The Melting Abode is a photo book that is meant to take you, the viewer, on a visual journey through a part of the large Indian Himalayan Region, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Shot over the course of a year, at altitudes up to 15,000 ft, these photographs provide a peek into the settlements and towns around the state from Kullu to Shingo La, along with the magnificent mountains that surround them. They were shot during a pivotal time in my life, on journeys with people that will always be very close to my heart.

This is a celebration of these serene and scenic natural landscapes, but takes a moment to highlight their vulnerability. The Himalayas, like every other ecosystem on the planet, are being threatened by the effects of global warming and climate change. Through the photographs and a series of articles, I hope you fall in love with the landscapes and get informed about the importance of this critical issue and its impact.

I hope you enjoy and learn from these photographs, for they are not just a documentation, but memories of the land I call home.
The following images were shot during the Summer of 2021, passing through the remote region at an altitude of over 11,000 ft. The village in this area, known as Darcha, lies along the Bhaga River in the district of Lahaul and Spiti – the northernmost permanent settlement in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
Digital Photography | 2021
Climate change is roasting
the Himalaya region,
threatening millions
Over 200 scientists collaborated on a report that forecasts a hot future for the high mountains of Asia
By Alejandra Borunda
February 4, 2019
The peaks and valleys of the Hindu Kush Himalaya mountain ranges are some of the most inaccessible, remote regions in the world today—but even the most isolated valleys have been touched by climate change, say the authors of a comprehensive new report about the vast region. The changes have already complicated life for the 240 million people who live amongst its crags and peaks, the authors say, and the effects are likely to snowball in the future.
Across the high mountain region, which stretches from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, air temperatures have risen by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century—and the cold temperatures have warmed up faster than in the rest of the world. In response, glaciers are retreating; permafrost1 is melting; and weather patterns are becoming more erratic, disrupting previously reliable water sources for millions and instigating more natural disasters.

“Mountains matter, and it’s time we start paying attention to them,” says Phillipus Wester, chief scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, in Kathmandu and one of the lead authors of the report, which pulled together over 200 scientists and analysts.

Without immediate, global attention to curb future warming and effort from the countries within the mountain range to adapt, future climate change may tip the region into difficulties from which it will be challenging, if not impossible, to recover, the study warns.

Hot peaks and shifting snows
The Hindu Kush2 Himalayas encompass hundreds of the world’s most iconic mountains, hold over 30,000 square miles of glacier ice—more than anywhere else in the world besides the poles—and sustain 240 million people in their peaks and valleys. The mountain ranges also cradle the headwaters of rivers like the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra that provide water to billions in the lowlands downstream.

The high mountains are feeling the impacts of climate change already, and more intensely, than many other parts of the world, though it’s not fully clear why.

“Even if global warming is limited to 1.5° [Celsius, or 2.7° Fahrenheit] by end of the century—and you could call it a miracle if that happens—the high mountains are likely to warm even more,” says Arun Shrestha, one of the lead authors of the report’s chapter on climate change and a climate scientist at ICIMOD3. That number will spike up to at least 3° Fahrenheit by the middle of the century, he says—“quite a significant warming.”

Some parts of the region—the Tibetan Plateau and much of the northwestern edge of the mountain belt, including the Karakoram—are even more sensitive: under the 1.5° C (2.7° Fahrenheit) warming goals suggested by the IPCC4 last fall, those pristine peaks could see warming of over 3.6° F.

And without coordinated global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions5, the numbers could creep even higher. If we continue on the current emissions path, the authors say, the high mountains would see temperatures more than 5.4° F higher by the end of the century. And if emissions creep higher, that number could rise to over 10° F.

For farmers growing apples or grains on steep mountain slopes, that means they have to nudge their orchards higher upslope, chasing the cool nights and seasons necessary for their crops. For others, changing patterns of snow and rain leave formerly reliable streams and springs dry—or dangerous with the threat of disastrous floods.

