This week we have a short and sensitive thought piece by wildlife cinematographer and alpinist Ryan Atkinson on a recent work trip he took to the Hindu Kush Himalaya of Nepal. The Hindu Kush Himalaya stretches across 8 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Pakistan. It is an important source of water for 1.3 billion people in Asia. It is also the largest source of ice and snow outside of both the Arctic and Antarctic.
We are taken through the highs and lows of visiting a new place and witnessing the struggles of its people while knowing that the decisions that are made on a daily basis at home in the UK are threatening the fragile yet resilient way of life of mountain communities half way around the world.
For those of us blessed with the natural mediocrity of the British Isles, the challenges of an ever increasing globalised threat from a changing climate are a stretch of the imagination at best. The distant and drying valleys of the Hindu Kush Himalaya register little, if at all, on the radar of public discourse in a country that complains at its worst of too much water. Yet with globalisation comes decreased distances, and the knock on our door of an ever changing world. A world where the water we so often complain of on our own shores would be a welcome respite from a life lived in thirst on the other side of the planet.
How does one face this change, this struggle, as an adventurer? By nature of purpose, my life is a black mark on the carbon history of the world. Individual, sure. Small, indeed. Insignificant, no.
In a world of likes and shares, responsibility is ever so collective. Long flights to remote corners of the world register in the moment as little more than a cramped inconvenience, consumed in the throes of limited leg room and time zones crossed. Time lost. So when the opportunity to travel to the depths of the world’s lowest valleys and the caps of it’s highest mountains came knocking on my very local door, I opened it.
Landing in a polluted Kathmandu on a rainy autumn day, thrill was all that filled my mind. In the footsteps of all those boundary expanding Brits that went before me, I was here for the mountains. Here to tell a geographic story of excitement and loss. It was the landscape that drew me, but it was the people that marked me.
Still scarred by the horrors of the 2015 earthquake, the Langtang Valley was our destination. A valley marked with rock and loss. Loose mountainsides where ice was once the glue. Towns lost under the rubble of a changing biome. Mighty peaks strewn in the valleys, burying generations, their stories lost. Emptiness at height, where great rivers of ice once fed this mighty watershed. A world turned upside down by the consumption of my forefathers a globe away. Of myself.
The journey progresses through these valleys, and with eyes turned towards the goal above me, I very soon come to realise that the story I’ve come to tell lies not at the top, but at the bottom. The striking thing about travelling through the highest mountains of the world isn’t the snow-capped peaks, but the humanity living in the long-cast shadows.
Generations of wisdom, tenacity, suffering and joy etched into every friendly and curious face we meet. Happy and content, these are a people like no other; with so little but so much. Choosing simple rural toil over urban chaos and promised riches. A life devoid of the luxuries of development. A life devoid of the cause and yet marked by the effect. Rivers running dry and cliff sides perilously leering toward their upward gaze. Yet here they are, and here they choose.
After the 2015 earthquake, entire towns were lost. Blame for nature’s troubles cannot lie solely with humanities presence, and yet the question hangs heavy over these dark valleys. I begin to wonder if it is not the commanding summits, but the weight of that question that casts the shadow in the depths of my mind; what if?
What if there were no cars? No factories? No unfettered consumption? As distant to my doorstep as the threat of glacial collapse, these are a people with no contribution to the woes that now befall them.
And yet here they live. And they rebuild. Forever looking forwards and upwards to their holy peaks. The climate crisis is beginning to show as another line etched into their faces, old and young alike. The loss of life-giving glaciers and the threat of these mighty bastions collapsing under the weight of all humanity,; another worry added to a life already so full of uncertainty. Yet onwards and upwards they go, choosing not to blame but resolving to survive and thrive, summiting their own struggles beneath the watchful eye of the mountains.
This blameless love of life leaves me to consider my own troubles, no less valid, and yet all the more real to me. We are separated by oceans and mountains, yet my opulent life directly makes theirs harder. I resolve to take their story home with me, and carry it with me everywhere I travel; a marker for the reality of a global crisis on a local level.
I came here for the mountains. I left with the people.
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Written by Ryan Atkinson, Wildlife Cinematographer, Alpinist and POW UK Volunteer.