Our Environmental Footprint, The (Clear) Elephant in the Room

It’s high time we start talking about an elephant in the room. 

In its near two-decade history, NUS Mountaineering has undoubtedly excelled in many areas. In historic expeditions. And milestone achievements. But it’s becoming rather apparent that our environmental footprint has pretty much retreated into the club’s blind-spot. 

I’m convinced that there’s potential for MIR to start taking deliberate steps in this area. And the reason for this came out of our recent trip to New Zealand’s Southern Alps. As I was waiting out the bad weather in Mueller Hut while perusing an Op-Ed on the impact of glacial retreat on tourism in the country, published a decade ago in Wilderness Magazine, in the backdrop was the apt roaring of frequent avalanches coming off Mt. Sefton and The Footstool onto the far-retreated Mueller Glacier. It didn’t take long for us to realise how much the natural environment there had degraded over the past few decades – juxtaposed against the present-day view was an aged image of Hillary’s team climbing out of the old Mueller Hut which had been built on the glacier itself only several decades ago. The thick snow and ice that once flooded the Mueller Glacier had quickly been replaced by dangerous, inaccessible moraine scree. 

What remains of the Mueller Glacier today.

It dawned on me that it would be rather hypocritical for us as climbers to irk about glacial retreat when quite clearly, we are inadvertently complicit. As a mountaineering club, we got to face up to the facts: We literally fly around so much that there’s absolutely no practical measure that we can take to entirely offset our carbon footprint. 

I curiously turned to myclimate to confront our club’s carbon emissions simply from air travel alone – for a round-trip from Singapore to Kathmandu for 1 traveller on standard economy class, you’d generate 1.2 tCO2, that alone is already twice the baseline 0.6 tCO2 individual annual emission allowance required to stop climate change. Well, what’s the club’s footprint in terms of air travel over MIR 19’s term thus far? Ballpark figures put us at 35.4 tCO2 – if the club was a single person, we would’ve already exceeded the environmentally-sound threshold by a whopping 58 times! 

While this thought-piece would say otherwise, for any new visitor stepping foot into New Zealand, faced with strict customs environmental regulation in the form of thorough swaps of our bags, tents, ropes and boots for any potential external organic matter, we were quickly taken aback. It was evidently clear that environmental awareness and protection were deeply-interwoven into kiwi life. For instance, all over the Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park, we could catch sight of kea conservation efforts like the citizen science programme by the Kea Conservation Trust to monitor the activity of the endangered alpine parrot (we saw quite a few in our time up there!). 

Nestor notabilis, an endangered species of alpine parrot endemic to New Zealand’s South Island.

Glaciers, which are abundant in the Southern Alps, are formed by compacted snow. When annual snowfall at the névé is greater than snowmelt, the glacier advances and vice versa. Back in 1977, glaciologist Trevor Chin commenced the End of Summer Snowline Survey which most recently revealed that most of the glaciers, including Mueller, did not have any snow left on them at all. There was no doubt that New Zealand’s glacial retreat was anthropogenic and according to Chin, “We used to be able to walk up [these glaciers] but it’s much harder now because the ridges are turning into gravel cliffs and they collapse”. We faced this too – no one, not even the most experienced alpinists, set foot on the Mueller Glacier anymore, which means climbs from there are no longer possible. With the Southern Alps losing over a third of its permanent snow and ice cover over the past 40 years, it’s quite clear that it doesn’t take much for a New Zealander to witness climate change first-hand. 

In Christchurch, we’d witnessed a pretty congruent scene as well. Popular brands such as Patagonia, Macpac and Australian-based Kathmandu were good examples of the fight against fast-fashion. I was especially impressed by Kathmandu’s transparency – it aimed to be carbon-zero by 2025 through intensive carbon-offsetting and investments in regenerative infrastructure throughout its production line. Many of these outdoor brands (including the bigger retailers) were also supporting the non-profit, Protect Our Winters (POW). Founded by Jeremy Jones, a pro American snowboarder, the now international organisation prides itself on its motto – “POW turns passionate outdoor people into climate advocates”. Jones had found that an increasing number of resorts he once frequented for good riding were closing due to snow decline. This inspired POW (see its Theory of Change model here) which today is a major player in temperate regions, pushing for renewable energy, breakthrough technologies and governmental policy to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of the century. POW Aotearoa in particular prioritised connecting outdoor enthusiasts and everyone who loves and needs winter to generate positive climate outcomes. It can’t get any more obvious than that – the people here depend on the environment with much greater intimacy, and that has given birth to a culture of good. 

A really good local outdoor brand – Macpac.

This trend clearly isn’t unique to New Zealand. When Felipe Camargo invited Alex Honnold to Getu, he described Honnold as exemplifying simple-living and efficiency – from how he ate, to what he wore and of course, how he climbed. It’s no surprise that Honnold’s life outdoors had inspired his work in mitigating environmental impact and inequality, in a similar way, through solar energy initiatives with the Honnold Foundation. In his second rendition of Sufferfest with Cedar Wright, the climbers ended their journey scaling desert towers by visiting one of the foundation’s many ongoing solar projects – this in particular was with the native Navajo people who live off-the-grid. 