Snowfall and rain patterns have also shifted as the climate has warmed. Most snowfall in the high mountains along the eastern swath of the region falls during the summer, when the powerful monsoon noses up into the mountains. But in recent decades, that monsoon has weakened, starving the mountains of the snow that feeds glaciers and that provides key water to many farmers as it slowly melts through the springtime, right when they need water to get their crops planted. This monsoon is predicted to weaken further in the future, further disrupting critical water supplies to farmers that rely on it.

“We have to expect that with climate change, weather events will become more variable,” says Nina Bergan Holmelin, a researcher at Norway’s Center for International Climate Research who studies farmers and communities in the region. “The timing is so important. It’s much more challenging to deal with droughts and floods and intense rain and then nothing for a long time.”

Melting glaciers: Water changes and disasters compound
At the same time, many glaciers across the region—particularly on the Tibetan Plateau and on the eastern stretches of the mountain range, like the central Himalaya range and the Khumbu, where some of the most famous mountains of the world stand—have retreated by somewhere between 20 to 47 percent since 2000, say studies compiled in the report. “And under business-as-usual, 50 percent of the volume will be gone by the end of century,” says Joseph Shea, one of the lead authors of the report’s chapter on how the region’s ice is changing and a glaciologist at the University of Northern British Columbia in Canada.

Glacier and snow melt feeds into rivers, sustaining their flow. For the Indus, which gets about 40 percent of its water from glacier melt, that means that in the short term, there’s actually more water coursing down from the high mountains.

As glaciers get smaller, though, that water supply to rivers like the Indus6 will likely dwindle, says Michele Koppes, a climate scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who was not involved in the report. “Glaciers and snowpack are like big storage banks of water,” she says. That water can be released slowly over seasons, decades, or even hundreds of years as the glaciers and snowpack melt. But climate change is forcing the melt to happen faster than it used to—so it is “drawing on their storage tanks,” she says, leaving the communities and ecological systems that rely on that water vulnerable.

Changes to the glaciers also has another effect, says Sudeep Thakuri, a glaciologist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu who was not involved in the report: More melt means more water pools in lakes on top of the glaciers or at their lower snouts. Since 1977, he and colleagues found, the number of glacial lakes across the Nepal Himalaya has more than doubled.

But those lakes are often growing so fast and hold so much water that they can—and have—burst through the rockpiles holding them back, resulting in devastating outburst floods. And as steep slopes that had been locked in place by frozen soils have thawed, rockfalls, collapsing terrains, and avalanches have become more common. Since the 1980s, the changing climate conditions have driven an uptick in the disaster risk in the region, the report says, which will ramp up in the future.

Time for action
The science, in many cases, is still catching up to the lived experiences of the millions of mountain residents. In 2007, an IPCC global assessment report highlighted the dearth of scientific knowledge about exactly how climate had already and would continue to impact the critical, iconic, vast region in the future. At first, the panel suggested that the glaciers in the region would disappear completely by 2035. Glaciologists who knew the region pushed back—the situation was much more complex, they knew. But “what was clear was that we didn’t have enough robust scientific research to say what was possible,” says Shrestha. “Of course, we knew they were shrinking, but we didn’t know how much.”

So the challenge was set, and scientists from around the world dug into the knotty problem. Many of the glaciers of the region are in remote valleys or hard-to-access mountains, complex areas that make it particularly tricky for scientists to figure out how they are changing from satellite imagery. Scientists struggled to find enough good, reliable data across the vast swath of the mountain range.

Now, a coherent picture has emerged. And what it shows is a region that will face enormous challenges in the coming years, says Wester. The region, with its millions of residents and important resources for the downstream neighbors, has not gotten the international attention it deserves, he says.

“We know enough now to take action,” Wester says. “We can’t hide behind an excuse that we don’t have the data, that there’s more research needed—now, we have 650 pages of assessment. 210 people came together for three years to look at this carefully. We know this is going to be tough, and we know enough to take action.”

