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Desecration of the Diamir Base Camp

Desecration of the Diamir Base Camp

Sigi Hupfauer, Charles S. Houston and Christian Bonington

NINETY-FIVEYEARS AGO, A.F. Mummery, arguably the founder of modem mountaineering, crossed the Mazeno Pass from the Rudiamir Pal valley and was probably the first European to penetrate its upper reaches. He described it in a letter to his wife: “Uninhabited, but beautiful in the extreme: glorious trees (mostly birch and pine); thickets of wild roses, heaps of flowers and undergrowth.”

We were traveling in Mummery’s footsteps, a small group making a filmed history of mountaineering for British television. The valley is now populated by the Diamiri people, with terraced fields clinging to the hillsides and goats and cattle grazing in the high pastures. There are the problems of deforestation and over-grazing, but the solutions are complex and ones which we climbers are not in a position to solve directly.

But then we came to the site of Base Camp at the foot of the Diamir Face of Nanga Parbat. It is on an alpine meadow at the side of the glacier, a grassy oasis below the huge face so rich in climbing history. A few boulders jut out of the grass and even the sparse stone shelters blend comfortably into the magnificent scene. The first discordant note was an abandoned tent and then, as we came closer, the full extent of the rubbish became evident. No effort had been made to clear any of the empty tins, plastic containers and blood-filled test tubes (presumably the product of scientific research). Looking more closely, we quickly found it was a huge rubbish dump with discarded tins and packaging scattered across the grass and piled into the gullies at the side and under the boulders, a noisome mess!

Nine expeditions visited the Diamir valley this summer. Some had left their calling cards—empty boxes marked with the name and address of Dr. Karl Herrligkoffer, another stenciled with the insignia of the Swiss-Italian expedition. There was the Letter of Regulations addressed to the Norwegian Nanga Parbat expedition (it’s a pity they didn’t bother to observe the strictures in it on the clearance of rubbish), and a badge of a Bulgarian expedition. Other packaging was marked in Korean, German, French and Italian.

A few charred piles showed where someone had lit a fire and left the debris, but most of the refuse had just been dumped. We cleared, crushed, burnt and buried ten barrelsful but there was much more to do. We felt a mixture of anger, sorrow and complete mystification why any of our fellow climbers, who presumably love the beauty and challenge of the mountains, could show such casual, thoughtless disregard.

It isn’t much trouble to keep a camp tidy. Ideally rubbish should be taken out at the end of the trip in sacks or empty drums in which equipment or food was packed. Even if there are no arrangements for dumping rubbish, it can be buried at the campsite. It takes such a very small effort, compared with what it takes to get there and climb a route.

It is so little to ask, so little to expect, and yet we fear that the mess we found below the Diamir Face is mirrored in every popular Base Camp throughout the Himalaya. It has been argued that rubbish is merely a cosmetic eyesore, that it doesn’t damage the environment.

We disagree.

The thoughtless abandonment of rubbish in the wilderness is endemic misuse of the environment. It is also something we can do something about. We don’t believe that this is a responsibility to pass on to the governments of host countries or something that should be cured by imposed penalties, although sadly, if we, the climbers, cannot solve the problem, this is the course that will almost certainly be adopted.

We believe that we, the mountaineers and trekkers, have one more chance to attack the problem ourselves. If you left your mess in the mountains this year, or perhaps left it to your local helpers to clear up without supervision, we ask you to think of the consequences. Don’t just keep your patch tidy—if you go to the Diamir Base Camp, or any of the many places that have been left in a mess, spend a day tidying up. If you see others leaving litter, talk to them and, if necessary, expose them in the climbing press.

There should be no need for formal clean-up expeditions. Those of us who visit the mountains must clear the mess ourselves. If every expedition gave a part of the day to disposing of any mess left in a campsite, we’d quickly get the mountains cleared and, in doing so, show the concern for our environment so necessary if we are to preserve the mountain wilderness areas of the world.

The most important issue facing us today is not so much the ethics of siege or alpine-style expeditions, large or small, fast or slow, or the number of treks. It is the impact we make on the environment, the traces we leave. Most of us have been guilty in the past, however careful we might have been, of leaving the abandoned fixed rope or high camp, or failing to supervise kitchen staff when leaving Base Camp. This is something we must address today and in the future as the mountains become under ever increasing pressure.

Please join us in halting and correcting the thoughtless desecration of the places we love.