Cover Story

DAWA STEVEN SHERPA

SAVING THE WORLD WITH ENVIRONMENTAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND ETHICAL BUSINESS PRACTICES

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The Rongbuk Monastery lies nestled in the folds of Tibet, at the northern base of Everest. It was a branch of the Tyangboche Monastery and is a sanctuary of immense significance to the Buddhists in the region. In the olden days, devotees would navigate through the passes of the Khumbu to pay their respects. Now, people have stopped their pilgrimage to this holy place. Not because more and more people have given into the ideas of atheism, but because they simply can’t. And they can’t because the glaciers are melting.

It’s easy to confine ecological downgrade to just the environment, but these effects are felt by the social sector as well.

Sherpas and mountaineers base their lives on the art of climbing mountains. They climb by navigating through the terrains of glaciers and ice. But when they melt away, what they’re left with are steep and sharp rocks that are not only dangerous, but next to impossible to climb. This paralysis from something so close to blood worries so many. But only a few take actions against it.

And Dawa Steven Sherpa is one of them who’s not only doing it vigorously but creating opportunities along the way.

From being a pilot, to an engineer, to an archeologist, Dawa wanted to be everything when he grew up, but didn’t know what exactly to be. So, with the advice of his father, Ang Tshering Shrepa, he went abroad to study business to fit into any field. However, he suspects that his father actually wanted him to come back and handle the legacy business of Asian Trekking.

But regardless of this, he did impart a bit of wisdom, “In the west you can have a very comfortable life but you will just become a small part of a machine, in Nepal you can bring back your education and knowledge to make a big difference.

And return he did after 4 years of education in Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, and became the   3rd generation in his family to be involved in the mountaineering industry.

Upon return though, he found himself to be alone at home. Ang Tshering was off on a business trip in China, so was his elder brother, his younger brother was in college outside the country, and his mom was in her maitighar, in Belgium. It was the end of monsoon at the time, so he thought,

“Let’s go.”

Where? To climb a mountain.

So, he hit up a family friend in the Tibet Mountaineering Association who sent a car for him. A c few days later, Dawa found himself at the base camp of Cho Oyu, world’s 6th highest mountain in the world at 8,201 meters.

His dad at the time was completely oblivious to all of this so when he caught wind of his son’s summit, he didn’t believe it. And the guy who told him of the news was the same friend in Tibet who sent for the car.

Filled with concern, Ang Tshering cancelled a flight to Kathmandu, caught a train to Lhasa, and hopped on an off-roader to the base camp to wait for Dawa with arms crossed. And so he waited. And waited.

3 days passed.

When Dawa arrived to the camp, he had already left, leaving behind a note. It read:

Dear son,

I came to take you home, but I see that you’re climbing well. Even if you don’t  succeed this time, we can prepare  together and try again next time.

For your strength, I have left you a gift.

Stay safe.

The gift was a case of beer and a huge leg of a changra (dried goat meat).

In this manner, when he reached the summit of Cho Oyu without oxygen a couple of weeks later, not only was it a moment of pride and success for him, but also a reminder of how the Sherpa blood runs through his veins. And as the youth in him boiled this very blood, he wanted to climb more. So, like any other guy, he set his eyes on Mt. Everest.

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However, what bothered him a bit was how the mountaineers there were. They weren’t supportive of one another. Whenever someone asked what their weather forecast was saying, everyone refused to answer. Whenever someone had a cup of tea in someone else’s camp, it was seen as if it was a grave case of trespassing.

This made Dawa think about changing this unhealthy practice. After all, all of them are going for the same thing. Why fight over it? Wouldn’t a cooperative effort be more beneficial to all?

So, on his next climb, he sought to bring about a change that’s no less than a revolution.

At the time when it struck him though, he didn’t really know what to do. But he noticed an Australian in his team. The man always needed bread, cakes, and croissants, all the things one would never find at a base camp. There were several like him, meaning that there was a void in the market. And voids mean opportunities, which Dawa jumped on. And at the age of just 22, he opened the first bakery in Everest Base Camp, the first of its kind. This way, climbers from different teams could come together to socialize and share a hot drink together, enjoy pies and cakes, and just have a merry good time in the unique local of the highest mountain in the world.

And speaking of this particular mountain, he did go on to summit it the same year.

And when he did reach the summit, he called up his dad with his satellite phone and told him with heavy sighs and worry in his breath, “I can’t go any further, I’m going down.” Ang Tshering, with paternal concern asked him what had gone wrong. Dawa, reviving a playful tone, “I’m at the top, I can’t go any further!”

But this is where the story takes a solemn turn.

The same day he reached the summit, a climber had fallen to her death. It was an aunt of his, who had been climbing with him just a day ago.

On his way down, he retrieved her body together with three Sherpas and managed to lower her down to Camp 3 (7400m). Being completely exhausted and it being late, they anchored the body on a snow ledge and went down to rest. Dawa reached the base camp to catch his breath, and darted upwards again to retrieve her body. This descent from the top was not just literal, but also emotional.