1  Permafrost is ground that continuously remains below 0 °C for two or more years, located on land or under the ocean. Permafrost does not have to be the first layer that is on the ground. It can be from an inch to several miles deep under the Earth’s surface.
2  The Hindu Kush is an 800-kilometre-long mountain range in Central and South Asia to the west of the Himalayas. It stretches from central and western Afghanistan into northwestern Pakistan and far southeastern Tajikistan.
3  The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development is a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing centre serving the eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas.
4  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations responsible for advancing knowledge on human-induced climate change.
5  There are four main types of forcing greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. The main feedback greenhouse gas is water vapor. Greenhouse gas emissions trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere, just as the glass of a greenhouse keeps warm air inside.
6  The Indus is the most important supplier of water resources to the Punjab and Sindh plains - it forms the backbone of agriculture and food production in Pakistan. The river is especially critical as rainfall is meagre in the lower Indus valley.
The following images were shot during the Spring of 2021, around Kullu and Manali, the sister towns that are situated around the banks of the Beas River. These towns are adored by tourists and locals for their landscapes, historic structures, and clean air all year-round at a comfortable altitude ranging from 4,000 ft to 7,000 ft.
Shot on 35mm Film | 2021
Warming and Warnings
from the High Himalayas
The region is warming much faster than much of the planet, and the consequences are already showing.
By Richard Silber and Liam Torpy
February 11, 2021
On Sunday, a glacier in the Indian Himalayas burst apart 7, releasing a torrential flood that destroyed one hydroelectric dam project and damaged another, killed at least 32 people and left nearly 200 people missing and likely dead. Half a world away, this event might seem easy to disregard as yet another distant catastrophe — tragic yet unrelated to our daily lives.
In the Western world, we should not be so sanguine. The disaster was a direct result of extreme climate change in the world’s highest mountains. The rapid warming there offers a warning of the potential consequences for the United States and the rest of the world as greenhouse gases continue to heat the planet.

Since taking office, President Biden has sought to rearm what scientists have been saying for decades: An effective climate response must be guided by strong research. As his administration works to restore scientific integrity in government and slow climate change, it should also support research in the Himalayas. Logistical barriers facing scientists in these remote mountains have complicated research efforts. Much more needs to be done to monitor weather and ecological changes and disruptions to the water cycle resulting from global warming.

Like the Arctic and Antarctic poles, the Himalayas are warming much faster8 than other parts of the world, at a rate estimated to be up to three times the global average. Warming has been rapid over the past century. Though temperatures have varied depending on location, they have averaged 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher since 2000 compared with the 25-year period preceding it. The Himalayas thus offer a natural experiment: They are showing the havoc that can occur if we continue business as usual with greenhouse gas emissions.

Severe warming in parts of this towering mountain range, which stretches for 1,500 miles across Asia, from Pakistan to Bhutan, is demonstrating, for example, how climate change can drastically disrupt a region’s water cycle. Glaciers have lost mass and retreated significantly.

Even moderate projections predict that the region’s massive ice flows will decline by approximately 60 percent by the end of this century, with a large number of glaciers disappearing outright.

Indeed, a recent assessment9 of warming by a group of scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology warned that continued warming in the broader Hindu Kush Himalaya region, “will further exacerbate the snowfall and glacier decline leading to profound hydrological and agricultural impacts.” The region is home to the largest area of permanent ice cover outside the North and South poles.

Compounding this loss of freshwater, the dry season has been more arid and drought-like, while the monsoon season has brought more intense, destructive rainstorms that have increasingly caused flooding and fatal landslides.

All of these changes threaten the flow of the great rivers of Asia that are the primary water source for more than one billion people. They have brought particular upheaval to the approximately 240 million residents10 of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region. As ecosystems unravel, these people are struggling to adapt to changes that attack their livelihoods on all fronts.

Herders are suffering because warming is hurting productivity in already overgrazed rangelands that are producing less feed for livestock. Farmers are seeing crop failures because of drier conditions. Based on observations of forests in Europe, researchers would have predicted that the timberline would advance to those higher, cooler altitudes, as they have in other mountain ranges. But some forests in the Himalayas did the opposite11, underscoring how hidden and chaotic variables can upend expectations.