Perhaps it’d be good to ask why all of this matters – to people like Jones, Honnold or even Hillary after his glory days on Everest. To me, it’s because climbing is inherently a very selfish endeavour. And at its very core, we find nothing but extractivism. In our pursuit of summits, we literally go to places and take from the environment and its people. We extract, feel good about it and pathetically brand it as a milestone achievement. I’m guilty of that. I think most of us are. And for the most part, social causes involving mountaineers’ contributions back to local communities, which today are commonly heard of, are likely born out of a similar realisation. In fact, place-based spirituality, and the Western interpretation of jindaks (or sponsors) have very much characterised Sherpa-climber interactions within the Hindu-Kush Himalayas and its mountaineering culture since the 1960s. And this is how MIR’s Khumbu Education Fund (KEF) had come about as well – from the need to give back, from those who had greatly benefited previously.     

But, as with all relationships in rugged, dynamic and stressed environments like the mountains, they are fragile and always on the verge of splitting apart. We saw this in Ueli Steck and Simone Moro’s 2013 incident on the Lhotse face (watch High Tension here), and we see this today with the now trademark beelines up Everest’s South Col. But what’s even more fragile than these human relationships is our often overlooked interactions with the natural environment. And I’d render a guess that to curb this extractivism, apart from investing in our own climbs, it’s also up to us to make mountaineering accessible for those around us, give back to local communities, and use our club as a platform for environmental protection and awareness-building too. If not, how else? 

Now, clearly, all of these are nothing but airy-fairy idealism, aren’t they? Likely not – if these climbers have gone out to start something themselves, shouldn’t we as a two-decade-old club begin somewhere as well? But yes, let’s be realistic. Surely we can’t impose club-wide veganism, overhaul our equipment inventory with synthetic-only models and do away with air travel for our trips, right? (That said, a caveat is that some inspiring members have actually taken these upon themselves). For example, Ophelia, from the recent Winter Team, took deliberate steps to reduce her personal footprint leading up to and during the trip:

“I tried to be as low-waste as I could and surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard because we mostly drank water from the pipes, tap or boiled snow. I bought my Osprey bag and trekking shoes second hand, and they functioned as good as new. Since I’m vegan, I didn’t get the eggs, cheeses and meat that usually came with our meals. Animal products have much higher environmental footprint than plant-based foods because animals have to be fed lots of grain. I ate more dal bhat (lentil) for protein which is what the locals typically eat. It was a very humbling experience and I felt closer to the local culture, in contrast to the stereotypical perception of veganism as a ‘privileged option’. I wasn’t perfect at trying to reduce my impact and it took some effort especially to prepare pre-trip but it was worth it.”

At the same time, we wouldn’t want to fall prey to lame-ass greenwashing. We should be sincere and start small – looking at our club’s current operations and initiate some change with regards to our footprint.  

And so we did, with a small creative touch as well. A few of us got inspired by ne-ia through Instagram – a small company situated in Vorarlberg, Austria, which turns climbing ropes into unique, handmade products. Nothing cooler than giving the ropes that Alex Megos and Stefano Ghisolfi had used for their projects new life, right? Looking inwards, we knew that MIR too uses A LOT of ropes too, of various thickness, colours and designs. And our ropes, especially those our climbers use, wear out very quickly due to the frequency and intensity of use. They hence need to be condemned (out of safety considerations) once their inner material (the ‘core’) is significantly damaged. That has left us with a lot of remaining outer material (the ‘sheath’). Combining them with material from other condemned shell jackets, we got Joel to prototype an upcycled chalk-bag – a useful piece of equipment that our new climbers who otherwise eventually buy. With some trial and error, we finally managed to create new chalk-bags, made entirely from recycled material. 

A couple of us got together a recent evening at the Yale-NUS Fabrications Studio, to learn how to put the chalk-bag together. We had several Winter TMC 2019 participants around to put their hands to the test to create their own chalk-bags from scratch and subsequently get to use them during their climbs. Not only did they turn out much better than expected – the whole process very much saved them the costs of a new purchase too! 

Now, you’ll probably remain cynical – how can a couple of upcycled chalk-bags reverse our club’s cumulative footprint? Of course, they pale in comparison. But to us, it very much beats frivolous talk and inaction still. We’re hoping this start can inspire some element of environmental action through MIR on a greater scale in the coming batches, because, again, we very much have the power to do so!

And take it from Yvon Chouinard himself, who likely realised this way before all of us were even conceived, and then went on to found Patagonia. 

“I don’t really believe that humans are evil; it is just that we are not very intelligent animals. No animal is so stupid as to foul its only nest, except humans.”

Yvon Chouinard
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

Written By: Nathaniel Soon (MIR 19)

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