Eco Minded

  • Eco minded
    Eco minded

The Himalaya, a mountain of rubbish …?

Why do human beings seem bent on destroying what nourishes them ?
Why do climbers seem bent on destroying nature and mountains themselves?

Rubbish in the Himalayas…

My Himalayan season last fall (2016) led me to the Base Camp of Tukuche Peak, in the Hidden Valley. The situation I found there is a disaster : the place looks like a dumping ground, despite there having been, a few years back, a remarkable cleaning expedition – (“Dhaula Guéri”)

So why attempt to clean a Base camp if in a few years time, the amount of garbage is back to its former level, or perhaps even worse ?

I, for one, do not wish to live and camp in a dumping ground, nor to share this experience with my travel and expedition companions. To be direct – and realistic – are we doomed to live in our sh*t? Or are we prepared to consider the real causes of the problem? And, more importantly, act upon them?

Upon returning to the valley, three expeditions later, I found a situation that was even worse than I had imagined. 

Here are three examples drawn from my experience this past fall in very different places. Three, among hundreds of others.

  • 1… At the Mukot Himal, a small peak behind Dhaulagiri, between the Hidden Valley and Dolpo, I was rather surprised to find waste discarded discreetly a short distance from the Base camp. Nothing surprising in Nepal, except tha this summit has just been authorized, and we are merely the third expedition on location!
    The other two were groups organized by a large European Tour Operator, led by UIAGM guides and a Nepali team.
    2… Within the Hidden Valley, the situation is even worse !
    At the Tukuche Base camp – a beautiful peak of nearly 7000m, one has to carefully choose the spot to set up a tent in order not to live in trash. The little stream that provides water to the kitchen is  polluted by waste of various kinds. And this is a place far away from anywhere to be visited only by hikers and climbers.
  • 3… And the third example is a Base camp in the Gangja La area. The trash is collected in a dump and the dump is present on site, not far from the kitchen.
    In this particular case, I must admit to being perplexed, because this is the result of choices made by mountaineering professionals. Almost all the people in charge are Mountain guides certified by UIAGM/IFMGA, and have climbed in the Alps.

Knowledge and awareness

In my opinion, two levers can be used to change things for the better: knowledge and awareness.

While trekking and on expeditions, it’s with the cooking team that the process needs to start, as the Cook is at the root of the management and sorting of waste. Then, the rest of the members of the expedition, the Nepalese and the foreigners, without forgetting the cultural abyss that separates them.

We westerners dream of an environment of idealized purity, a Himalaya and mountains unspoilt.
White as snow…

But what do we actually do to keep it this way?
We simply delegate this demand of ours to the Nepalese teams, who have neither the same perception nor the same values, nor even the same level of awareness. And this goes for the reality of their daily lives as well.
The Nepalese mostly see the mountains as a source of income, a way to improve their standard of living. This delegation of responsibility should be accompanied by some control. But we know, deep in our hearts, that this control would require difficult, concrete, actions on our part, which would be costly in terms of time and potentially conflictual.
Is it too much to ask of westerners on vacations – outrageously affluent (of which I am one) – and self-centered around their trekking or climbing activities?

Considering current realities, the answer is « yes » !

Our dream of a Himalaya without pollution will remain a fantasy as long as we won’t have taken concrete steps aiming to modify our own behaviors at the heart of our treks and expeditions themselves. We’ll have to accept to live on ever larger mountains of trash while camping and trekking.
One day, perhaps, when the situation will be deemed unacceptable by us, we will align our actions with our words…

Rubbish in Himalaya. The time for action is now!

For me, this time has come. We are setting up a small Nepalese travel agency (Himalayan Travellers) dedicated tot the organization of expeditions. This agency will be ethical in its choices and its operations, as well as in its daily reality, because that is the foundation on which we can build long term actions.

With Bishal Rai, the Sirdar who is by my side in the organization of my expeditions, this is what we have decided :
« We leave only our footprints behind us ».
On the ground: during the approach, at Base camp and in the advanced camps, all our travels will be guided by this sole requirement.

No piece of garbage will be left on location.
Everything is to be brought back to the starting point. Moreover, everyone is involved, and committed to permanent mutual oversight. For us, the rationale behind  « rubbish pits » makes no ecological sense. It’s an invitation to discard our own waste, and this waste stays on location, accumulates over the years. The situation worsens inexorably as years pass, and the water used for cooking becomes polluted.

How can we reach this objective ?

Very simply put, even without being a believer, everyone can follow the Buddhist teachings to every moment of our life as high altitude travellers.

For the Nepalese, who are almost all Buddhists in our teams, the aim is to base our actions on the teachings of His Holiness Gyalwa Drukpa, the highest authority of the Drukpa Kagyu School, and a man of unequalled humanity.

Why him, in particular?
Because his teachings and especially his actions, perfectly illustrate the relationship we need to establish with the environment.

In December 2010, His Holiness Gyalwa Drukpa was awarded the Green Hero Award by the United Nations, for his « Eco Pad Yatra » initiative during which hundreds of volunteers undertook a long trek with him to pick up all non-biodegradable waste (in particular plastics).

