Some Reflections


IN THE EDITORIAL OF THE Himalayan Journal Volume 50, the editor quoted Kalidas saying that the Himalaya was 'The great measuring rod of the earth'. In this and succeeding generations of adverse environmental impacts on that once pristine range, may I say that the Himalaya will be measuring us in our response to the environmental assault on it.

I would like to submit two propositions at the start. The first is that the Himalaya has known the impact of two cultures in the climbing community. The psyche of one is in war conquest and chauvinism, and this is hardly favourable for the new quest for kindness to Himalayan environments. The psyche of the other is in discovery, learning, respect and even worship, the more appropriate culture for Himalayan environmentalists. My second proposition is that you cannot be a bird of passage to a few summits, and yet be involved in sustainable Himalayan eco-systems even in one sub-catchment or one approach route. Climbers, trekkers, and their organisations need to make clear choices within their capabilities of what they can and should do, even as birds of passage.

A century ago, a famous Alpine mountaineer, Sir Leslie Stephen posed one of the most important questions in climbing history and literature. In The Playground of Europe he asked: 'Where does Mt. Blanc end, and where do I begin?' Neither climber nor metaphysician has succeeded in answering this question. Stephen himself attempted a good answer to that question no sooner had he posed it, by saying the mountain 'is a part of the great machinery', of the 'whole universe, from the stars and the planets to the mountains and the insects which creep about their roots__ a network of forces eternally acting and reacting upon each other'. 'And' he added, 'a healthy man should not be deaf to those most solemn and melancholy voices which speak through the wildest part of nature.' Although Leslie Stephen climbed and wrote before the age of a threatened ecology upon us now, mark his instinctive understanding of the heart of mountain ecology in the key phrases, 'a whole universe' from stars to insects; the roots of vegetation and other life; 'a network of forces eternally acting and reacting upon each other.' He told us then not to be deaf to the voices of nature. Many of us have been deaf so far.

A century after Leslie Stephen, a century after the wilderness and ecology movement has itself risen like a range of new awareness in the minds of men all over the earth; how much do we in the climbing community know, or even care to know, about that Himalayan universe, those roots of Himalayan ecology, that network of forces operating these last 60 or 70 milion years since the Earth's greatest range of mountains began its own turbulent ascent.

When the Himalayan Club was founded in 1928, its founders, the heirs of Leslie Stephen, gave themselves a wide range of objectives to comprehened that Himalayan universe, to understand that network of forces. So the Club's objectives have been to 'encourage travel and exploration, and to extend knowledge of the Himalayan through science, art, literature and sport.' Those broad objectives and interests lead now to a better understanding of Himalayan ecology through a variety of sciences, especially mountain ecology, Himalayan botany and geology, and climate studies.

Those Himalayan Club objectives were born in an age of pre-hardware and pre-hard nosed Alpine style and big face climbing, and before xenophobic big expedition summit flag-sticking and PR. It was then an age born out of the Romantic awakening between Rousseau and Ruskin, — out of the botanical explorations in the nineteenth century of Dr Joseph Hooker (a friend of Darwin), and Kingdon Ward in the Eastern Himalaya 'to wonder and to worship'; out of the pioneering courageous explorations in the nineteenth century in the terra incognita of Central Asia, of the early Indian surveyors like Nain Singh and Kinthup; out of the fascinating art explorations of Aurel Stein in Tibet and W. G. Archer in Kangra; out of the magnificent climbing explorations of the early expeditions to and from Everest; and later of Shipton and Tilman in the Central Himalaya and the Karakoram. It was a time when climbers climbed with books, and sensitivity, and science. They were in Younghusband's terms, adventures in 'The Spirit of Man', an inner and an outer exploration; the inner being no less than the outer. More recently, Harish Kapadia has set an example of more amiable explorations with a wise Indian ethos.

