I usually sit down to write my editorial after all the articles and photographs and reviews and obituaries have been edited and proofed. It is the time that I take stock of what the world of mountaineering has seen during the year, of who, and what we have lost, what we have discovered, what we have achieved. It’s a humbling experience, a privilege and a responsibility. I take readers through the Volume, giving them a gist of what they will find inside, and also talk about my journey as the editor of that Volume.
But this year, I want to talk about some pressing issues that plague us mountain lovers.
That the mountains and valleys are changing at a rate faster than ever before, that they are vanishing, growing older, being trodden upon big time, and, in short, being destroyed, is known. All of us seem to be losing focus of the delicate balance that we need to maintain although we talk about it ad nauseam. Even if we don’t directly venture up a treacherous icefall or walk on the fragile undergrowth of a valley floor, every time we switch on the ignition of our car or touch our keyboard, we are creating a carbon footprint that will eventually add up to destroy the mightiest mountain. What do we do? First we must understand that this environment of ours comes first – this is non-negotiable. Our fragile ecosystem has to be placed before our urge to indulge our passions and test our limits, there is no argument. But there are ways to tread lightly. They need to be explored. To quote from Matija Jošt’s note in this Volume – every expedition is pollution somehow. One of the possible ways to minimize the pollution is to operate in small teams with modest comfort.
Another pressing issue is that of safety. The Govt. of India has banned the use of Satellite phones for mountaineers. Theoretically permission can be sought but it is never granted because of ‘misuse by terrorists’. Sat phones are critical for mountaineers in cases of emergencies and accidents and so they often carry them anyway. This puts them at the risk of getting caught and actually being jailed in the event of an accident when they have to use such equipment. Communication equipment is critical for safety and so it is essential to ease the regulations on use of Satellite phones and Walkie-Talkie sets.
In Maharashtra, India, recently, a Government Resolution (GR) has indicated banning hiking in organized groups without prior permissions. This means complicated and time consuming paperwork for hiking groups who venture into nearby hills for a few hours. How can this be viable? It will only discourage people from taking up outdoor activities and the need of the hour is to encourage responsible hiking. Besides, these hills have long been the gateway for Indian climbers and mountaineers who have then ventured into the higher mountains. They are also a place for nature enthusiasts, families, and city dwellers looking for a temporary escape. GRs, like any sensible government policy that hopes to be successful has to be created along with concerned stakeholders. Has this been done? The short answer is No.
Bans are never sensible or sustainable as they negate the equal status of citizens. They are handed down from the power to the people completely sidestepping a democratic process. Yes, sensible regulations must be applied, for example, regulating entry into areas at certain times of the year, the number of people who can go to an area at a given time, the authenticity of agencies and organizers and the style of climbing to reduce carbon footprints, could all go a long way in treading lightly and safely. In order to formulate these regulations, we need to identify stakeholders and bring them together - policy makers, environmentalists, forest experts, local residents and mountaineers could get together to create policies that are inclusive and sustainable; policies that do not make public spaces the domain of a few. Shared resources imply shared responsibilities – a responsibility that cannot be limited to bringing down one’s own garbage from a mountain.
Another issue that needs immediate addressal is standardizing heights of peaks. The Survey of India (SoI) after detailed triangulations and calculations has measured exact heights of Himalayan peaks. These calculations are based on findings by state-of-the-art satellites and GPS. They are printed on Survey of India maps and are revised after fresh surveys, probably every decade and are as accurate as they get. Climbers using modern equipment and GPS have also been recording and publishing the heights of peaks quite easily these days. Invariably, the readings are different. This has been creating much confusion. It is thus highly recommended that the official height to be followed and recorded is the one printed on these maps. If individual GPS record different heights, this could be mentioned as an observation.
I must admit that a major hindrance to this compliance is non-availability of Survey of India maps! Thus, the Himalayan Journal, Alpine Journal, American Alpine Journal etc. must record accurate heights and climbers must refer to heights mentioned there. We editors must shoulder the responsibility of referring to, and making available, the standardized heights.
Similarly, names given on the SoI map sheets need to be followed. To avoid confusion, SoI has made specific guidelines for naming of peaks:
Suggestions for new names of features or peaks should be sent to the SoI for due process. Names and heights become extremely important during rescue operations. Imagine the disasters if helicopter rescues had to operate without following names and heights as set down by a central authority!
Finally, I hope you will enjoy this Volume – there are two new features. This is his Life is an effort to get to know people you have read about, heard of, watched and probably interacted with. We begin with the incorrigible Harish Kapadia. The other is a first person Nostalgia series, where we publish short pieces by senior mountaineers, written years ago just for the flavour of a different age. Continuing my interest in Indian mountain writers, we have several articles, notes and an extensive book review section by mostly young writers. There is a review of a Hindi book, probably a first for the HJ. We start Volume 73 with a poem by one of India's best Urdu poets, Gulzar.
The legendary Elizabeth Hawley passed during the year, and with her an era of meticulous expedition report writing has passed.
In July this year while on an expedition on Saser Kangri IV, Pemba Sherpa, a dedicated Darjeeling HAP and father of three school-going children was lost to the mountain. His body was not recovered and thus the meagre insurance money will come to the family after seven long years. The story is always the same – no fall back, no negotiating powers, a family with no other means of income…This brings us to another matter that we need to think about. How do we ensure safeguards and effective insurance and compensation for support staff?
So much to think about.
Pk 6193 m (Chakdor Ri) (Matija Jošt - Matic)