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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Melting at the Top of the World

Air Date: Week of

Global warming is having a dramatic impact in the Himalayas, where the glaciers are melting at a rapid pace. One local mountain climber has started a campaign to educate villagers and trekkers alike about the effects of climate change on the mountains. Dawa Steven Sherpa tells host Steve Curwood about his hopes and fears for the Himalayas.


CURWOOD: Nowhere is climate disruption more dramatically apparent than on the roof of the world – where some experts predict Himalayan glaciers may be gone in as few as 40 years.

The snows of the Himalayas feed the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges and Mekong Rivers and provide drinking water for billions throughout Asia.

Now local residents in Nepal who depend on tourists and climbers are starting to speak out about the dangers and demanding action – among them Dawa Stephen Sherpa, who runs a trekking company in Kathmandu. He spoke to us by phone from his expedition office about what action he’s taking, and his worries.

SHERPA: The Himalayas are the water towers of Asia. We all live in the same building and we have this big water tank on top of our house and when that water runs out we’re all gonna suffer. It’s not just gonna be the people who live near the mountains. Now when we’re talking about one, well, one and a half billion people – it doesn’t look very good. I mean, even now, if you look at the region, there’s a lot of tensions between the nations, you know, especially between Pakistan and India. Now when people don’t have access to fresh water, they may see access to fresh water on the other side of the border, so we’re looking at maybe mass migration, you know, heightened conflict. And it’s just a very, very bleak picture.

CURWOOD: In 2008, Dawa Steven you organized what you called an “eco expedition” up Mount Everest. What were you hoping to accomplish with that?

SHERPA: My first aim was to get on top of the world and talk to people about the impact of what climate change is doing to our mountains. You don’t get a higher platform I suppose.


SHERPA: I made sure that I brought down everything I took up. There’s a lot of garbage from previous expeditions up there, you know. Rather than organize an expedition solely for climbing, what I did was I looked at – looked at what’s already available and - a lot of Sherpas going up the mountain carrying big loads, you know, like tents and sleeping bags, but when they come down, they come down empty. So what I did was I approached them and said hey, look, bring down any garbage that you see on the way and I’ll be happy to give you money for it, I’ll pay you by the kilo. And by the end of the season, I had 965 kilos of garbage, and we made the mountain a ton cleaner. We bring everything down that we’ve taken up – including poop.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what’s the problem with now – I don’t want to be too graphic here – but, what’s the problem now with human poop on the side of Mount Everest?

SHERPA: Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to clean it, right? We know that over time it will decompose – and that’s under normal circumstances. But on the mountain, it doesn’t, because it’s freezing conditions there. If I pitch my tent, over a period of a couple of weeks when the ice starts melting under you, poop starts coming up and you’re seeing you’re surrounded in human waste and in poop. And, of course, there’s some pretty nasty stories as well of climbers who have melted ice only to look in and find some very unsavory things in there. And, of course, all the water that come in the rivers, they all come from the mountains, and so if we have poo on our glaciers (laughs) then, of course, that’s going to come down into our water system – not the best in terms of health wise.

I used what are called Restop bags; they’re quite popular in America. And I was field testing them to see if I can use them to bring down human waste. They were very, very successful. As a climber, we didn’t feel guilty when we went to the bathroom on the mountain. And for us, Everest is a holy mountain, she’s called Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World. And to be actually going to the toilet on her would not be very nice. So when we were cleaning up the mountain it was great, you know, it felt really good.

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve had some interesting innovations in your work there and trying to clean things up. Tell me about the special solar cooker that you used to boil your water up there.

SHERPA: I was using what’s called a parabolic solar cooker. Basically how it works is it’s an inverted magnifying glass of sorts. It’s like a mirror that is reflecting light into one central position. And so in that central position, you put a pot, which you have painted black which absorbs all the heat. So within thirty-five minutes I was boiling ten liters of water – out of nothing. It was so successful that all the other sherpas from around the camps, other camps, came around the figure out, you know, to see what this thing was - this shiny thing that was boiling water. It cost less than $100. If you were cooking on kerosene or on gas, it will pay you back that money within a couple of months.

CURWOOD: So as you look at the projections, what sense do you have that your mountains might be doomed? What sense of hope do you have?

SHERPA: It’s something very emotional, something that I wish I could turn – you know, turn round, that I wish I could stop somehow, but…. I mean, that’s not realistic. I’m only one person. But I do believe that one person can make a difference. Climbing mountains in not difficult. Convincing people that they are significant, that they can do something about it, that’s the most difficult thing for me.

CURWOOD: Dawa Steven Sherpa is the managing director of Asian Trekking in Kathmandu, Nepal. Thank you so much.

SHERPA: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: By the way, how do you say Happy New Year in Nepal.

SHERPA: In Nepal we say – okay, are you ready for this?


SHERPA: Nayãã barsako subhakaamanaa

CURWOOD: Nayãã barsako subhakaamanaa

SHERPA: That’s it. Nayãã barsako subhakaamanaa.

CURWOOD: Happy New Year.

SHERPA: Happy New Year, Steve.



International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development on climate change:

Check out videos of the trek here


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