Now about the second and later culture. Between 1953 and 1993 (and earlier with the German Kriegs on Kanchenjunga and Nanga Parbat) one wonders if that spirit, that wider seeking was dead and dated. In this time, Everest's summit has been trodden by hundreds, and its face polluted and desecrated as if it was not 'Chomolungma', the Goddess Mother of Mountains, and the highest in the sacred Himalaya, but left like some Third World tourist junkyard. For a fee, an ego trip, Everest had to be won, and 30 people now reach its summit in a day. They have left 20 tons of garbage for the gods! They do not ask, where Everest ends, and where they begin. The beginning of both is the base camp, and the end of both is the summit. That is all. There has been an obsession with Everest and other eight thousanders, a passion for achievement measured in mere height-above-sea-level. The obsession with Everest these 30 years has been surprisingly confined to the 1953 route, now a Picadilly; the summum bonum of its aspirations; though some others have tried other routes, other faces, and other high mountains. It was an age of unpleasant national chauvinism, especially in some large international expeditions. It was, typically, the age of Axt, leaving a fellow climber, Bahuguna to hang and freeze to death, without even a look back. If the Alps were once the Playground of Europe, The Himalaya has sadly become the chauvinist battleground of high Asia, as much for expeditions, as for armies. All summed up in G. O. Dyhrenfurth's absurd, C'est la guerre, (It is war), as if a Himalayan expedition was like the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava! How much better to hear Messner in his 'search for silence, harmony, and beauty.'

Now, belatedly, the conscience of climbers is touched by the extent of Himalayan environment pollution. This past generation seems to have forgotten Geoffrey Winthrop Young, when he described climbing 'as the cleanest, least advertising, and most comradely of sports.' A singular manifestation of recent awarness is the formation of the new Himalayan Environment Trust (HET), with which is associated many distinguished names. They have chosen the Gangotri area for specific work. What are the major issues involved?

The first is how long will the climbing community, including trekkers, continue to be mere birds of passage? Will they confine themselves only to cleaning up their own mess in their camps ? Will they continue to be deaf to Stephen's mountain universe, its 'network of forces eternally acting and reacting on each other' ? Or will they involve themselves long-term, as Hillary did in such exemplary fashion in Sola Khumbu for many years, in a transformation of its education and culture? Hillary was no bird of passage, no glory-seeker. We admire him for that as much as his first Everest ascent.

It is one thing for HET to undertake ad hoc jobs like, 'painting ecology wisdom on rocks' (Ashoka-like, and better than hoardings); establishing toilets, garbage clearance dumps, and forward sites for trekkers and climbers to reduce both in-flow and dumping of materials. These may be good by themselves, but they don't add upto a sufficient sustainability impact, the very foundation of sustainable eco-systems, once man's adverse impact is felt.

If our basic concern is to help make sustainable Himalayan eco-systems, besides cleaning up and hygiene, three other basic aspects constitute the heart of sustainability.

To infect the climbing youth and to initiate steps to include a basic, on-the-ground study of Himalayan ecology on mountain training courses, spreading to all climbing schools in the Himalayan region and abroad. If there is to be an appreciation of the Himalayan 'universe' even in a given region, if the 'roots' of the eco-systems in nutrient, water, energy flows, and nature's 'network of forces' is to be explored and understood; it needs to begin with the young to be sustainable over a long climbing/trekking life. Vision has to go beyond rope, ice axe, piton, and jumar. Even travel and tourist agencies have an important role in Nature Tourism; not the high-elevation urban slums that Darjeeling, Nainital and Mussourie have become. Nature tourism has been shown to be economically viable elsewhere.

Such a course could begin with the fascinating geological story of the 'Birth of the Himalaya', since Tibet was once the sea of Tethys, and the subsequent uplift of the Himalaya from the tectonic pressure of Gondwana and the Eurasian continent. It could be followed by a lecture on the latest knowledge of the macro monsoon climate phenomenon, and its latest Monex researches; and some micro-climatic studies with the phenomenon of the 'warming of valleys' in recent decades. Climate and weather have always been an important concern of climbers.

Then, in the course of the daily march to base camp and advance base camp, it would be first-hand education in Himalayan ecology if trainees could be exposed to some main Himalayan eco-systems; the forest eco-system and the role of forests in nature, with their major species, especially as water and life conservation systems; the human eco-systems around agriculture and agro-pastoral life; and what may be called the glacier eco-system of rock, snow and ice, the frontiers of life in the Himalaya, with the play of gigantic forces in the behaviour of glaciers and avalanches. For example, how many of us know that glaciers in continental interior regions, eg. the Alps and the Himalaya, continue to retreat, but maritime glaciers, eg. Alaska and Scandinavia show advances with precipitation increases. There are many aspects of nature's 'network of forces' to be explored — the relationships of forests and rainfall, of deforestation, soil erosion and water conservation, the catastrophic drying of hill springs, the retreat of glaciers, apart from beautiful aspects of flora and fauna. All this becomes real and live in the field. It is an experience of a wider appreciation of the mountain world, which surely was at the heart of climbing once.