Other uncertainties that require attention include how these miles-high mountains affect the path of the jet stream, which can have an outsize impact on the Northern Hemisphere; the pace and extent of melting permafrost, which releases greenhouse gases; the long-term impact of planetary warming on the seasonal monsoons of South Asia; and the geopolitical implications of food and water scarcity in a region where tensions already run high.

Researchers also have an opportunity to develop mitigation strategies usable elsewhere. For example, to prevent deadly floods caused by rapidly melting glaciers, international organizations have lowered the level of glacial lakes and created downstream warning systems. Some of these flood-prevention efforts have been successful; others have proved ineffective. Both outcomes have provided lessons with the potential to save limited funds and countless lives.

To face humanity’s greatest crisis, we must look across the planet to understand what may come next. In that spirit, long-term environmental research in the Himalayas is critical. When dealing with global climate change, the Himalayas are not as far away as they may seem.
7  A Himalayan glacier broke on February 7, 2021 and caused sudden, massive flooding in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand on Sunday, smashing two dam projects and forcing the authorities to scramble to evacuate villages and try to save more than 100 lives.
8  Reference to previous article, Climate change is roasting the Himalaya region, threatening millions — National Geographic
9  The Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region pp 207-222 by T. P. Sabin, R. Krishnan, et al.
10  The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment pp 1-16 by Eklabya Sharma, David Molden, et al.
11  Droughts threaten high-altitude Himalayan forests. Timberlines in the region are shifting downslope, bucking trend seen on other mountain ranges.
— Nature 2015
The following images were shot during the Fall of 2020, driving through Kullu towards the newly opened Atal Tunnel. This renowned 9.02 km long tunnel connects Manali to Lahaul-Spiti valley throughout the year. It cuts down on almost 6 hours of a drive through the hills between Manali and Leh. Built over the span of over 10 years, it finally opened in October 2020.
Digital Photography | 2020
Can We See Past the Myth
of the Himalaya?
The history of the high-altitude landscape is more complicated, and more turbulent, than adventure tales can capture.
By Akash Kapur
January 18, 2021
We drove higher and higher, the road corkscrewed tighter, and the air grew thinner. It was September of 2019 and I was travelling with my wife and two sons in the Indian province of Ladakh, deep in the Himalaya. We were on our way to the Nubra Valley, a high-altitude desert in the northeastern part of the province, close to the Chinese border. The road crossed the 17,428-foot-high Wari La Pass, at roughly the same elevation as Mt. Everest’s base camp.
As we climbed, there was a pounding in my temples; I wondered if we’d have to use the oxygen cylinder in the trunk. Mostly, I felt the isolation. There was no cell-phone coverage, and the vistas were forbidding in their emptiness. It felt like the end of the world; I worried about a breakdown. Then we turned a corner and saw a man in a black coat lying under a car, changing a at tire. He clambered out as we squeezed past, waving and yelling a cheerful “Julley! ” (a Ladakhi amalgamation of “hello” and “goodbye”). I was startled by the man’s nonchalance. In the back seat, a woman was snacking on a banana. Our driver told me that the man was probably a farmer heading to market—just another harried commuter.

I was hardly the first visitor whose view of the Himalaya was shaped by romantic fantasies, or paranoid neuroses. Ancient Indian sages wrote tales of flesh-eating demons and singing spirits (the Mahabharata makes several mentions of the Himalaya, whose name is Sanskrit for “abode of snow”). The Greeks and Romans—purportedly including Alexander the Great—were enthralled by Herodotus’ tales of giant gold-digging ants in the mountains; scholars today assume that the traveller and historian was referring to the Himalayan marmot, a nervous, furry mammal that wanders the lower altitudes. “Mountains have always been places for lowlanders to exercise their imaginations,” writes Ed Douglas near the start of “Himalaya: A Human History” (Norton), his ambitious, learned account of the ranges. “The abode of snow has oered a vast white screen on which to project the fantasies of all comers: exiled kings, foreign imperialists, spiritual seekers, self-important explorers, archeologists, missionaries, spies, mapmakers, artists, hippies—and climbers.”