Now, on his way up there, he needed to navigate through the notorious Khumbu Icefall again. The place is at the foot of the Khumbu Glacier and is prone to melting away and caving in. A step and the thin surface cracks all around. He met a few Sherpas who were on their way back down to the base camp and they warned him that crossing it is a death wish. So, sanity taking over him, he returned.

And indeed, an hour later, the icefall gave in exactly where they were climbing and collapsed into a mangled mess, and the climbing route was destroyed.

The cause of it all was, and still is, climate change.

A new study published in Science Advances this month in June offers detailed views of what’s actually happening to the glaciers in the Himalayas, and how it affects the people who depend on it.

The study, led by J.M. Maurer analyzes 40 years’ worth of satellite images of about 650 glaciers across more than 1,200 miles of Nepal, India, China, and Bhutan. This observation not only confirms that climate change is the main contributing factor to glacial retreat in high-mountain Asia, but also reveals how fast rising temperatures are changing the face of the planet. According to the study, glaciers in the region have been losing an equivalent of more than a vertical foot and a half of ice each year since the turn of the millennia, which is twice the rate of melting between 1975 to 2000.

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Maurer says that probably the most surprising thing they found would be the fact that they see such a similar amount of glacier melting across such a large and climatically complex region. This highlights the fact that there’s an overarching climate force affecting all these glaciers similarly.

In recent years, that’s looked like an average of 8 billion tons of water per year—equal to 3.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools—flowing out of the region, which presents a couple of new problems: First, too much water, and then not enough. According to Maurer, as meltwater increases, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), or catastrophic bursts of overflow from previously contained glacial meltwater, will start to be a serious threat. One GLOF in Bhutan killed 21 people in 1994. Nepal’s Imja Tsho, a glacial lake in the Khumbu Valley, was subject to an emergency draining in 2014 to reduce flood risks. Thus, as the glaciers continue to retreat, the water they provide to nearly 2 billion people is predicted to dwindle, and eventually, disappear.

Another study, conducted by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development and published in February 2019 had similar alarming claims: Even if the entire world’s global emissions were net zero by 2050, one-third of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region’s ice would still melt. If the world doesn’t reach net zero, we could see the loss of up to two-thirds of the ice in that region by 2100.

Studies on climate change are always grim.

In high-mountain Asia, the melting has gotten macabre. On Everest, the bodies of dead climbers are melting out of the ice, kindling debates on what to do with them. Human waste on the world’s highest peaks is also proving to be a biohazard problem, tainting water sources as it thaws. It all worsens when we consider the growing human interaction in the area.

Recent news has revealed that a road way leading up to Lukla is in the works. Of course, this is good news for our transportation system. However, it’s more of a Pandora’s Box; the balance between developments is not proportionate to how much the environment can handle.

Firstly, Lukla has been accessible to tourists via airways only till now. A return ticket to Tenzing-Hillary Airport costs an average of $360, which is higher than a round trip to Delhi, and is heavily dependent on the weather. With the new road way, all of these don’t matter now. People can travel to this previously remote location cheaply, and whenever they want. Moreover, more people attract more people. And this poses as a whole new problem, not only amplifying the pre-existing ecological threat, but now bringing about a managerial issue.

You must’ve have seen the viral image of a massive line along the ridges of Mt. Everest as if Apple was launching a new iPhone at the peak.

Dawa takes responsibility of this mishap, and tells us why this happened.

He is the Secretary on the board of the Expeditions Operators Association of Nepal (EOAN) and is one of the two representatives at the Everest Base Camp. The EOAN is charged with the duty to fix some 8000m of rope from Camp 2 to the summit. They have been doing this since 2012 with a centralized system of color coding ropes for going up and going down, and replacing the ropes themselves to ensure safety. Moreover, they also voluntarily facilitate communication between various groups regarding when they’re going and coming. In this way, they make spreadsheets and schedules so that there is no confusion and conflicts among the climbers. They also share various creditable weather forecasts to do this. In this manner, they avoided traffic jams, overcrowding at bottlenecks, and help reduce and accidents of any sort and manner.

They have a Viber group where they talk to one another about all of this, and has proven to be quite effective. However, on 10th May 2019, regardless of how many times Dawa reminded the group about the schedule, many failed to provide their timings. Only about 325 reported to him, with 265 ignoring the gravity of the situation. With this communication gap, groups just followed bigger groups like sheep for easy passage that ended up in a huge mess; evident from the infamous picture of the queue of climbers near the summit.

Additionally, because this is a profitable business, a lot of travel companies are mushrooming in the market, and are complete amateurs. So, they too have their groups follow other groups.

