A bivouac in Nepal: Like something from another planet19. February 2020
Like a spaceship that just happened to land here, in the midst of nowhere – that’s how surreal the sight of the David Lama bivouac is. And it is surreal, in a way. Built by people who came to Nepal from another world in 2019 in order to set up the first emergency bivouac in the Himalayas. They achieved the impossible at an altitude of 5080 metres.
Trekking tourism is booming in this region, close to the Tibetan border, slightly below the mountain passage between Rolwaling and the renowned Khumbu Valley (Trashi Labtsa Pass), which is part of the Everest mountain range. Not all of the mountain climbers are trying to find their way to Mount Everest, the highest point on earth (8848 m). More and more visitors are consciously choosing routes away from the tourist masses in order to discover the beauty and isolation of the landscape on the path network of the Great Himalaya Trail.
Ralf Ohnmacht, Co-founder of the bivouac project, is familiar with Rolwaling Valley in the northeast of Nepal. And he is also familiar with the problems of the inhabitants of regions that are visited less frequently by tourists. We spoke to the 42-year old Austrian about the project’s implementation as well as the difficulties they encountered with the logistics, setup and installation of the bivouac under adverse conditions.
Ralf Ohnmacht (42) comes from a family of architects and engineers. It comes as no surprise then that the native of Innsbruck chose to study engineering after completing secondary school. Following stints as an engineering consultant for “Doctors without Borders” and at Voigt+Wipp Industrial Research, Ohnmacht now manages an engineering firm for mechanical and process engineering. The engineer plans and builds so-called Polybiwaks made of aluminium on the side. His father Helmut developed the octagonal bivouac capsules almost 50 years ago and was given the State Award for Design in 1971. The bivouacs are now used across the globe, with eight of these emergency shelters located in the Antarctic and ten in the Alps.
“The highest bivouac you’ve ever built”
Mr Ohnmacht, what led to the idea of building an emergency bivouac in the Himalayas?
Ralf Ohnmacht: The trigger was an earthquake that hit the Rolwaling region very hard in 2015. A lot of spontaneous aid projects emerged in the following two years to rebuild homes, roads and infrastructure. In doing so, the difficulty of crossing the Trashi Labtsa Pass caught the attention of two Tyrolean helpers, Josef Einwaller and Stephan Keck.
And the two of them gave you a call?
Ralf Ohnmacht: Yes, Josef Einwaller phoned me and said: “We need a bivouac – the highest bivouac you’ve ever built!“ That was in spring 2017.
And what happened next?
Ralf Ohnmacht: We quickly agreed that we wanted to carry out the expedition as a private aid project, and so Josef, Stephan and I sat down together and started planning.
You selected Rolwaling Valley as your location, far removed from mass tourism – why was that?
Ralf Ohnmacht: Both the weather conditions and the rocky landscape itself are extreme. There aren’t any safe overnight lodging options, and there is a high risk of rockfall. Rolwaling Valley is also one of the areas that are most affected by earthquakes in the Himalayas. All of this means that people lose their lives again and again while crossing the pass. These people are mostly local mountain guides and porters who commute from the poorer Rolwaling region to the more affluent Khumbu region in order to work or trade goods. By building the emergency shelter we specifically wanted to increase the safety of the people in the Rolwaling region while simultaneously encouraging tourism and trade in order to improve the livelihood of the local inhabitants.
What type of bivouac did you decide on?
Ralf Ohnmacht: Due to the location at over 500 metres and the tremendous logistical challenges we opted for a scaled-down version of the Polybiwak with a material-saving basic construction, a simplified wall structure and a pared-down interior. Initially, we also omitted beds and insulation, which will be added during the next expedition.
Based on a modular system, the bivouac consists of light, prefabricated individual elements. The impeccable structure is built on a MERO space frame on any type of terrain. Bivouacs of various sizes and functions are assembled on-site within a short space of time, minimising the cost of flights and installation. Polybiwaks have proven themselves as research stations and shelters in the ice deserts of the Antarctic and as measurement stations and (emergency) bivouacs in the Alps for over 50 years. Upon completion, the bivouac in Rolwaling Valley will offer enough space for 15 people to sleep in. It is extremely wind and weather resistant due to its aerodynamic shape and its high-quality stainless steel and UV-resistant materials and sealants.
