Monday, September 3, 2012

Story of a Green Hiker…

“I didn’t want to be just another mountaineer who climbed Mount Everest, got his glory and got out of there.”

Half Nepalese-half Belgian, standing sturdy at 6 feet something, Dawa Steven Sherpa is a hard core mountaineer and trekker, but with one thing that sets him apart from the many others scrambling to summit indomitable peaks. He is moving mountains to keep his mountains clean.

Born in the Sherpa community and brought up amongst mountaineers, Dawa was destined to be a climber himself. His father, Ang Tshering Sherpa, has been the president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association and is currently the Immediate Past President (IPP) of the association. Both father and son run an expedition company called Asian Trekking.

Dawa reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2007, where seeing the cold, distrustful atmosphere and attitude amongst fellow travelers, he established a ‘base camp bakery’ so that hikers could meet, get friendly, and figuratively, break the ice. It was on this expedition, that he witnessed large amounts of garbage on the mountains, proving right National Geographic’s statement that Mt. Everest had become the “world’s highest garbage dump.” That is when he made up his mind to do something about it.

To tackle the problem of human waste, the young climber started importing Restop toilet bags from an American company called American Innotech ( which are till date, distributed free of cost to his clients and Sherpas. Moreover, Dawa sells these bags to other expeditions at cost price to encourage their use. Now, many
expeditions are bringing their own toilet bags, so the concept has proven to be a success. Through an initiative called Eco Everest Expedition, Dawa is using the resources and manpower available on the expeditions (organised as part of his business) to clean up during the expedition period (April and May). A portion of his client’s fees goes into implementing this clean up. Under this, he is also running ‘Cash for Trash’, where he offers Rs.100 for ever kilogram of trash carried back down by travelers/guides. So far, he has managed to bring down 14,259kg of trash!!

Dawa first collects the garbage – tin, aluminium, cloth, paper, wood and plastic; toxic stuff like batteries; helicopter debris (there have been four helicopter crashes) and biodegradable waste. This then goes to the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), one of the key founders of which was WWF-Nepal. He keeps the tin and aluminium in storage till he figures out what to do with them.

A garbage disposal system has been in place since the 1990s, where the Government of Nepal made it mandatory for visitors to bring back their garbage after a trek. However, this only ensured that new garbage is not dumped on the mountain, while the garbage littered before, remained un-collected since no one was accountable for it. Dawa has been collecting this trash from Mount Everest since 2008, and with combined efforts the garbage situation is getting better.

When asked if he finds it tough to stop people from littering, he coolly replies, “It’s easier for me to tell a guide or porter in Nepal to not litter because tourism is the mainstay of the country. They can make that connection between their action and the consequences of it.”

Realising the potential threat of climate change in Nepal, in the form of melting glaciers, higher incidences of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), fall in water supply, crop failure and changes in weather patterns, Dawa took a crash course in climate change from ICIMOD to develop a better understanding of the issue. “The problems we face now were never faced by my grandfather,” he says with a grimace.

But in order to organise his initiatives and send out the message in a bigger way, he needed the support of important persons and big organisations, with a similar mission.

This is when he got Apa Sherpa, the famous mountaineer and world record holder of climbing Mount Everest 21 times, on board. Apa had been a victim of a GLOF which wiped out his whole village, leaving him nothing but a blanket. In addition, Dawa got in touch with Nepali youth clubs like the Sherpa Students Network and other university students, confident in the power of young people to rally and make a difference to the society and environment around them. He organised the resources to support them and started a national campaign, where they managed to collect enough petitions to get the government to actually recognise these environmental problems. This culminated into a historical cabinet meeting at the Everest base camp where climate negotiations were held and issues discussed.

Besides the environment, Dawa has gotten involved with the human aspect of the situation. There are local communities in Nepal that are solely dependent on agriculture for sustenance, which if adversely affected would leave the people impoverished and helpless. He wanted to learn more about these communities so he could help them. According to him, most mountain communities know exactly what they need to survive on; they can perceive changes in their environment and sometimes may even know how to address them. However, they lack technical know-how, awareness about climate change, finances and able leadership.

Hence, Dawa co-founded the non-profit Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI) with like-minded people. “Our work focuses on protecting the mountain environment and better the lives of the mountain people. We have already started a few initiatives, including the banning and replacement of plastic bags, setting up climate change response centres to educate and build resilience amongst the vulnerable communities, and working with the government and private sector to build a Zero Carbon economy, and creating ‘green jobs’.”

Part of this was the Great Himalayan Trail - the introductory project to highlight the vulnerability of local communities to climate change. This trail goes from the easternmost point of the Himalaya to the western most and vice versa. For HCI, Dawa and his team including Apa Sherpa decided to walk the whole length of Nepal to talk to the local communities. Two years of their lives revolved around planning for this journey, a journey that they finished in 99 days, having travelled 1,555km!

On the issue of tourism being a possible threat to the Himalayan ecology, Dawa is of the opinion that, “Tourism is the second highest revenue generator for Nepal. It is the best bet for these communities who have some amazing culture…but not tourism at the cost of the environment…tourism has to be sustainable.” He strongly emphasises, “The Himalaya is undoubtedly the most beautiful landscape in the world and undoubtedly, also the most fragile.”
Dawa sure has his hands full. And it all started with his love for the mountains that he calls home.

For any information or queries, Dawa Steven Sherpa can be contacted at


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