AT THE BEGINNING OF 1997 some leaders of the association; Mountain Wilderness International met in Delhi with the top officials of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, to discuss the environmental problems created by the overcrowding of Indian Mountains due to the growing number of mountaineers and trekkers coming from India as well as from abroad. A substantial identity of views and a convergence on operative blueprints emerged from that meeting. In particular both parties agreed on the importance of the Liaison Officer's role in any initiative aiming at the protection of the mountain environment. It was, therefore, considered essential to give Liaison Officers, specific theoretical and practical training. In this regard Mountain Wilderness International declared their readiness to cooperate - for a trial period of three years - towards organizing and managing of special Courses of Environmental Mountaineering for aspiring Liaison Officers. In the view of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation such courses were meant to be the first step towards the establishment of a proper Liaison Officers Guild. Only trainees who have attended such courses offered by Mountain Wilderness (or similar ones) would be admitted to the Guild.
From 1997 to 1999 IMF and Mountain Wilderness have organised three courses of 15 days each. Two of these were held in the Manali and Lahaul valleys and the third one in the Gangotri area (Garhwal). All together, during the three years, Mountain Wilderness sent to India 19 highly qualified instructors; they were joined by five Indian instructors belonging to the Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports of Manali and the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering of Uttarkashi.
Certificates of Attendance (with grades : excellent, very good, good and adequate) were handed out to 60 trainees coming from all parts of India. During the courses, lessons were held on the most advanced climbing techniques on rock, snow and ice, with special attention for methods of anchorage and belaying, removal of fixed ropes and rescue operations in difficult circumstances. Apart from practical exercises trainees were given several theoretical lessons on history of mountaineering, geography and geology of Asian mountain ranges, general and applied ecology, fauna of the Himalaya, forest cover and deforestation, characteristics of glaciers, avalanches, mountaineering ethics, high altitude medicine, organisation of environment-friendly expeditions, tasks and role of the Liaison Officer in the field of environment. Following is the text of the conclusive lecture delivered by the director of the three Courses, Dr Carlo Alberto Pinelli, who is devoted to the figure of a Liaison Officer, his tasks in the protection of the environment, as well as his ethical-cultural background.
We will discuss the practical application of some principles of ecology and environmentalism. We will talk about real situations you are likely to face in the future as Liaison Officers and, primarily, about the standard of behaviour that must be respected by those who venture beyond the last inhabited villages into the mountain areas of your country.
We must, therefore, begin by talking about the persons who venture into such areas and are active in the mountains. They can be divided into three main categories :
Let's start with the expeditions. As you certainly know, the rules and regulations of your country require that no trace be left on the mountains by those who pass through. To this end each mountaineering party is required to pay 300 US dollars for the Environmental Protection Fund, in addition to the standard royalties. The rules and regulations also specify that expeditions must not damage the forest cover or wild animals, neither directly nor indirectly. The control of expedition members' behaviour is entrusted by law to the Liaison Officers. Theoretically, a Liaison Officer who at de-briefing signs a false statement intending to favour or to damage members of the group he was responsible for, will face strict punishment. As far as I am aware, however, this has happened very rarely. Maybe the Indian Liaison Officers are particularly meticulous; or perhaps the IMF does not carry out systematic controls in the field.
So much for the rules. But in practice, which are the real circumstances they refer to?
An 'expedition' can be of varying types. In order to simplify the subject we shall divide them into two main categories: the first being the traditional heavy expedition, with hundreds of porters, that plan a long stay on the mountain. Such expeditions often require many high altitude porters to carry their tents and food to the upper slopes. Consequently, the planned route is bound to be filled with fixed ropes in order to facilitate the often repeated descents and ascents of porters and climbers - a coming and going that cannot be avoided with this type of technique. These ropes are often left in place when the time comes to move down. Commercial expeditions belong to this kind. In India such expeditions are not very frequent, as the only 8000 m peak on its territory is the difficult Kangchenjunga.
On the other hand, there are the light expeditions in so-called 'alpine style', which use techniques similar to those employed in the Alps: no fixed ropes, very few camps, no high altitude porters and obviously no oxygen bottles. These parties are often made up of only two people, and almost never more than four.
