Mountains in Focus

A Fragile Land

“Many people come looking, looking, taking pictures. Too many people – no good. Some people come and see – good.”

These words were related to me in 1979 at his home in Deboche village in the Khumbu region of Nepal by Dawa Tensing Sherpa, one of the very first Nepalese Sherpas to be employed by the pre-war British Expeditions to Everest and a vital member of the successful team of 1953.

Dawa was a gentle and kindly man with no formal eduction of any kind. But the message he conveyed in those simple but poignant words all those years ago was indicative of a man who understood as much about human nature as he did about the fragile environment in which we live.

Whilst Dawa willingly helped his wealthy employers to climb his mountains, he never understood why their interest in the Himalaya was founded solely on conquest. After all, Dawa never perceived the mountains as adversaries; to him they were friends and eternal companions who should be enjoyed and respected.

And so he challenged others to do the same; to set aside selfish and thoughtless ambitions of challenge, conquest and achievement, and to adopt a more harmonious and conciliatory approach to the exploration and enjoyment of the world’s wild and wonderful places.

Dawa Tensing Sherpa
Dawa Tensing Sherpa

In the years that followed that first ascent of Everest, and just as Dawa had predicted, there came a tourist revolution. In the wake of this invasion of visitors, the flora and fauna of the region was slowly and irreparably damaged. The welcome economic benefit of commercial development would, in hindsight, come at the cost of the steady destruction of an ancient and much respected culture. To Dawa the issue was clear; ill-informed visitors, no matter how well intentioned, would, sooner or later destroy the very thing that they were coming to see.

Now, years after his death, I wonder what he would have made of today’s wealthy, impatient and ever more demanding travellers. Escaping the daily frustrations of a highly charged and competitive environment, many arrive in the mountains with thoughts only of ‘beating the elements’ and ‘conquering the mountains’. Simple walking holidays are now eagerly elevated to expedition status and the participants’ expectations are further aroused by aggressive and combative marketing. And, worst of all perhaps, commercial sponsorship has become an intrusive component of a once casual and relaxing pastime.

What would Dawa have thought of our motives, our methods and our attitudes; and of our unquenchable thirst for achievement, esteem and self gratification? What would he have thought of so many wild and contrived objectives? And what would a simple Buddhist Sherpa make of the fact that some people regard the successful completion of a visit to a remote and distant land as an important stepping stone in the search for social status?

We could simply dismiss Dawa’s views as irrational and emotional, and out of tune with the demands and the outlook of modern lifestyles. Why should it matter what motivates us to visit mountain wildernesses or to go walking or climbing abroad? What harm does it do to talk about the conquest of mountains, the elements and of wild places?

In support of Dawa, however, it is worth noting that although mankind has inhabited this planet for thousands of years, the most profound and even violent changes to our landscape and climate have taken place within the last century. The number of wild places – those that remain untouched by the hand and influence of mankind – are being destroyed or threatened at an alarming rate.

In the last seventy five years we have visited all the world’s remotest corners, and in the last thirty years we have achieved the ability to map the globe to the nearest metre and pinpoint our location with equal accuracy.

We can now make a telephone call from the summit of Mount Everest and we can study the strange and beautiful creatures of the deepest oceans. Given the financial resources, and with the aid of technology and the latest equipment, we can pay a visit to almost any location on this entire planet – and be reasonably confident of a safe return.

So that is why I believe that the time for a restatement of Dawa’s views is now well overdue. Neither Dawa nor I advocate against exploration; indeed we both welcome it. However, it is time that we disregarded our gladiatorial approach towards mountains and other wild places. Not only is such an attitude inappropriate, it is quite simply outdated!

We should enjoy wild landscape and its mountains for the beautiful thing that it is, and not as an object of conquest with which to be in perpetual competition.