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Augusto Gansser 1910-2012


Pioneering Himalayan geologist and explorer who carried out the first detailed geological observations in the Central Himalaya of northern India

Augusto Gansser, geologist and explorer, carried out the first detailed geological observations in the Central Himalaya of northern India during the Swiss Himalayan expedition of 1936 led by Professor Arnold Heim. Heim and Gansser mapped and studied the geology of the Garhwal Himalaya north of Nainital and made important new observations of the stratigraphy, structure and inverted metamorphism. Among the most important was the discovery of the Main Central Thrust, the huge ductile shear zone with its associated zone of inverted metamorphic isograds that carries the entire metamorphic sequence of the Greater Himalaya southward on top of unmetamorphosed sedimentary rocks of the Lesser Himalaya. Albert Heim had seen the recently discovered Moine Thrust zone of Scotland by the great survey geologists Peach and Horne, and both he and Gansser had interpreted many Alpine folds and thrusts in terms of great fold-nappes and thrust sheets.

Toward the end of their expedition, leaving Heim in India to continue his studies, Gansser crossed the border into Tibet, then completely restricted and forbidden by the authorities, in disguise with a porter. Beneath his Tibetan chuba or cloak, he concealed his camera, hammer and notebook. He made the crucial discovery of ophiolitic rocks (oceanic crust and mantle rocks) that mark the actual zone of collision in the Jungbwa-Amlang-la region along the border. Gansser’s descriptions of the Indus-Yarlung Tsangpo suture zone ophiolites and exotic blocks were probably the most important of the geological results but he also managed to complete the kora, the circumambulation of the holy Mount Kailas and the source of the Indus, Yarlung-Tsangpo and Sutlej rivers. During this trek he described the horizontally layered conglomerates of the Indus molasse for the first time. During his travels Augusto Gansser made wonderful geological field sketches and detailed observations that later adorn his books. Heim described Gansser as “an excellent companion of extraordinary scientific aptitude, an indefatigable worker and a first class Alpinist”. Their geological results of this expedition were published in Central Himalaya: geological observations of the Swiss expedition 1936 and a popular travel book The Throne of the Gods.

Following this expedition, Gansser worked for Shell Oil in Columbia, where he visited the Roraima massif on the border with Venezuela, and then in Iran for eight years where he made early studies of the famous ‘coloured mélange’ in the Zagros suture zone and the Infra-Cambrian salt domes. His structural mapping was instrumental is the discovery of oil in the Qom region of Iran and one of his wells resulted in a huge blowout fire that took three months to put out. In 1958 he returned to academic life becoming the Professor of Geology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. His knowledge of the Himalaya, the Andes and Iran made his lectures extremely popular and he became renowned for his dexterity in being able to draw being intricately detailed cross-sections on the blackboard with one hand whilst simultaneously writing with the other hand. During his period at ETH Gansser wrote his classic book Geology of the Himalayas (1964), a book that is still widely quoted to this day.

Twenty-seven years after his first Himalayan studies Augusto Gansser returned to the Himalaya, this time to Bhutan, a small kingdom in the eastern Himalaya at the personal invitation of the King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. Between 1963 and 1977 he made five expeditions to Bhutan trekking throughout that beautiful country. His work resulted in publication of The Geology of the Bhutan Himalaya (1983), another geological classic, beautifully illustrated with his unique field sketches. Gansser retired as Professor Emeritus in 1977 but continued to travel, making two tours of Tibet in 1980 and 1985 at the invitation of Deng Xiaoping. He made several trips to Ladakh and Zanskar with young research students from Zurich. He received many awards, including the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society and the Patrons Medal of the Royal Geographical Society (1968). In 1983 he was given the honorary title “Baba Himalaya – Father of the Himalayas” by Peshawar University, Pakistan. He continued to give talks at Himalayan Workshop meetings and was always held in the highest regard and respect by his fellow geologists.

Augusto Gansser was not only a brilliant gifted geologist and explorer he was fascinated by the local culture, peoples and landscapes everywhere he went. He co-authored a magnificent book Himalaya with Blanche Olschak and Emil Bührer, and another Bhutan, also with Blanche Olshak. Augusto Gansser will be remembered with great fondness for his unlimited enthusiasm, his extraordinary pioneering exploration of the Central Himalaya and his great contribution to understanding many fundamental aspects of Himalayan geology firmly rooted in fieldwork.

Mike Searle