Between these two extremes there is a vast range of intermediate expeditions that vary according to the peak selected and the technical difficulty of the climb. It is obvious that potentially the light parties represent a lesser pollution hazard than the heavy expeditions. This is why we have been asking the Himalayan nations to favour light parties by charging them smaller royalties. But all considered, it is not the number but the quality of the climbers, their maturity, and the soundness of their conviction that make the difference.
The ecological problems an expedition faces and must solve can be divided into two basic groups :
The first deals with the problems incurred during the approach march. At this point of the journey there is the question of what to do with the solid waste produced. Should it be left at the stage camps along the way and picked up on the return trip, or should it be carried up to the base camp, only to be brought down again? The answer depends on many factors that should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Waste should not be temporarily abandoned, if there is a risk that animals may wallow in the heap, or that other parties, noticing our leftovers, may feel justified to do likewise. Serious problems are also caused by the behaviour of the porters. Of course, such problems grow in proportion with their number. A first, and not minor problem is created by the organisation of the designated communal latrine areas. The most frequently used stage camps can often be detected from afar by the stench they produce. It is the Liaison Officer's duty to ensure that the porters use a single designated place, preferably down wind and distant from the camp for their bodily needs; and to suggest that they bury the faeces.
Far more serious, however, is the damage caused by the gathering of firewood, mainly in the arid valleys of Ladakh, Spiti, Nubra, etc. Expeditions are obliged by law to supply the porters with sufficient and efficient petrol stoves and normally they abide by this rule. But this practice is unpopular with the porters, who try to avoid it. The stove is fine for boiling tea and cooking chapatis and lentils, but it does not produce heat and light that make the evening more pleasant. So each passing expedition pulls hundreds of branches and shrubs from the mountain slopes to light fires. Few people realise that even a small shrub takes dozens of years to grow at those altitudes where the climate is arid. I have witnessed the uprooting of rhododendron bushes that, although not even a metre high, were probably hundreds of years old. There is also the fact that when deforestation reaches a certain limit, it causes irreversible soil degradation and leads to dusty, stony deserts. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible for a foreigner to fight against this habit. The porters pay no attention, and when one turns round they continue their vandalism unchecked. I believe that only a very strong-minded and strict Liaison Officer would be able to stop them, probably by convincing them at the very beginning of the trek, to bring wood from their villages. Even better, expeditions should be compelled to hire an extra porter or two to carry a sufficient load of firewood from afar.
Once base camp is reached the problems become simpler in a sense, because they depend entirely on the goodwill of the expedition members. And here, too, the Liaison Officer's scrupulous attention is essential. It is his responsibility to ensure that every day the empty tins that are to be taken down to the valley are flattened with stones, thus taking up less space. If the tins pile up one day after another, there will never be enough time to flatten them properly at the last minute. The Liaison Officer must also make a note of the length of all ropes being carried up, so that he may later, at the end of the expedition, ensure that the same amount was brought back to base camp. In theory, the same attention should be given to food tins. All tins that left base camp should return there empty. However, this is a difficult task that requires a particularly hard-headed, stubborn Liaison Officer.
The ideal situation is to have a Liaison Officer able to move confidently on the mountain and to leave base camp to check what is happening higher up, without putting any strain on the expeditions' organisation, but rather making its task easier. The Liaison Officer will enjoy himself more and will also be in a position to better control the ecological behaviour of the climbers.
From the beginning the Liaison Officer should be fully aware of the problems he is likely to face and he should have direct experience of the technical, environmental, meteorological, psychological and physiological difficulties that may occur during a stay at high altitude. This is the only way for him to fulfil his task. If the Liaison Officer has no skill at all on rock and ice and finds himself for the first time at high altitude, he is bound to become a prisoner of the base camp. He will not be able to move around freely and he may be afraid to face even minor hazards. He will find it difficult to know what is going on further up; he will spend long and boring days of inactivity in cold and unfriendly surroundings, and he will eventually develop a chronic condition of irritation or passive resignation. But, if he can rely on a sound previous mountaineering experience, the boredom will revert into amusement and personal contentment. In this case the Liaison Officer can contribute directly to the success of the ascent, thus winning the respect of his foreign companions also from a technical mountaineering point of view.