For him, this trek is an extremely important part of Buddhist practice, as he explained in a interview for Vairocana #12. “Simply because the Buddhist approach is nothing but to keep the environment clean. And when we speak about the environment, there are three or four versions of the environment. The inner version of environment is of course the mind, the concept and how you look at things, and this has to be positive and very optimistic. The other one is outer environment, which we can see out there: the outer environment needs to be clean, clean in the sense of keeping it healthy. Since plastic and non-biodegradable items are not healthy for the environment; and it is scientifically proven so, definitely not a religious nor a superficial belief, but scientifically confirmed. So all this junk like the non-biodegradable garbage is really killing our environment. In the name of Bodhicitta, in the name of Bodhisattva’s activities, in the name of compassion, in the name of love, what do we have to do? We have to act immediately! We should not wait for this problem to become overwhelmingly too big that it cannot be resolved easily. We all know that non-biodegradable garbage is appearing everywhere and killing nature. We have to do something right now!I am just setting an example so that at least 1,000 people will follow, and then the 1000 people will be setting an example, then a million people will follow. This trend should be contagious and has to be spreading everywhere. This is my main motivation.”

And what about us, as climbers and trekkers ?
Is it possible to transform our treks and expeditions into « Eco Pad Yatra » ? All along the way, at each moment of our lives as climbers and trekkers ?

How do we do this?

In Nepal, it all starts with the Nepalese team members, and in particular the kitchen crew, because they are the ones collecting the trash, mostly food packaging and cans, to which the daily refuse from trekkers and climbers must me added, though they are less voluminous.

The first step consists of a formal meeting witht the entire team to share buddhist teachings, followed by concrete steps, daily and personal to each of us, which involve everyone.

1/ On the trail, everyone picks up a piece of paper or plastic he or she comes upon, and puts it in a bag as a contribution to the places we have travelled by. The rubbish is then collected each day at the campsite and added to our own. And in such a polluted place, the aim is to pick up at least one piece of non biodegradable waste per person.

2/ Upon arriving at the camp, the first objective is to clean it up, all together, to live in a clean and healthy environment. This with particular care for the selection of the kitchen tent. A member of the Nepalese team is designated for the overall management of the cleanliness of the camp site. He leaves last, after having checked that the instructions have been followed. He “works” directly in tandem with one of the travellers, and this team changes each day. Bishal will coordinate the whole, directly with me.

3/ At the Base camp, the head Cook has the responsibility of sorting all waste from the onset, with separate locations for organic waste, incinerable waste, and 3 separate bags: one for plastics, one for glass and the third for tin cans. These three bags will be transported throughout the return trip back to the valley.

Upon leaving the Base camp, there should be no trace of our stay. It must be impeccable. The ashes of the incinerator will be the most discrete possible. The Sirdar and Cook will leave last, or someone clearly identified and designated by them.

4/ Higher up, all the waste is sorted directly and brought back down to Base camp. Each team manages its own waste , until the final sorting into the receptacles in the kitchen at Base camp. It would be helpful to plan for well identified small bags, as we did for Denali.

For the toilet, a special place is built for each camp and carefully covered over upon leaving. Perhaps we can even use a small tent, specifically for high camps… No traces of urine here and there, nor bamboo left on location, on the camp, or on the route.

Fixed ropes are also waste. 

It is therefore mandatory that we bring them back down to Base camp.
I have decided to use the absolute minimum of these, which obviously helps not to generate waste (for example at Manaslu in 2015, we used only 30 meters of fixed rope). Fixed ropes are systematically removed to contribute to the quality of future climbs. And they are brought back down (and split between the team members or given/sold at the closest village).

But of course, in real life, it’s much more complicated. How are we going to do this Spring at Himlung Himal?
Or in 2018 on Makalu?

In case of conflict, the goal will be to be the most discrete possible and try to initiate a dialogue with the other Nepalese teams on location, explaining the Buddhist foundation of our choice for a clean mountain.
But unfortunately,  between the supporters of alpine technique and teams who use fixed ropes, the conflict may be inevitable. Everyone can remember the anecdote at Everest, where a lynching was just barely avoided…

In conclusion

The objective is quite straightforward: nothing can be left on the mountain. 
Everything must be brought back down and recycled as best as can be done.

A real social contract links all members of the expedition, Nepalese and Westerners, with specific tasks and controls associated with these :

  • The expedition leader is the sole person responsible for the sound management of waste, in close collaboration with the Sirdar and the Cook.
  • All team members are involved in a Buddhist practice to maintina the qualtiy and cleanliness of the environment, by simple every day gestures which provide pleasure in accordance with the Dharma.
  • The western members also participate in checking the state of the different camps, especially at higher altitudes.

The overarching goal is a behavior change, to definitively put an end to the dumping of waste in expeditions and treks, and to progressively carry out a natural clean-up of all camps, leading to an improvement in the mountains in general.

Rubbish in Himalaya… And for us, Western climbers, not all of whom are Buddhists ?

Simply put, we must be exemplary in our everyday acts, to assist the Nepalese in their practice and to generate an unconditional support for this approach.

And I am making this a condition for participation in an expedition I organize, since the clean behaviour in the Himalayas ultimately rests with the expedition leader (whether or not he/she is a professional).

Not everything is covered in this first article. I just wished to lay the foundation for the concrete steps we will be implementing during our next expedition, the Himlung traverse.

Paulo_ March 5th, 2017, in La Grave.

This article can also be found in wy website.