Friday, March 9, 2012

Plan Ahead and Prepare in Mountaineering

Guest Blog by
Linden Mallory, Senior Guide RMI Expeditions

With mountaineering and climbing growing in popularity comes an added responsibility for climbers to reexamine our actions while we pursue our passion. For close to a decade the guides at RMI Expeditions worked with the Center to develop the Mountaineering Curriculum for Leave No Trace. The process was exciting, productive, and rewarding. It also provided us the opportunity to pause and reexamine our own expedition practices on mountains around the world. This introspection led to changes across all aspects of our trips and we learned that the biggest impacts come from how we approach the climb in the first place: what we do to Plan Ahead and Prepare.

RMI is currently in the midst of leading climbs of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. A few years ago we sat down and reassessed our entire Aconcagua Expedition. We scrutinized all the details: from when we climb, to what we eat, to what we carry. This discussion led to adjustments in our climbs’ itinerary, changes to what, how, and where we pack our gear, and a revamping of our human waste disposal strategies in order to make the process as easy as possible for our climbing teams. We also made changes to smaller details, such as bringing our own reusable bags to shop for expeditions’ supplies. After walking dozens of miles to Base Camps on Aconcagua and Everest and seeing hundreds of discarded and ripped airlines by airlines littering the trails we now provide durable (and reusable) duffel bag labels for hauling our gear.

This examination was even more intensive for our Mt. Everest Expedition. It covered our staffing, our snacks and meals, our gear choices, our loads separations, our packing, and our energy usage. We changed what gear and supplies we pack, how we organize our camps, the way we collaborate with other teams and the priorities we convey to our Nepali partners. It also led to some of the more enjoyable and adventurous experiences of my guiding career: including inspiring climbers and Sherpas to pocket litter along the route in the Western Cwm or standing on the side of the a road in Kathmandu with the staff of a small Nepali solar company as we worked out the intricacies of a highly portable, highly reliable photovoltaic system for use at over 17,000’. Two years later, we have yet to turn on a generator to provide electrical power for our Everest Expeditions.

A major hurdle in minimizing our expeditions’ impacts has been facing the less than appealing task of managing our human waste on the mountain. Most mountains, like Aconcagua, Everest, Russia’s Elbrus, or the Volcanoes in Mexico and Ecuador, have very limited, if any, infrastructure for dealing with human waste. A simple pit toilet near Base Camp is usually all that exists. As a result, human waste litters the upper slopes of the mountain. Without an infrastructure to deal with human waste even off of the mountain, we were forced to look for a simple yet effective solution. A plain doggy bag solved our problems: we outfit our expeditions with small biodegradable bags for each climber to use as needed. We collect these in larger biodegradable bags and then carry everything off of the mountain, depositing the waste in the pit toilets, or waste collection barrels if available, at Base Camp. This is easy for our climbers to do, doesn’t weigh or cost much, and isn’t filling the landfills or latrines with plastics or additional chemical additives that come with more complicated systems.

How do you apply the lessons of Plan Ahead and Prepare to your own adventures? The bottom line is that just as you research your route and estimate the number of days, also take the time research the travel conditions, the existing local infrastructure, and try to anticipate the unexpected circumstances you will encounter in the mountains.

1) Prepare your team: Do your research and involve your team in coming up with the right plan - for your schedule, in case of accidents, and how to manage your environmental impacts.

2) Plan your meals: Find meals that are nutritious, appealing at altitudes, easy and efficient to prepare, and that minimize the weight carried up and waste carried out. Reducing the packaging is a no-brainer, but if you are travelling internationally also take into account what is available to buy in-country; you can save on transportation costs and emissions as well as reduce your costs when you buy locally.

3) Plan your human waste strategy: Look into what the existing local policies and infrastructure are surrounding human waste and plan on how to meet or complement what is already in place. Consider using biodegradable doggy bags to get your waste off of the mountain in an effective manner.

4) Take Responsibility: Give your team everything you need to succeed on the climb and in their duty to do climb responsibly.

A major factor in Plan Ahead and Prepare is communication: explaining the “why” and the “how-to” of better environmental practices. Climbers do not intentionally harm the alpine zones they visit, but often ignorance of better practices or obstacles in executing them result in damage. Effectively communicating what we do and why we do it to our clientele, both before and during the climb, has greatly improved our follow through and reduced our expedition’s footprint on the landscape. We’ve found that the changes we’ve made to reduce our impact on mountain environments has led to better equipped expeditions, a more enjoyable climbing experience, and better business practices overall.

Just as you plan your climbing objective and how to achieve it, take the time to think through all of the steps, gear, logistics, and impacts that are associated with getting you there. You will be better prepared when you set foot on the mountain and more than likely discover a more enjoyable experience. We all share the mountains and have a desire to experience them, it is up to us to consider and take responsibility for how we do so.

Rainier Mountaineering, Inc (RMI Expeditions) is one of America's most reputable and long-standing guide services with over 42 years of mountain guiding experience.

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