Moreover, the Liaison Officer must be aware of the fact that mountaineers arriving in India often have no previous experience and are psychologically ill-prepared to interact with a millennary culture so different from theirs. The Liaison Officer can do much to help them get to know the mountain not only physically, but also spiritually, by introducing them to the cultural heritage of the people living in the hills. For this reason I think it is not an overstatement to assert that the task of a good Liaison Officer is similar to a cultural mission. Let me explain this point more in detail.
Mountains make up one fifth of the world's landmass, and almost 80 percent of the world's fresh water supply originates in mountain areas. Such numbers should suffice to stress the importance of mountain chains. But furthermore, many high peaks still have a special spiritual, religious or symbolic significance. Everywhere in the world, mountains have struck man's imagination from time immemorial as a sign of the perennial strength and the unconquerable power of nature. Their immense roots are hidden deep in the earth, their peaks are lost in the clouds, from their sides sprouts the water that allows the communities to survive and grow their food. Also we modern people have inherited from our ancestors the idea that no matter what man may try to do, he will never be able to upset the balance of mountains nor to dent their stability. Mankind - so the reasoning goes - belongs to the realm of the transient, mountains to that of the perennial. Things, though, are not quite like this. We must keep in mind that mountains have a specially fragile ecosystem and that it is quite easy to extinguish the voice of the mountains. The message which they convey is to approach them with respect, without behaving like an arrogant conqueror, but more like a worshipping guest. It is a serious mistake to consider the mountains simply as a geographical accident or a venue for sports and fun, or even an immense storage supplying fresh water, wood, minerals, game, clean air and so on. Of course, mountains do all that, but they are something more and different. We must consider them also as the 'Temples' of the Spirit: the ultimate sites where those who feel the urge to do so, may re-discover - through the stark mirror of the wilderness - their own true and innermost self, and face the natural elements in a fair and friendly battle. We should not rob our children and our children's children of the chance to enjoy and learn from the mountains: their rugged beauty, their diverse wildlife, their rare ecosystems, and their fascinating cultures.
So here we meet again the concept of culture, and not by chance, as culture is a key word we should never forget when speaking of mountains. For, the mountains are a treasure-box of culture in the real and full sense of the word. Although the people living there have often had to face very extreme conditions, they have been able to adapt with astonishing ingenuity to the challenge of adverse surroundings, evolving forms of material culture, traditions and a social setup of great interest and uniqueness. In fact, there is a lot for us to learn from these women and men who at first sight may seem rough and ignorant. We should have the greatest respect for them, if for no other reason, because their ancestors knew how to move about and survive in the high valleys long before we, the mountaineers, made our entry into history. On the other hand, if we wish to endow mountaineering with a lasting quality, such quality can only belong to the horizon of culture. The main significance of mountaineering is to be found in its creative way of reflecting the current culture of each historical period through the rites and codes of a sport activity. And also - though in a minor way - in its ability to evolve its own somewhat autonomous cultural path, suggesting philosophical and existential ideas that are ahead of times. Maybe it is just because of this cultural and variegated background that present-day mountaineering has so many different meanings. Mountaineering is more than athletic climbing, enjoying panoramic vistas and experiencing the wilderness. It also implies the free acceptance of challenge, risk and hardship as a kind of interior in itiation. It has been said that distant views of mountains can speak of adventure, but they seldom more than hint at the joys and efforts that lie in waiting. He who sets out for the top of a mountain must be prepared for the entire gamut of nature: exciting landscapes, breathtaking sunsets, gentle breeze, and also biting cold, exhaustion, and high altitude sickness. Mountaineering is played out in an environment indifferent to human needs, 'superhuman' as it were. Not everyone is willing to pay the price (in flesh and soul) for its rich physical and spiritual rewards.
Personally, I am convinced that alpinism loses a lot of its significance if you don't consider and practice it also as a manner of establishing an authentic, direct and deeply involving relationship with the wild open spaces of nature. A way of discovering a forgotten part of yourself, thanks to the encounter with the rhythms, the laws, the silence, the loneliness, the stress, the dangers of the mountain. It would indeed be very sad should some of us concentrate our efforts only on the technical aspects and problems of modern mountaineering, thus losing sight of this basic truth.