Douglas, an accomplished mountaineer and the author of eight previous books on the subject, is refreshingly aware of his own romanticizations. A child of the English suburbs, he writes that he was mesmerized by the mythic mountains, “a castle of impossible dreams”; on an early trip, he “found a door marked ‘adventure’ and stepped through it.” The Himalaya that Douglas seeks to capture in this book are at once more prosaic and more fascinating than the idealized version. Although he doesn’t overlook ecology or geology, his focus, as the subtitle indicates, is on the history of the people in the region. In twenty teeming—at times over-teeming—chapters, Douglas portrays a complex, populated landscape and an intricate patchwork of cultures. Some two hundred and forty million inhabitants speak more than four hundred languages and practice at least twelve religions. “Where did mythology end and reality begin?” Douglas asks. His book seeks to reclaim humans from geography, and to recapture the lived experience of the Himalaya.

The tendency toward mythologization is understandable. The greater Himalayan mountain system (which also includes the Pamir, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram ranges) stretches across some two and a half thousand miles and at least eight countries, from Afghanistan to Myanmar. It features the hundred highest mountains, such as Mt. Everest, K2, and Kanchenjunga. Salman Rushdie has described the Himalaya as “land’s attempt to metamorphose into sky.” This sense of awe—and otherworldliness—is deepened by the presence of fossilized shells and sea creatures many thousands of feet above sea level, remnants of a massive collision that occurred around fifty million years ago, when a fragment of the supercontinent Gondwanaland hit the Eurasian tectonic plate and the earth began crumpling upward. (The Himalaya are still growing by around two centimetres a year, according to some estimates.)

For centuries, this formidable terrain has sheltered the people and cultures of the Himalaya and also obscured them. Out of that obscurity rose a thousand gauzy tales about mysterious forbidden cities and enchanted Shangri-Las and Shambalas. Buddhism—Tibetan Buddhism, in particular—played a key role in these narratives, draping the Himalaya in an aura of benign spirituality and etherealness.

Douglas painstakingly reconstructs a grittier history, of the region’s ancient wars, invasions, and dynastic bloodletting. The over-all impression is less of a region above ordinary human compulsions than of a hotbed of high-altitude Realpolitik.

Before the nineteenth century, there were a few intrepid explorations into the mountains—by Rajput kings and Mongols, by Marco Polo, and by a smattering of determined Jesuit missionaries. It wasn’t until the arrival of British colonialism, however, that the barrier was definitively breached. In 1802, the East India Company embarked upon what became known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, to produce detailed maps of the subcontinent. One of the greatest scientific achievements of the age—and perhaps of all time—the survey was conducted by an army of officials and human “computers” who dragged a half-ton theodolite (an instrument for measuring angles) and a mounted telescope known as a zenith sector across the country’s jungles and plains. The project was supposed to last a few years, but it took seven decades, and hundreds of deaths, for accurate measurements of the region, including the mountains, to be completed.

Opinion had long been divided on whether the Himalaya were indeed the earth’s highest range. But as the British inched forward, measuring one peak after another—Nanda Devi (25,646 feet), Dhaulagiri I (26,795 feet), and Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet)—the full gargantuan splendor of the mountains slowly unfurled. Finally, the surveyors set their instruments on a distant, fog-obscured protuberance that, measured at more than twenty-nine thousand feet, was revealed to be the highest mountain on the planet. The Tibetans called it Chomolungma (often translated as “Mother Goddess of the World”); for the Nepalis, it was Sagarmatha (“Peak of Heaven”). The head of the surveying operation instead named it Mt. Everest, after his retired predecessor, George Everest, who was by this time back in England and never set eyes on the mountain that bears his name.

Cartography is a form of control. “The Great Arc,” John Keay’s account of the surveying operation, argues that the undertaking was both a scientific triumph and an exercise in imperial authority. As the mountains were mapped and labelled, they began to lose their aura of inaccessibility. The Great Survey heralded a golden age of Himalayan exploration and exploitation, in which young European men, monocles firmly in place and teakettles securely lashed to their porters’ sacks, set out in the explorer-conqueror mold of Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook. But even as these exploits eroded the Himalaya’s inscrutability they marked a new phase of mythologization. The mountains became stages for mystical self-discovery and Nietzschean improvement.