Now, this time especially was an accumulation of all sorts of wrong. Weather was unpredictable as well with different sources saying different things. Strong winds were shown to be battering the summit until the 19th of May, and then return again and again from the 25th, with a window of good weather in between. However, as the day passed, that window became narrower and narrower as the winds were expected to stay longer than the 19th and come back earlier than the 25th. So, many opted for the middle of that window to make the final push to the summit, and it came to be the 22nd of May to be deemed the safest. Dawa’s group was scheduled for 21st though. Strong winds were striking that day, but they were coming from the west, and Dawa knew that the mountain would shield them since they were scaling on the eastern flank of the mountain. He knew this from experience and hence felt it was safe to climb, which they did. Other groups who h­­­­ad chosen the same day for their summit second guessed this and resolved to go the next day.

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See how this inexperience of the others snowballed into a catastrophic jam? Around 320 people were stuck there that day for over 2 hours.

Moreover, on his first Everest Expedition back in 2007, he had encountered an alien sight; garbage. All these are junk shed by the climbers on their way to the top. Dawa had vowed to tackle this problem head on for this is not only an ecological concern, by holy grounds for his people as well.

So what is he doing about it?

For starters, he initiated the “Cash for Trash”, a simple scheme in which mountaineers would pick up whatever junk they could find on the mountain, bring it back with them to the camp, and he’d give them Nrs. 100 for a kilo. In the beginning, he also used all the profits of his Base Camp Bakery to directly fund the cleanup. This was not only a simple idea, but a really effective one as well. If a climber saw another dispose a candy wrapper, he’d exclaim, “take that back! I just cleaned up here!” This meant that the initiative not only cleaned the area, but also instilled a conscious awareness to keep it clean. Till date, Dawa’s annual Eco Everest Expeditions have collected 21,000 kgs of garbage since 2008.

Also, there are no latrines up on the mountains. So, it’s not just junk around there, but also the junk from one’s physiological trunk. So, with the help of the American Alpine Club and the Denali National Park Ranger’s Office, he imported and introduced contraptions called the Clean Mountain Cans and the Rest Stop Bags, which are basically mobile toilets. This would solve the problem, but to make the foreigners use it, he needed to lead by example and his climbing Sherpas were more than willing to be a part of the solution. It welcomed with open arms and is now mandatory during Himalayan expeditions. Though Dawa has advocated the government to make it mandatory on all mountaineering expeditions, it is yet to be implemented.

Then, to minimize the use of kerosene and other fossil fuels, he introduced the Parabolic Solar Cooker. It’s shaped like an umbrella that’s got a mirror on its concave that concentrates the sun’s rays to boil a pot that’s placed in front of it. The pot can hold up to 10 liters of water and be boiled in about 40 minutes. After he got this in, it was widely adopted by the mountaineers, and is now used in almost all settlements in the region, and on most expeditions.

Apart from all of these contributions, he is also known as a tourism entrepreneur. And it seems that he still harbors the same philosophy when he established that bakery in EBC. To start with, right here in Kathmandu, he manages Asian Trekking and the Astrek Climbing Wall, now as Astrek Park. These two have a huge international following in their own regard, with the latter being the hub for professional climbing and those who just seek recreation.

And perhaps the most significant is the Himalayan Chain Resorts.

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Now, when we think of resorts, luxury is a direct association. But in the mountainous terrains, it doesn’t really make sense, and besides, the bare necessities to a climber or a trekker are luxury after all. The franchise operates in the Sagarmatha National Park with 4 hotels in Phakding, Khumjung, Gokyo, and Lobuche respectively. All function to provide warmth and comfort in a location that lacks it to keep the travelers going. They power themselves with solar energy and the parabolic mentioned earlier to reduce the use of fossil fuel, and yak dung instead of wood as plants take a lot of time to grow there.

Not too long ago, Himalayan Chain Resorts was the only entity that provided such services. Seeing them do so well, other brands followed as well. Now being the pioneers and a big name, they could’ve easily monopolized the market, but they didn’t. Rather, they joined forces with the others and ran the show in partnership.

To Dawa, it wasn’t, never was nor is, about minting the greens, but about doing what is ethical. In other words, the best for all.

Because of this notion to go hand in hand, the market is prospering. Had it not been for this case, the economy up there would have been as treacherous as the climate up there. And this is how Dawa Steven Sherpa is saving the world with his conscious for the environment and a considerate sense of business ethics. See, he is a man who gets plenty asked about what the mountains are like when people discover he’s a mountaineer. Initially when he was younger, he was enthusiastic about answering them by saying how beautiful and serene they are and how the earth’s curvature can be seen from the peak. But he got tired of the same romantic description. Sure, that part is there. But if the snow melts away, that image will be wash away with it.

So, whenever he’s confronted with this question, he says that they’re in a dire need of saving. A monumental task, yes, but not impossible. It is our turn to look after the mountains now.

Interviewed by Nirveek PPJ Shah

Photographed by Samir Jung Thapa || clikman.com

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