History’s Major Snowfall

Every time there is a snowfall, the media chases the weatherman asking about the dates when it snowed more last time. Even elders are routinely saying that it is snowing much less than the past. An English naturalist, geologist and writer, Richard Lydekker (1849 – 1915), has recorded the last major snowfall of Kashmir almost 140 years ago. He was appointed for a geological survey of Kashmir and Ladakh in 1874. The snowfall, he has recorded, was so huge that most of the wildlife perished

Porter convoy just before the top of the pass: Honigmann crossed the Burzil Pass with his expedition group at the beginning of October 1911 at the time of the first snows.© Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich, photo: Otto Honigmann

Among the inhabitants of the Kashmir Himalaya, the winter and spring of 1877-78 will long be memorable on account of the enormous quantity of snow, which then fell on their mountains and valleys, and still more on account of the grievous famine, which followed this excessive snowfall. So excessive indeed was the snowfall, that no tradition or record exists even among the oldest inhabitants of anything approaching to such a fall. I have therefore thought that a short account of this abnormal snowfall, and of the destruction inflicted by it on the indigenous animal life, might be thought not unworthy of a place in the records of the Asiatic Society, and have accordingly put together the following notes:

Early in the month of October 1877, snow commenced to fall in the valley and mountains of Kashmir, and from that time up to May 1878, there seems to have been an almost incessant snow-fall on the higher mountains and valleys; the inhabitants have indeed informed me that in places it frequently snowed without intermission for upwards of ten days at a time.

It is extremely difficult to obtain from the natives any correct estimate to the amount of snow, which fell in any place; but at Dras, which has an elevation of about 10,000 feet, I estimated the snowfall from the native account as having been from 80 to 40 feet thick on the level.

The effects of thin enormous snowfall are to be seen throughout the country. At Dras, the well-built travellers’ bungalow, which had stood, I believe, some thirty years was entirely crushed down by the weight of the mow, which fell on it. In almost every village in the neighbouring mountains more or less of the log-houses have likewise fallen; while at Gulmarg and Sonamarg, where no attempt was made to remove the snow, almost of the huts of the European visitors have been utterly broken down by the snow.

Resting place before the Burzil Pass: From Kashmir, the old caravan route over the Burzil Pass (4,100 m) is the only way to Gilgit, the regional centre of today’s Northern Areas of Pakistan. From the Pass, the north-west route goes down into the Astor Valley and onward to the Indus and Gilgit Rivers, while to the north-east there is a route across the Deosai Plateau to Skardu, Baltistan’s principal town. The photograph shows the BurzilChowki Bungalow in the first snow. © Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich, photo: Otto Honigmann

In the higher mountains, whole hillsides have been denuded of vegetation and soil by the enormous avalanches which have swept down them, leaving vast gaps in the primaeval forests and choking the valleys below with the debris of rocks and trees.

As an instance of the amount of snow, which must have fallen on the higher levels, we will take the Zogi-pas, leading from Kashmir to Drass, which has an elevation of 11,800 feet. I crossed this place early in August last, and I then found that the whole of the ravine leading up to the pass from the Kashmir side was still filled with Snow, which I estimated in placer to be at least 150 feet thick. The road at that time was carried over the snow up the middle of the ravine; the true road which runs along one bank of the ravine being still entirely concealed by snow. It seemed to me quite impossible that even half the amount of snow then remaining could be melted during the summer.

Unlike the twenty-first century, the movement on the routes connecting Kashmir with outside wold would not stop because of snow. In this photograph, people are seen crossing Zoji La Pass in 1931, a photograph by Claude Rupert Trench Wilmot

I heard subsequently from a traveller who crossed the pass on the 5th of September, that the road was then just beginning to get clear from snow, and that some of his loads were carried along it, while others were taken over the snow in the ravine.

In ordinary seasons this road on the Zogi-pass is clear from snow some time during the month of June; if we refer to page 223 of Mr Drew’s Jammoo and Kashmir Territories, we shall find that in speaking of the pass, he says, “About the beginning of June the snow-bed breaks up, and the ravine is no longer passable.”

It is thus apparent that the road across the Zogi-la was not clear of snow during the past summer until three months later than it is in normal seasons, while the ravine early in September was still filled with snow. I crossed the same pass in August 1874, and at that time there was not the slightest trace of snow to be seen anywhere on the pass, or in the ravine leading up to it.

As another instance of the great snow-fall, I will take the valley leading from the town of Dras up to the pass separating that place from the valley of the Kishenganga river. About the middle of August, almost the whole of the first-mentioned valley, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, was completely choked with snow, which in places was at least 200 feet in thickness. In the same district all passes over 13,000 feet were still deep in snow at the same season of the year. In ordinary seasons the passes in this district which are not more than15, 000 feet in height completely cleared of snow at the beginning of August, except in a few sheltered ravines. During last summer, however, it was quite impossible, that the snow could have even melted on the passes.

Traces of this great snow-fall were even to be observed in the outer hills in September, since at the end of that month, I saw a patch of snow resting in a hollow of the Haji Pir ridge above Uri, which is only a little over 9,000 feet in height. The Thakadar of this place told me that he had never before seen snow there after the beginning of June.

It is almost unnecessary to point out, that if a snow-fall similar to the above were to be of constant occurrence in the Himalaya, the permanent snowline would lie at a much lower level than it does at present, and that the glaciers would greatly increase in size, and descend much lower into the valleys.

Richard Lydekker, the British expert who saw the devastation of major snow in 1877.

In conclusion, it remains to notice the destruction of animal life caused by this unusual snowfall. In the upper Wardwan valley I was told by some European travellers that they had several times seen numbers of Ibex embedded in the snow; in one place upwards of sixty heads were counted, and in another the number of carcases was estimated by my informant as little short of one hundred. I myself twice saw some fifteen carcases of small Ibex embedded in the snow-drifts of the Tilail valley.

The most convincing proof, however, of the havoc caused among the wild animals by the great snowfall, is the fact that scarcely any Ibex were seen during last summer, in those portions of the Wardwan and Tilail valleys, which are ordinarily considered as sure finds. Near saline springs in the latter valley, Ibex are always to be found in the later summer, but this year I only heard of one solitary buck, probably the sole survivor of a herd, having been seen at these salt-licks. The native shikaris say that almost all the Ibex have either been killed by the mow, or have migrated into Skardo where the snowfall was less.

Jammu and Kashmir Police rescue team returning from Zojila Pass in November 2019. Pic: Facebook

The Red-Bear (Ursus isabellinus) was also far less numerous during the past summer than in ordinary seasons, and the shikaris say that numbers of them have perished, owing t o their winter quarters having been snowed up so long that the occupants perished from hunger.

The same explanation will probably account for the fact that in the higher regions I found many of the marmot burrows deserted.

Much has been said lately as to the destruction inflicted on the game of the Kashmir Himalaya by the rifle of the European sportsmen, but I think that the destruction caused by the snow of the past winter has far exceeded any slaughter which would be inflicted by sportsmen during a period of at least five or six years.


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