Second time lucky
What needs to be taken into account when planning such an expedition?
Ralf Ohnmacht: There is an unbelievable amount of detail. On the one hand, there are the questions – where exactly should the emergency shelter be located? What type of bivouac are we using? And how are we financing it all? On the other hand, there are specific logistical preparations: How do we get the materials to an altitude of 5080 meters? What approvals do we need? What can be transported by helicopter, what needs to be carried on foot? And so on. We ultimately failed in 2018 due to the sheer multitude of all these organisational questions. We therefore temporarily stored the bivouac at 4000 metres and flew home with unfinished business.
What was your objective?
Ralf Ohnmacht: We wanted to return one year later and complete our mission with the support of a helicopter.
A 15-strong team returned to Kathmandu in October 2019, a year after the failed attempt. Due to the large number of tools and equipment, the team initially chartered a bus in Kathmandu, with which they travelled to Naa Valley near the Tibetan border during a 12-hour journey from the Nepalese capital. The trek then marched by foot for a week from an altitude of 1300 metres to the bivouac’s setup point in Rolwaling Valley. The team, which was intermittently accompanied by up to 25 Nepalese porters, had to overcome almost 4000 metres in altitude. The stages were kept deliberately short to prevent altitude sickness, allowing the climbers to gradually adapt to the altitude. The base camps also had less than 300 to 400 metres of difference in altitude each day.
Carrying all that luggage on foot for a week is no mean feat!
Ralf Ohnmacht: That’s right – especially since the routes were extremely difficult in part. The first three days just took us across glacial moraines, ice and snow. Then it turned into alternating ice ruts and via ferratas. Matters were further complicated by the fact that the helicopter was unable to simply fly the bivouac parts up to the pass.
Ralf Ohnmacht: It’s impossible due to the altitude. A helicopter that can transport parts weighing around 800 kilogrammes in the lowlands of the Alps can only transport a maximum of 150 kilogrammes with a longline at altitudes of over 5000 metres due to safety reasons. One large toolkit and a bit of material already take up an entire flight.
How did you solve this?
Ralf Ohnmacht: The Nepalese porters carried the three-metre long aluminium parts for the bivouac across country. We only needed the helicopter for the final metres in altitude.
And then came the setup …
Ralf Ohnmacht: Yes, that was another feat of strength. We set up the bivouac on a rock between two glaciers within two days, with steep drops on both sides. The area was quite exposed, but it all went off without a hitch in the end.
That included using fischer’s FIS SB High Speed 390 S for installation purposes?
Ralf Ohnmacht: The fast-curing mortar was ideal for the extreme temperatures and conditions in the Himalayas. The fact that the superbond mortar also has an ETA approval for cracked concrete and seismic loads also put our minds at ease. We are extremely grateful to fischer for providing excellent advice and for sponsoring 24 cartridges. After all, we want the bivouac to remain standing for another 50 years.
How exactly was the Polybiwak anchored to the rock?
Ralf Ohnmacht: The bivouac stands on six “legs” with adjustable base plates, each of which was anchored into the rock with four M20 threaded rods at a depth of around 30 cm. For the drilling, we used two battery-operated drill hammers and a portable generator to charge the batteries. We didn’t require any grid sleeves due to the homogenous and compact rock. On behalf of my colleagues in the organisation I would once again like to thank the Trierer Werkzeughandel GmbH company in Trier, who along with Christian Klemens not only created the technical plan for the fixings but also sponsored multiple tools and machines. Frank Flohe, a TWH employee, was also a member of the expedition.
The Great Himalaya Trail
The Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) traverses the Nepalese part of the high mountain region. Mountain climbers cross up to 29 passes over 1700 kilometres, the highest of which lies at an altitude of 6200 metres. The best time for the tour is between February and July and from mid-September to mid-December. Those who want to discover the entire GHT should plan on taking between 150 to 170 days.