A good Liaison Officer should be able to convey all these thoughts to the foreign members who have been entrusted to him. But beware! This does not mean that the friendship likely to arise between him and the other members of the expedition should turn into a kind of complicity. There are rules and regulations to be respected, particularly concerning the environmental pollution. Such rules must be enforced without the slightest embarrassment. Should members refuse to follow the regulations or dodge them, the Liaison Officer has the duty to mention the facts in his final report, despite any friendly feelings he may have for them. On the other hand, whenever a difficulty or embarrassing situation arises, he must be able to interpret the true purpose of each rule without clinging to its formal interpretation.
Above all, what matters is the example of perfect ecological behaviour. In the eyes of local people it is the Liaison Officer who enjoys high prestige, more than the foreigners of an expedition. He must show himself to be scrupulously caring, paying great attention to the environment by not dropping even a tissue or an empty cigarette packet. Remember this: grand results start from small beginnings and minor details.
It is clear that the most difficult problem to solve is that of the fixed ropes, the reason being that often it is really hazardous and tiring to remove them. But this is an unavoidable environmental requirement. At the beginning of the trip every climber is ready to swear that he will leave the mountain as clean as he found it. However, on the expedition's return to base camp everyone is exhausted, drained of all nervous energy and dreaming of getting home as quickly as possible: so the removal of ropes suddenly becomes too difficult a task, almost an impossibility. There has been a snowfall, or the weather is getting worse, or nobody feels like going up again, or the porters are about to arrive from the valley, and it's getting late, and it's impossible to change the flight reservations... any reason is a good excuse.
Now listen to me carefully: The abandonment of fixed ropes can be avoided only if their removal is planned in advance and a full week is then spent to accomplish this task. The Liaison Officer must demand this week to be included in the expedition's schedule, and he must not allow it to be spent for other activities or set aside due to changes, or shortened because of bad weather, etc. Basically, the removal of all traces of the groups' presence and activity must be considered an ethical priority, on a par with the conquest of the peak itself. We are aware that this is a deeply revolutionary statement which many will find hard to accept. But it will be possible to safeguard the soul of the Himalayan mountains only when the international mountaineering community will have fully absorbed the idea that the conquest of a peak at the expense of its integrity is a reason for shame, not for glory.
Let us now briefly mention the trekkers. Normally, their return route is different from their outward trip, which does not happen with mountaineering expeditions. Trekkers generally prefer to follow itineraries that give them the possibility of seeing new places every day. You can't blame them! However, this raises the problem of solid refuse disposal, as the trekkers would have to carry empty tins throughout the journey. In this case, the temptation to bury the refuse under a rock is strong, but it must absolutely be resisted. Garbage damages the environment's quality even if it is not visible. The problem here can be solved by sending porters back to the valley as the trek progresses. Food loads will become lighter day by day, and in the process there will be a surplus of porters. Those being sent back could be asked to take the refuse with them to the valley. Of course, there is no guarantee that they will not throw their unpleasant load into the first crevasse they meet on the way. It is up to the sirdar to ensure that this does not happen.
Now let us suppose for a moment that all problems concerning the behaviour of expeditions are definitely solved thanks to a wise combination of individual ecological awareness and strict rules enforced by the Liaison Officers. May we then consider the case as closed? Unfortunately not. There still remains the problem arising out of the sheer quantity of human presence. In other words, the carrying capacity of each valley, of each moraine, of each glacier. Even if the single visitor keeps a perfect behaviour, there still is a limit to the human presence, beyond which any natural environment starts losing its quality and begins to degrade, both from a scientific-ecological point of view and that of the visitor's expectations. In more than one valley of the Karakorams and the Himalaya this limit has already been reached and trespassed.