Francis Younghusband, the British explorer, author, and spy, wrote that the Himalaya offered an opportunity for “evolving from ourselves beings of a higher order.” George Mallory, who disappeared on Mt. Everest during an ill-fated summit attempt in 1924, is reputed to have said, “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.”

A line runs from such ponderous (and self-aggrandizing) proclamations to more contemporary attitudes. The Beatles went to Rishikesh, India, to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, seeking—as they put it in one of their song titles—“The Inner Light.” (Their Himalayan fantasies were replaced by disillusionment with the Maharishi, memorialized in “Sexy Sadie.”) In 1960, in “Tintin in Tibet,” Hergé’s young hero established his bravery and selflessness in encounters with Buddhist monks and the Yeti; over the following decades, books such as Peter Matthiessen’s “Snow Leopard” and Andrew Harvey’s “A Journey in Ladakh” chronicled personal spiritual pilgrimages. In 1997, Jon Krakauer captured the popular imagination with “Into Thin Air,” an account of eight deaths during a crowded, tragic day on Everest. Although the book was a clear-eyed critique of Himalayan commercialization, its popularity ignited a boom in amateur mountaineering and adventure tourism.

Many millions of people now visit the Himalayan region in a typical year. Some four thousand climbers have attempted to summit Everest in each of the past two decades, a fifty-per-cent increase over the period when Krakauer wrote his book. Satellite phones and charter flights penetrate the formerly inviolable geography, and climbers on Mt. Everest have access to Wi-Fi at seventeen thousand six hundred feet. Himalayan myths endure, but old tropes about self-cultivation through adventure have been repackaged and commodified, marketed to eager consumers desperate for a taste of authenticity. The snow-capped peaks and dramatic glaciers have been reduced to props in a great big human reality show: backdrops for a thousand selfies and boastful social-media feeds—destinations, as the author Jamaica Kincaid puts it, for “people from rich countries in the process of experiencing the world as spectacle.”

Kincaid writes this as she boards a rickety airplane following a long hike in Nepal, near the end of her gardening-and-mountaineering memoir, “Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya.” Originally released in 2005, the book has now been reissued by Picador, partly in response to what her publishers identify as the erasure of people of color in nature writing. One of the most compelling aspects of this slim, elegant narrative is the way Kincaid captures—gently, unpolemically—a similar tendency toward erasure by visitors to the Himalaya: a habit of relegating local people to the background, of accentuating the sublimity of landscape over what Douglas calls “Himalayan voices.”

Kincaid’s journey is inspired by a horticulturalist friend, who invites her to go hunting for seeds of rare flowering plants in Nepal. Botany, as both Kincaid and Douglas explain, has a long history of entanglement with colonialism. Kincaid, who grew up in Antigua, is acutely conscious of this history, even as she hunts for exotic species to decorate her New England garden and struggles to remember the names of her native attendants. (She refers to them instead only by their functions—“Cook” and “Table.”)

Her prose is limpid, her descriptions of nature knowledgeable and often exquisite. But there is a kind of auto-subversion at play in this writing, its abstruseness—the litany of Latin plant names, the author’s frequent evocations of “Eden” and “idylls”—serving as an implicit reminder of all the surrounding reality, the lives and names, that she overlooks. “I was making this trip with the garden in mind,” Kincaid writes, “so everything I saw, I thought, How would this look in the garden?”

It is the fall of 2002; Kincaid is dimly aware that the King of Nepal has dissolved parliament and that it has something to do with the Maoist revolution convulsing the nation. As she drives past the royal palace, she reflects, “I should have been properly interested in that, but I was not at all.” At the airport, she sees soldiers in blue camouflage fatigues, but her thoughts turn quickly away from politics, and again to nature (the blue, she reflects, must be to match the Himalayan sky). Still, evidence of human perturbations mounts. There is a shortage of beer in small mountain towns (the revolutionaries proscribe alcohol), and Kincaid notices red stars and writing on the walls of schools and bridges. A succession of extortionist Maoists show up, demanding payments from Kincaid’s party and subjecting them to political lectures and anti-American tirades. Kincaid begins telling people she’s Canadian.

