members including scientists, technicians and mountain guides, under the leadership of Prof. A. Caporali of the University of Bari, with regard to the geodetical and geophysical aspect; and of Prof. M. Gaetani of the University, of Milano, for the geological one.

From Islamabad, in Pakistan, the expedition proceeded northwards overland by motor vehicles and after crossing the Khunjerab pass (4850 m), reached kashgar, the capital of Sinkiang, on 6 September. From here we went on, again by car and later on camel-back, to the Aghil pass (4780 m) whence it descended at last into the Shaksgam valley explored by myself in 1929. Here the base camp was pitched, not far from one of my camps of 1929.

Scientific research, which had been started already during the approach, was often hindered by bad weather and, in the Shaksgam valley, by the fords as well. Despite this, the expedition returned to Italy on 29 october after accomplishing the preset programme almost in full.


  1. See H.J. Vol. 45, p. 17 and HC Newsletter 44, p. 38.—Ed.


Gravity has been determined along the profile which extends from the Kun Lun range across the Aghil up to the Gasherbrum glacier in the Shaksgam valley and then to the Sarpo Laggo glacier. Then we determined the heights of the gravimetric stations deduced mainly from barometric and thermometric data, with the addition of nearly daily satellite 'fixes' along the profile by GPS instrument.

The direction of the local gravity vector has been determined by a combination of astronomic and satellite positioning of the two base camps on the Gasherbrum glacier and Tek-ri hill.

With regard to land surveys, the unfavourable weather conditions prevented us from carrying out the height control of K2.

As far as geology is concerned, the 1988 expedition aimed to investigate and widen northwards data acquired in the Shaksgam valley. On this subject it must be considered that the Central Asian chains derived from the collision between the original Asiatic plaque, of which southern border was placed south of the Tarim depression and north of Pamir, and a group of smaller plaques, as Pamir, Karakoram, Kun Lun, and some more eastern ones. All these fragments, which were located in the middle of the ancient Tethis Ocean, went to join Asia, originating the first raisings.

The expedition itinerary crossed parts of these three microplaques: Kun Lun, northern Tibet, to which the Aghil chain geologically belongs, and Karakoram.

The Tibetan plateau is westwards delimited by a line of a horizontal shift, which is called 'Karakoram fault'. Such fault separates the Karakoram 8000ers (Gasherbrum I and II, Falchan Kangri and K2 from the lower peaks (7000 m maximum) of the Aghil chain and of the Tibetan plateau. Along that fault, the Karakoram chain shifts northwards, while northern Tibet shifts to southeast.

The rocks we found are both of sedimentary kind, as limestones and sandstones, and magmatic. As a matter of fact granitoids are very spread in the three chains, because of the partial crystal fusion during the collision between the plaques. This portion of crust, relatively lighter than the surrounding plaques, gradually came to surface, as big air bubbles in a pond. The deep metamorphic rocks are, therefore, rarer, as a proof that these chains are relatively young.

The sea-fossils recovered are from Permian to Jurassic, that is between 290 and 150 million years ago. During the last 100 million years, this area was always emerged.

Volcanic phenomena seem to be almost completely absent.

The results of the expedition are exposed in a volume at the moment in the press.

The 19.89 expedition

Meantime, in the autumn of 1988, by agreement with CNR, I began k) organize a new expedition to the Tibetan area north of Everest to take place in the summer of 1989. The programme originally called for i similar type of research in Tibet, as that conducted in Karakoram. Subsequently, however, two Italian companies forming part of the EF1M Industrial group, Alumix and SIV, donated a prefabricated glass and aluminium pyramid-shaped structure to be used as a high altitude scientific laboratory.

With this gift, the expedition took on a new scale which called for n more complex logistic set-up, since a bigger number of researchers with their technical equipments could be involved.

The 1989 Ev-K2-CNR project covered a series of investigations in the fields of geophysics, geology, meteorology, hydrology, atmospheric pollution, physiology, medicine, ethnology, zoology and botany.

After a number of meetings with officials of the Chinese Academy of Si Irnce (CAS) in Beijing and Rome, a three-year co-operation agreement entered into between Italian and Chinese authorities with a project to be implemented in Tibet. So, we started the organization of the 1989 expedition.