I have to give here some unpleasant but clarifying examples: we know for sure that during the four summer months about 30,000 persons cross the Baltoro glacier up and down, in order to reach the base camps of K2, Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums and so on. We also know that a healthy adult produces about one pound of solid refuse every day. This means that each camp-site along the approaching march is (so to speak) 'enriched' every day with 50 lbs of faeces, and their disintegration becomes slower with increasing altitude. In 1990 the Everest Environmental Expedition re-opened a pit-toilet used during a 1987 expedition at the Nepalese base camp, and did not see any decomposition in three years! Two years later the same expedition tested water at the Rongbuk monastery and at the Everest North base camp. They found many coliform bacteria, an indicator that water above 4000 meters in that valley is deeply contaminated with human organic waste.
So what can we do? There seems to be no solution to the problem other than a drastic reduction of human presence. The sophisticated solutions found at some of the National Parks in the United States, where each visitor carries with him a special bag for his excreta, are obviously not practicable in Europe or Asia. A partial solution to the problem has been attempted in the Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, where the management of facilities has been entrusted to a co-operative of Sherpas. This model, however, can hardly be adopted in other areas.
Just a word now on the pilgrims - the third category of persons frequenting the mountain areas. The pilgrim's behaviour is obviously well beyond the direct control of Liaison Officers or mountaineers, both foreigners and Indian. Nevertheless, it is useful to mention the problem here. If such behaviour, whatever traditional roots it may have, causes a real threat to the natural environment, the matter should be discussed by all those who have at heart the integrity of mountains, their ecological balance, their beauty, in order to find some possible solution. None of us lives and works in strictly defined and limited sectors. In one way or another, we all have the possibility to communicate with other people - if only we wish to do so - and voice our opinions. One point is out of the question: the most frequented valleys through which the pilgrims make their way, show clear signs of deforestation. As a matter of fact, since time immemorial pilgrims use the vegetation alongside their path to light fires, for cooking and against the cold and darkness. A solution must be found.
The preservation of the deep significance of our mountain environment, its integrity, its voice, is a moral imperative that cannot be postponed or solved through abstract wishful thinking or academic chats. We must act. And we must act right now, with courage and far-sighted attitude. We must not be afraid to make sharp choices: quite soon it will be too late. It is exactly in this perspective that our European experience can be of some use here. We can help the countries which include parts of the Himalaya inside their boundaries, to avoid the mistakes our grandfathers and fathers made in the Alps. We strongly believe that the development of mountaineering and adventure tourism in Indian hills and valleys must not be a copy of the European, often disastrous, models. Indian mountaineering communities must find and follow their original and autonomous path, fully aware of the spiritual values that - from time immemorial - Indian civilisation placed in the mountains. We hope that in this crucial ecological context India will give the rest of the world a great example, showing and proving that mountaineering experiences, environmental consciousness, religion and poetry are branches of the same tree, sprout from the same roots. These roots are the primeval relationship between man and nature.
Any damage to the mountain environment entails a loss of psychological enrichment for those who reach these distant valleys. Consequently, in the long run, an excessive number of man-made structures, equipped panoramic sites, access roads and so on, may result in a lesser appeal to those who spend their everyday life in highly built-up areas. Using your holiday, your energy and your money to go to far away places you had expected to be totally different, and then find yourself in an environment that offers you (only set into a new scenic frame) the same predictable set of emotions and experiences which the hills of your home country give you in surfeit, may create disappointment, frustration and a sense of having been let down.
The great Himalayan range should remain a sort of ideal 'Shangri La' for those who feel the urge of trekking through its valleys, over its passes and glaciers; a place where one can still live a direct, authentic relationship with wild nature, even though it may sometimes be difficult, tiresome and risky: an unpolluted nature offering extreme loneliness and fascinating silence.
The attempt to transform the Himalayan hills into exotic copies of the Swiss Alps or of the Austrian Tyrol is tantamount to a cultural surrender. It would be a real shame to degrade these untamed mountains into a sort of nice Disneyland; and I think that in the medium or long term such an approach would be unwise also from a point of view of economic advantages, at least as far as the flow of foreign currency is concerned.
In particular we have serious misgivings about development plans that foresee the building, outside the main villages in the lower valleys, of permanent mountain huts like those in the Alps. We are obviously in favour of initiatives that aim at increasing the chances of city dwellers to meet the mountain wilderness, but only if these approaches are truly friendly and do not end up in the destruction of the significance of the wilderness itself. To build permanent premises at high altitude or to open up access roads for tourists means to kill outright the bold message of the mountain. On those who seek a true encounter with unpolluted nature the presence of a hut may have a worse effect than a slope full of waste. In fact, the waste can be collected and removed, whereas a hut, once built, is going to stay forever.