The tension builds in this way—gradually, subtly, so that a book about gardening improbably takes on the effect of a thriller. Toward the end of the hike, in the village of Donje, Kincaid’s party comes across a police station that has been burned down by Maoists, and a school and a religious building that have been shuttered. Soon a group of men appears, the lapels of their shirts and jackets marked with red stars, bringing with them an air of violence. That night, as Kincaid lies in her sleeping bag listening to booms in the distance that she is told are Maoist bombs, the reality of these mountains is undeniable: in the twenty-first century, the true hazards (and adventures) of the Himalaya emanate not so much from their daunting topography or arduous terrain as from human beings, riven by clashing ideologies and allegiances.

Late at night on June 15, 2020, on a ridge above the swirling waters of the Galwan River in Ladakh, an argument over a border post escalated into a fierce confrontation between members of the 16th Bihar Regiment of the Indian Army and troops from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The skirmish reportedly lasted around seven hours, and at its peak some three hundred men were involved. Because mutually agreed-upon rules barred the use of rearms in the area, the soldiers resorted to rocks and nail-spiked clubs. Twenty people died on the Indian side; the number of Chinese casualties remains unknown. Many of the troops died from hypothermia, or from falling into the icy river below.

The world, more accustomed to India’s conflict with Pakistan, was astonished by news of this clash with the region’s other military heavyweight. For Indians, the incident was an unexpected upsurge in hostilities that had largely receded after the brief but bloody Sino-Indian War of 1962. I grew up on stories of that war. My grandfather’s brother was killed in it—mowed down, according to family lore, by Chinese machine gunners high in the Himalayan glaciers—and my history teacher in high school was a retired Army general who spent time as a prisoner of war in China.

These killings more than half a century later were a dismal indication of how the Himalaya remain crisscrossed by conflict. Most of the history Douglas recounts takes place in the distant past; readers are more likely to come away with images of horse-mounted, spear-wielding warriors than of tanks and nuclear weaponry.

Yet the mountains occupy one of the most politically fraught corners of the world, marked by contested borders and roads, and great-power rivalries that are likely to shape international relations for the rest of the century.

For about three and a half decades, Indians and Pakistanis have been fighting—and dying—on the disputed Siachen Glacier. (At some twenty thousand feet, it is often referred to as “the world’s highest battlefield.”) Pakistani and Afghan troops likewise engage in skirmishes along the mountainous Durand Line, which separates their countries; India and Nepal tussle over twenty-one of their twenty-six adjoining districts; and last year, shortly after the Sino-Indian clashes in Ladakh, China laid claim to a swath of territory in Bhutan. Such disputes take place alongside a number of armed insurrections and mini civil wars: in Kashmir, in Tibet, in the province of Balochistan, and in the Terai region in Nepal. Many of these conflicts are the legacy of vaguely or illogically drawn colonial maps, but have been heightened in recent years by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, Xi Jinping visited Nepal, long considered by New Delhi to be within its sphere of influence, and pledged to build a trans-Himalayan railway that would run from Tibet to the Indian border. Partly in response, the United States encouraged Nepal to accept ve hundred million dollars in grants. A Chinese-government spokesperson, in turn, decried America’s “arrogance, prejudice, selfishness, and narrow-mindedness.”

Such geopolitical tensions are intimately linked with another human scourge: the catastrophe of global warming. According to a recent report, more than a third of Himalayan glaciers may melt by the end of the century, even assuming dramatic reductions in global carbon emissions. Without such reductions, the figure is closer to two-thirds. The region’s rivers, which help sustain nearly two billion people and run through at least sixteen countries, could dry up, and the dwindling glaciers are already prompting a rush for control of ecological resources.