The second sustainability area includes a series of eco-development measures, like afforestation, biomass production for fodder and fuel, clean drinking water, wind and solar energy. Experience in the last decade or two has shown that these tasks cannot be made sustainable by outside agencies; they need the active and primary participation of village communities. For this, local self-help groups need to be formed and sustained. Even the technologies of smokeless chulhas, biogas and solar cookers, mini hydel schemes, wind and solar energy will need to be managed and sustained by local communities. All this is far easier said than done. It involves years of grass-roots work and local institution-building; or else no sustainability. And without sustainability, what efforts and costs are justified in just limited clean-up and hygiene? The climbing community have to realistically address themselves to these problems, especially in the context of their own capabilities, time, and resources. This will be crucial to success or failure.

The third area is sponsored research for greater knowledge at the relevant micro/regional level. For example, studies in micro-climate and ecological changes; in medium-altitude flora and fauna above 2500 m in the Central Himalaya; the human impact on the ecology of the Gangotri area; and the ecological mapping of the Gangotri area beyond Harsil. The Himalaya (outside Nepal) has been so under researched, and there is a considerable lack of hard data and knowledge in regional areas. For example, not more than 15 of the thousands of glaciers in the Himalayan region have been researched; as compared with 300 in Switzerland; and 1500 kms of the range have less than a dozen higher altitude climate study stations. Then we may understand something of Stephen's 'network of forces.'

Down such a road of mountain ecology, as an educational and life-sustaining activity complementary to mountain climbing, can we come to know, as Leslie Stephen reminded us a century ago, where 'I begin', even after the expedition is over. Long after the early Romantics, Rousseau, Wordsworth and Ruskin, to whom 'we owe' said G. W. Young earlier, 'the articulate revelation of the beauty of mountains'; the outstanding poet of our century, T. S. Eliot now tells us, 'The spirit of man must quicken to the creation.' Which means more than cleaning up our own rubbish. Eco-development of one Himalayan sub-catchment can be more challenging than any peak, involving at least a decade in time. Both go together as moral and scientific obligations to that majestic world which uplifts our spirit. Both in climbing and in mountain ecology, like George B. Schaller in Stones of Silence, we need to find the poetry and the science of mountains within ourselves, before we scale summits, or give lip service to mountain environments. Internalisation is essential.

What is meant by that word 'internalisation' ? I can think of no simpler explanation than Sage Sanat Kumar's to Sage Narada in the Chandyoga Upanishad; when he said, 'He who draws life from himself.' In the Himalayan context, it is the Himalayan environment. Not some Ego photographed on a summit with a piece of chauvinist cloth, not some vain publicity cackle on returning. As Mallory said long ago of Everest, it is only ourselves that we conquer. Dyhrenfurth's la guerre is alien and meaningless in the Himalaya.

As one who has gone from an old rucksack and boots to Himalayan eco-development projects over the last twenty years, may I bring home the message with three examples. First, some extracts from Red Indian Chief Seattle to the President of the USA in 1855 when he was addressing the white man wanting to buy his land, his words may perhaps echo in the ears of a modern climber.

'Every part of the earth is sacred to my people.....We know that the white man does not understand our ways....for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on,' Does it touch a vulnerable chord in us? And then a resounding reminder: 'All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth.'

Second, Ian McHarg, author of Design With Nature, has sharply asked if man is 'a planetary disease or a prospective steward'. Every Himalayan climber should ask himself the same question, from the stage when he plans a trek or expedition. What can he do to be 'prospective steward', not a 'planetary disease' ? What can he do to at least minimise his impact, and treat the Himalayan earth as his mother, if not the symbolic Abode of the Gods? Remember that for every one climber, a hundred thousand others in the region feel that way about the Himalaya, and have done so for more than 2000 years.

Third, this generation has lived in a time of the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth. Can we give ourselves 'Limits' to the size and number of expeditions, to the concentration of too many on a few of the highest peaks, to the caravan of stores we carry and leave behind, to minimising the non-biodegradable, to bringing in our own fuel and not stealing from nature's slow reproduction of plants in high places? Can we restore the balance between spirit and material? Then only will Leslie Stephen's T begin, however our Mt. Blanc ends. Then, we shall not be deaf to those 'solemn voices which speak through the wildest part of Nature.' We shall then be good stewards.


Some reflections and suggestions for the climbers in the Himalayan environment. The article is based on the author's talk delivered at the meeting of the Himalayan Environment Trust at New Delhi.




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