Himalaya—The Next Twenty-Five Years
Trevor Braham, Alpine Club
WRITING IN LES ALPES IN 1934, the Swiss cartographer and alpine chronicler Marcel Kurz remarked that it did not seem unreasonable to apply the word congested when referring to the launching of three expeditions to the Karakoram in that year. His comment is a good illustration of how unconsciously we have lapsed into an era in which the normal annual incursion into the Karakoram could be up to 65 climbing expeditions comprising nearly 700 climbers, with Nepal accounting for a further 100 expeditions, and India opening its doors to over 150. On two or three of the “popular” 8000-meter peaks, there is sometimes an overlap of ten expeditions in a single season. These numbers do not take into account the hundreds of tourists and trekkers who add their demands to the diminishing resources of the areas through which they pass. At the peak of the 1990 summer season, there were 62 separate groups, including 30 climbing parties, present on the Baltoro Glacier. Large parties tend to predominate over small ones in the proportion of about 8 to 1.
There are still some of us around who, having seen these regions fifty years ago in an almost pristine state, are deeply disturbed by some of the changes observed today. The current generation cannot know what they have never seen, and therefore they tend to be less sensitive. But because the resources are finite and the demand will continue to grow, they too perhaps 25 years hence might begin to feel as we do now. What is the outlook as we move toward the 21st century?
Whilst the ease of approach to the Himalaya and Karakoram has naturally encouraged the promotion of climbing expeditions and tourism, the practice has spread in a disorderly fashion and without adequate thought for the future. That the relative extravagance and wealth displayed by climbers and tourists in their contact with impoverished communities has not engendered their resentment or envy speaks volumes for their congenial temperament and their traditions of hospitality. But the increasing passage of groups possessing an alien culture and background, and imposing demands upon a fragile environment, can only become the source of temptation and act as a corrupting influence leading to the sort of materialistic values that plague our present-day society.
There does not seem to be much distinction in these matters between climbers and tourists. Without wishing to generalize, there does appear to be a majority of climbers who are uncaring, especially amongst those whose climbing is guided by the principle ad majoram mei gloriam. Their passage through the country is regarded merely as a means to an end and the preservation of the playground upon which their pastime must depend is generally overlooked. Personal ambition and deep commitment to the climb tend to become alienating factors. Human nature being what it is, lesser mortals adopt the methods of their model and the mountain environment loses its primary importance. The tourist’s approach is different only in emphasis—a pilgrimage made to mountains of fame and splendor made possible only by the provision of as many home comforts as can be acquired from a population eager to exchange their heritage and slender resources for the prospect of immediate wealth.
Perhaps more than most, Switzerland, one of Europe’s backward regions a century ago, remains in the forefront of tourism promotion. By intelligent management and controlled development, the country somehow has achieved a mixture of economic benefit together with the preservation of its natural assets. Here, with a land area about a quarter of that of Nepal, it is still possible to experience even in alpine foothills an environment closely resembling that described by the pioneers. Yet, roads everywhere have facilitated access to the high mountains: and pathways, sometimes with steps chiselled into steep rock, enable tourists to visit high alpine huts. The mountains have been “tamed.” Since mountaineering is an irrational activity, one would expect to find illogicalities between what is ethically acceptable and what is not. We are content to use a stairway drilled into rock on upper alpine tracks, while we reject the climber’s use of a drill on a rock face, though we accept his use of holds cut with an axe on steep ice. Individual temperament and moral values are highly subjective, but a dividing line does clearly exist, and when it is breached, it is instantly recognized. What needs to be eradicated is a state of mind that allows the carrying of a filled container into the mountains and its deliberate abandonment at the spot where it is emptied. Mountain Wilderness, formed in Biella, Italy in 1987, one of a few international groups dedicated to keeping the world’s mountains pure, sponsored a “Clean K2” expedition in 1990. They recovered, amongst other waste, 30,000 empty tins and containers and over 110 pounds of mercury-filled batteries, the latter having contaminated drinking water.
The time is now ripe for consideration of the problem as a whole. Since some of the blame for existing conditions in many Himalayan regions must rest squarely on the shoulders of local authorities, certain short-term correctives need to be examined by them: 1). Regionwise there has to be a clear evaluation of the maximum strain that can be safely imposed without disturbing the local balance in regard to food, fuel, manpower and transport. 2). Access should be widened to include many “closed” areas, spreading the weight of the incursion away from overburdened areas. 3). In order to discourage excessive size, a charge-scale should be devised with the highest royalty rate payable by parties of 12 and over, a lower one for parties up to six and a greatly reduced rate for groups not exceeding four persons. 4). Purchase of food and fuel in the interior should be disallowed or rationed in accordance with local supply-and-demand factors. Above all, no local wood supplies should be used for fuel. 5). Permission once granted should be treated as a firm contract, with both sides bound by the terms, and a code of practice clearly spelled out. Under the contract, facilities must include freedom from officialdom and procrastination on the expedition’s arrival, including unrestricted customs entry for food and equipment. Expedition accounts are filled with frustrations caused by petty bureaucracy. Instances exist of refusal to permit walkie-talkie sets which in the high mountains of Europe are used as standard safety equipment.
There are two long-term suggestions: 1). Liaison officers should pass a training course and acquire a certificate of competence. Individually, they should be experienced and tough travellers, with the authority to enforce the contractual code of conduct and rules concerning fuel consumption and waste disposal. They should, via the porter sirdar, exercise full power to fix penalties for violation of statutory pay scales and to impose on the spot punishment for theft or misconduct. 2). Since certain locations, e.g. the upper Baltoro Glacier, Everest, Nanga Parbat, will always exercise a strong appeal, it is necessary to consider the setting up of “facilities.” The German, Austrian, Italian, French and Swiss Alps are lavishly provided with Club huts, suitably sited to meet the needs of climbers. A similar type of basic construction may be required at selected points designated to accommodate 150 to 200 persons, employing local materials and labor. Facilities should include cooking range, toilets, an incinerator for waste disposal, with solar panels to provide energy for cooking, heating and lighting. This would create seasonal employment for certain fixed numbers of local people and would reduce the need for marches up and down glacial valleys by vast armies of porters. By fixing a realistic tariff each facility could become a self-financing enterprise.
It would be idle to suppose that pious words alone could generate a change of heart amongst all the interests concerned. As long as the prospect of an annual growth rate remains undiminished, a series of measures or statutory codes, carefully thought through, will need to be implemented. It is within the scope of local governments to devise a range of incentives and disincentives that, without restricting in any way their understandable eagerness to promote tourism, would halt the environmental degradation now threatening some of the world’s most unique mountains.
Who will be the guardians?