Sunil Amrith, a professor at Harvard University, has noted that some five hundred dams are currently being built or planned in the region. These projects threaten to displace populations, flood ancient homelands, further jeopardize already endangered species, and heighten rivalries between neighbors.

The unfolding ecological catastrophe on what is often called the planet’s third pole receives considerably less attention than similar disasters playing out on the other two poles. A more familiar image of environmental crisis in the Himalaya is of waste on one particular mountain. Krakauer, among others, vividly described discarded oxygen cylinders and piles of human feces tainting the slopes of Mt. Everest. As always, the tallest peak stands in for the entire range. But, as dispiriting as such reports are, they greatly understate the real problem.

In an upcoming book, “The Next Everest” (St. Martin’s), Jim Davidson, an American mountaineer and an author, in some ways follows in the literary trail blazed by Krakauer. He includes now familiar descriptions of a cosmopolitan tribe of experienced and amateur climbers who gather outside tents and in shared kitchens, equipped with G.P.S. devices, satellite phones, and other accoutrements of their trade. When it comes to the environment, though, Davidson is more sanguine than Krakauer, describing recent efforts by governments and civil-society organizations to clear refuse from Everest.

At the same time, his narrative suggests the sheer scale of the remaining challenges. He provides a gripping account of a series of avalanches on Everest on April 25, 2015, which followed a powerful earthquake in Nepal. Davidson was on the mountain that day as an avalanche swept through base camp and killed at least nineteen people, making it the deadliest recorded incident on those slopes. The earthquake also claimed almost nine thousand lives across the rest of the country.

Although Davidson doesn’t make the point, the disaster was likely exacerbated at least in part by climate change: scientists have been warning for years that warmer temperatures, which disproportionately affect higher altitudes, are loosening snowpacks and weakening glaciers, increasing the risk of avalanches. The impact of global climate change is evident even to casual visitors to the region. On my recent trip to Ladakh, I saw brown and black patches in the distant glaciers, the result, I learned, of a substance known as cryoconite—an accumulation of microbes and dust, soot, and other forms of pollution—which oats in from coal plants and forest fires. The patches are like bruises; they are the toll exacted by the growing human presence on these once sacred peaks.

In “Among Flowers,” Kincaid and her hiking party, as they descend from the mountains, pass flowering begonia, poinsettia, and datura, and traverse roaring glacier-fuelled streams. They meet a man who, they later find out, will be stripped and robbed by the revolutionaries, and they end up in a village where they sit naked in a river drinking bottles of beer. Kincaid leaves her group and, seeking to relieve her bladder, heads into the empty hills—“somewhere I thought it would be impossible for me to be seen.”

As Kincaid crouches along the river, exposed, she spots a stretch of blue on the other side of the water. She assumes it is part of the landscape: perhaps where water meets sky. But then the water and sky wave at her, and they cheer, and Kincaid realizes that there are villagers on the opposite bank. Their presence has been concealed by the brilliant Himalayan blue. People are everywhere in these mountains; as travellers should have understood from the start, it is wise not to overlook them.
The following images were shot in the Fall of 2020, en route to Shingo La, a mountain pass on the border between Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. This final series documents the journey through the many towns and settlements on the other end of Atal Tunnel, towards the state of Ladakh, at altitudes up to 16,000 ft.
Digital Photography | 2020
Thanks for the ride, Mom and Dad.
Protect The Himalayas
The Himalayas get their name from a term coined by ancient pilgrims of India, which translates to 'abode of snow'. The aim of this book is to highlight the threats to this precious region, and urge you possibly take action and become aware of the effects of climate change.
This publication was created as part of the Core 3 Topics: Editorial Fall 2021 class at Parsons School of Design.

This project provides visual discourse on The Himalayas with the intention of informing the viewers about climate change, and how it specifically impacts this region.

Words featured originally in National Geographic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

Digital and Film Photographs by Shaina Suri.

Typefaces used in this publication include Erode, designed by Nikhil Ranganathan (Indian Type Foundry) and HK Grotesk (Hanken Design Co.).

Designed and Edited by Shaina Suri

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner without permission. All images and articles are © the artist and authors.

© 2021