During the next two months, while preparations were under way for the transport of the pyramid and the paperwork for the journey of the mumbers of the expedition was being dealt with, an unforeseen event suddenly froze all our plans in the month of June: the student revolt in Tienanmen Square.

After a brief pause of perplexity, and after consulting the scientists, I decided to shift the entire base of operations of the expedition from northern (Tibetan) slope to the southern (Nepalese) slope of Everest.A problem that could not be solved in the short run was the transport to the pyramid to the new base camp. I had, therefore, no choice but to leave it in Italy for the time being and to replace it with suitable tents.

Thanks to the efficient logistic organization of one of my collaborators, the alpine guide Agostino Da Polenza and to the co-operation of some of the members of the expedition, the bulk of the expedition, chiefly consisting of the scientists in charge of research mainly of a biological nature, reached the base camp of Lobuche, on the right hand side of the Khumbu glacier at 4050 m — an altitude required by the biologists — within the scheduled time, with a load of three tons of scientific equipment.

We were lucky enough to find much sympathy with the Nepalese Government Kathmandu and the most efficient and helpful co-operation from the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (RONAST).

On 15 August, the researchers began to leave Italy for Nepal. After nearly two months of hard work at high altitude, they finished their research programs and returned to Italy. The expedition was concluded by mid-October with the return of the last logistical operators.

Although the events related considerably complicated the organization and management of the expedition, the researchers covered the entire program Set for the 1989.

Two research groups operated in the Earth Science field: one concerning Geodesy, Geophysics and Topography, directed by Prof. A. Caporali, the other concerning Geology directed by Prof. M Gaetani.

The first group operated in Nepal realizing a gravimetric and geomagnetic profile between Terai and the Chinese border, while the topographical research have realized a small traverse in the Kodari area.

The geological group carried out a double series of researches, one on the crystalline rocks of the Khumbu valley and one on the sedimentary rocks in the Kali Gandaki valley.

Environmental Sciences

Two research groups belonged to this section: the first one concerned in meteorologic aspects, and the second one concerned in atmospheric and hydrochemical studies, both direced by Dr. G. Tartar! of the Institute of Water Research of the CNR of Brugherio.

They valuated the role of atmosphere in the long distance transportation of polluting agents, and the result is that there is no pollution on a local scale and that the ratio of pollutants is negligible.

Biological Sciences

This research group, presided over by Prof. P. Cerretelli of the Institute of Advanced Biomedical Technologies of the CNR of Milano, was composed by two study groups, a Physiological one and a Medical one.

The first group carried out studies on modifications of the anaerobic metabolism and of muscular fatigue during chronic exposure to hypoxia, while the aim of the second group was to study the high altitude hypoxia effects on the central nervous system, on the hydrosaline balance and on the system of immunity.

As far as Botany is concerned, in 1989 the activity carried out in the Khumbu Valley, by Prof. A. Bertani of the Institute of Vegetal Biosynthesis of the CNR of Milano, concerned germination tests at constant temperature, collection of vegetables locally cultivated and typological study of local vegetation.

The research concerning Zoology, directed by Prof. S. Lovar of the University of Camerino, aimed to ascertain the presence of species of wild ungulate mammals in the Sagarmatha National Park, to determine their distribution, density and other population parameters.

Human Sciences

The research in this field, directed by Prof. G. Corbellini, was carried out in Nepal, in the Barun (Makalu) valley to determine the area of ancient Beyul Khembalung, a mountainous region situated east of Khumbu, also participating in many sacred rites.

As a footnote, it may be noted that four of the mountain guides accompanying the expedition also found the time to climb" Pumori (7145 m) by a new way.

The 1990 expedition

The new expedition was a remake of the initial project. The persistence of political unrest in Tibet led me to the decision of installing the High Altitude Laboratory-Pyramid in Nepal, on the southern slope of Everest.

The Pyramid has been installed at 5050 m in the Sagarmatha National Park, close to a small lake on the right side of the Khumbu glacier just above the mountain pasture of Lobuche, in a dell side of the trek leading to the Everest base camp. Many logistic difficulties have been overcome to carry out this operation. For instance, the site chosen is about 100 km from Jiri, the closest village, linked to Kathmandu by a motor road, while the rest of the way must be covered on foot in n dozen stages.