In the middle of last century, when the first rudimentary huts were being mooted in the Alps, a British mountaineer with an undoubted prophetic foresight was brave enough to write: 'Similar constructions, thanks to which ordinary curiosity can comfortably manage to overlook grand scenery, betray their very purpose. Be assured that if comfort moves two steps towards the picturesque, the picturesque withdraws the same number of steps!' Today we have learned to call the picturesque more correctly wilderness. It is a matter of defining the meaning of the word, but we totally agree with the sense of this forgotten message.
It should be borne in mind, however, that there are two objective differences between the Alps (and the other mountain ranges in Europe) and the Himalaya, which do not justify but at least make the network of buildings in Europe understandable. The first difference is the altitude. In the Alps the highest peaks do not reach 5000 m, and most of them are well under 4000. This means that all these peaks can be climbed by single parties without the need of a period of acclimatisation. This will never be possible in the Himalaya for physiological reasons. The second difference is the distance of the mountains from urban settlements in the surrounding plains. The inhabitants of all cities and townships of North Italy, of South Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia, of France and Eastern Spain, may reach the mountain valleys in two or three hours easy drive on comfortable highways; from there, a two-three hour walk will take them to the selected hut. Therefore, the present-day huts - although in excess and anyway a damage to the integrity of the environment - offer a chance to thousands of outdoor fans to perform their climbs during the week-end. In the Himalayas it would be necessary to foresee at least a holiday of two weeks, and this holiday is bound to take the shape of a small expedition. In a similar situation, what could be the use of huts? They would not even save the expense of carrying the tents, because they are necessary anyway to equip the various high altitude camps.
Unfortunately, it is a well ingrained habit of our species to believe that the perfection of nature can always be improved upon and that man is called to perform such task. To allow us to share its magic gifts, nature does not need our help! If at all, our arrogant interventions can only make her shy away further from us.
I would like to close this talk with a few general considerations that I believe to be of no lesser importance than the above mentioned suggestions. My considerations are based on the conviction that no initiative aimed at safeguarding the natural environment can aspire to real and lasting success unless it is undertaken in harmony with our own 'inner spiritual environment', and in some way reflects its qualities. Before setting out to clean up woods, moraines, riverbeds and base camps, we must learn to free ourselves of the refuse cluttering up our minds and hearts. This not merely for an abstract moral imperative, but because otherwise every effort we make towards the exterior would be spoiled by an internal insincerity and only be dictated by a calculated practical convenience, which has an extremely limited scope.
The example we must always keep in mind is the one set by Mahatma Gandhi. It was not by chance that he was given the name Maha-atma: great soul. Great soul means much more than illuminated economist or wise politician. Gandhi had understood perfectly that each of us can only offer externally what has matured inside through a long and difficult process of self-purification. Gandhi never spoke specifically of ecology, and yet I maintain that all environmentalists should consider him a real Master. This is because the ahimsa, that is non-violence, should today more than ever be the hinge of a healthy and far-seeing relationship between human beings and nature. As a matter of fact, Gandhi promoted a lifestyle that was not only sober but also rooted in a deep respect for the symbolic value of every object produced by the industrious and creative hands of man. Gandhi, therefore, implicitly refused the very basis on which are founded the dehumanising myths of today's consumerism.
In memory of Gandhiji, therefore, I exhort you to re-discover and to defend the value of respect. Respect for every living being, beginning with our sisters and brothers, their ideas, their aspirations, their passions and even their mistakes, respect for the products of human labour, where these are fruit of creativity, patience and humility, respect for Nature, which surrounds us and lives outside and within us, that is our true Mother, and finally respect for our own souls which are the synthesis of everything that matters.
Mankind does not need only to be properly fed, to have decent shelter and good jobs. Mankind needs also its share of poetry.
Tat Tvam Asi - 'The essence of the Cosmos lives in you' - as we find written in the sacred ancient texts of the Upanishads.
Thoughts on training of liaison officers in India.