Tilicho as highest lake: Establish the facts

Maybe there is something behind Tilicho’s seemingly underserved title that most do not know about. But regardless of it, shouldn’t we at least research well before publishing or claiming something like that?

I was panting heavily, and the walls of my stomach were crumbling down with hunger. I could hear the noise from my insides out loud; it was that quiet. There were barely five people on the trail. I hadn’t had any food in about four hours. The last meal that I had was a very light breakfast, and I had run out of water for the last two hours. The last sign I saw read “Tilicho 35 minutes”, but I felt like I had been walking for more than that and the lake wasn’t even close. I looked at my GPS, which said 5,012 metres above sea level. Tilicho was supposed to be at 4,919 metres. I didn’t know what was going on. But after walking for some time after that, I saw a blue sky merging into a darker blue sky. At least that’s what I thought it was.

Maybe I was hallucinating. It took me a while to realise that it was the lake. The closer I went, the bigger it got, and the differentiation of the lake from the sky became more obvious. I looked at my GPS again, and now it said 5,016 metres. The trail to the lake stood at that elevation apparently and the lake was down at 4,919 metres. That was the highest I had been so far till that date. It was only then that I wondered if Tilicho was the lake situated at the highest elevation in the world. All the hunger disappeared, the tiredness was gone, it was all worth the effort to be at a lake that high. I still had to go find birds; I was there for my thesis.

Tilicho is absolutely spectacular -- breath-taking and picturesque. No matter which adjective one conjures to describe Tilicho, it would still not suffice. However, the one thing that people cannot accurately say about Tilicho is that it is “the highest lake in the world”. The highest lake in the world is not the new one they found near Chame, either. Neither of those are the highest lakes in the world, as both of them are located around 5,000 metres above sea level.

The highest lake in the world is Ojos del Salado at an altitude of 6,390 metres above sea level. Ojos del Salado lies at the border of Chile and Argentina in South America. It is a crater lake with a 100-metre diameter and is anywhere from 5 to 10 metres deep, located at the world’s highest active volcano, which goes by the same name.

This fact raises the next question. Could it be that Tilicho or Kajin is the highest glacial lake in the world? The answer is still no.

The second highest lake in the world was supposed to be Lhagba Pool located in Tibet -- only a few miles north of Mount Everest -- which was supposedly to be at an altitude of 6,368 metres above sea level. It is apparently extinct presently based on satellite images. However, at one point it was the second highest lake in the world.

Tilicho Lake still does not make it to the top based on extinction of the highest glacial lake. The third highest lake in the world, at an altitude of 6,216 metres above sea level is the Changtse Pool in Tibet, which is a glacial lake that runs down from the Changtse Mountain. Changtse Mountain lies slightly north of Mount Everest, and the mountain can actually be seen from Everest base camp. So even among the glacial lakes, Tilicho or Kajin doesn’t make it to the top three list.

Likewise, the fourth highest lake in the world is Acamarachi Pool at 5,950 metres above sea level in Chile. The list goes on. If you were to look at the elevation of the lakes at the highest altitude in the world, the Ridonglabo Lake seems to be the 10th highest lake in the world, which again is near Mount Everest but on the Tibetan side. Its elevation is 5,801 metres above sea level.

So I wonder where we got that Tilicho is the highest lake in the world! The first time I heard about Ojos del Salado, I thought maybe it is the highest volcanic lake and Tilicho is the highest freshwater lake or glacial lake. However, with just a little research, I found out that that was not the case.

But why is our news media and everyone claiming Tilicho or Kajin to be the highest lake in the world without any research? Could it be the largest lake by area at the highest altitude? No, because the largest lake at the highest altitude seems to be Orba Co in Tibet, located at an altitude of 5,200 metres and with an area of 14.8 x 6.6 km whereas Tilicho has an area of 4.0 x 1.4 km. So what is with Tilicho or Kajin being the highest lake in the world? Is it the same as Nepal being the second richest in water resources? Or am I missing something?

Perhaps the superlative label that Tilicho has received is a product of media or popular sensationalism. After all, being able to claim that one’s nation has the highest, largest, biggest, tallest, or most extreme lake or any other such natural formation would do much to fuel nationalist pride and attract visitors, foreign and domestic alike, to spend money in industries that have monetised the process of experiencing these formations.

But to either wrongly or mistakenly make such uninformed claims would be a scientific and informational misstep, as most of us would agree that we should believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. It’s an essential basis for our survival in a world full of things trying to fool and harm us.

Maybe there is something behind Tilicho’s seemingly underserved title that most do not know about. But regardless of it, shouldn’t we at least research well before publishing or claiming something like that?

Ghimire, a PhD student, currently works at the Department of Biological Sciences, North Dakota State University