In 1990 the same 1989 group carried out campaigns of gravimetric, geomagnetic and topographic surveys in the Karakoram (Biafo-Hispar glaciers) and in various parts of Nepal.

As far as geology is concerned, while a small group worked in the eastern Hindu Kush on stratigraphic research, two other groups carried mil studies on granitoids and metamorphic rocks on the southern slope of the Himalaya.

With regard to the Environmental Sciences, thanks to the new apparatus installed at the Pyramid, surveys were carried out on the chemical and physical characteristics of the atmospheric depositions and on the chemical . charecteristics of the cloud droplets and on the troposphere and stratosphere turbidity.

In 1990 the surveys on Physiology and Medicine, previously started, continued with the addition of research on cardiological and nutritional problems related to high altitude. No particular research were carried out in the zoological and botanical fields.

With regard to the Human Sciences, in 1990 the activity was developed near the Himalayan ridge in the area where, beside the Buddhist faith, persists the pre-Buddhist cult, Bon. The 1989 and 1990 expeditions also made It possible to reconstruct the ancient road network of communication, Image and commerce between the neighbouring zones of the Beyul Khembalung and the Khumbu.

On the whole, we can assert that the scientific activity programs of Ev-K2-CNR, scheduled by the Executive Committee for 1989 and 1990, had a wide development and the research attained satisfying results, about which the first publications have come out, and they will continue as the laboratory surveys will complete the results achieved during the campaign.

At the moment it is possible to anticipate that the project, will continue the initial programs at least until 1992, with the same research fields, developing and widening the amount of research activity, also thanks to the financing of the European Economic Commission.

The High Altitude Laboratory

It consists of the above mentioned Pyramid which is a structure, made of glass and aluminium, with a square base side measuring 13.22 m and a vertical development of 8.40 m. This geometric shape allows the advantages of a very stable shaped structure to be in line with the advantages coming from the natural elements as water, snow and wind. The structure is also panelled with external reflecting glass neutrally becoming part of the environment to be settled down in.

The laboratory, provided with systems for energy production and communications, offfers accommodation for 20 people.

The Pyramid is split up inside into three levels, which are so asigned: the first level for laboratories, living and dining room, kitchen area, toilet facilities and stores; the second level includes the relax/night area; the third level is intended for the communication system: walkie-talkies for local communications, short-wave radio, telecommunication system that makes possible the direct connection to the international phone, telex and data transmission network via satellite.

In order to ensure the energy self-sufficiency of the Pyramid during the whole year, and considering its particular characteristics, a specific energy production system has been studied: it is an hybrid plant, made of a microhydraulic power station, installed on the effluent of the small lake located near the Pyramid, producing at the moment about 150 kW/day and a photovoltaic panels system, covering one of the pyramid face's, producing about 20 kW/day, both in alternating current 220 volt/50 hertz, for lighting, telecommunications, scientific equipment, heating and cooling, water pumping, cooking. At the moment, an eolic plant of nominal power of 3 kW/day is on the way to be accomplished. The photovoltaic and eolic plants will run all year long, while the microhydraulic one cannot run in winter time. Since there is no use of fuel this plant supplies a non-polluting energy in complete respect of the environment.

A cesspool has been built on site for organic waste disposal. For inorganic waste, a selection will be made during collection when the various types of rubbish will be sorted into paper, iron and other metallic objects, and glass. This residues will be compacted and then disposed according to the kind of rubbish: burying, incineration or removal in the case of polluting substances. A mini-incinerator has been built considering the need of the mininum environmental impact. Materials transported and based at the site have been selected so as to limit the amount of polluting. Their residues can be suitably treated and absorbed by the environment.

It is my belief that the actual arrangement of the High Altitude Laboratory at Lobuche — that will be improved in the future — can answer the needs of the researchers which will carry out their studies and it represents a relatively comfortable 'residence' for those who will operate in such exceptional environment as that of the base camp.


Scientific expeditions undertaken by the Italian Scientists in 1988, 1989 and 1990 to Shaksgam valley and Everest area.


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