“The mountains are calling” has become the taqia-e-kalam or catchphrase for every Tom, Dick and Harry (replace them with local names if you must!) come climbing season in Pakistan. In fact, the mountains called more than a million tourists last year according to the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC). In fact, the PTDCO also confirms that a staggering 35% increase in domestic tourists has been experienced by the northern areas in recent years. This should come as no surprise. After all it is home to three of the world’s greatest mountain ranges, five of the world’s 14 highest peaks and three of the world’s largest glaciers outside the Polar regions – the Baltoro, Godwin Austen and Biafo glaciers – which also happen to be the largest fresh water reserves in the country. Local tourism to the area has taken a particular boost in recent years for a number of reasons including improved infrastructure, enhanced security, better hotels and immense social and traditional media attention. However, what those countless holiday snaps being passed around like popcorn don’t show is the severe pressure being felt by these fragile mountain ecosystems, brought on by this deluge of people who supposedly received a call from the mountains!
Environmental degradation in the area has progressively been increasing and awareness levels about the damage being inflicted are abysmal in Pakistan, especially when it comes to the Baltoro glacier: some 63 km of fresh water reserves leading to four 8,000 m peaks (including K-2), a popular destination for many of the expeditions and treks. In fact, according to the latest numbers available from the Central Karakorum National Park (CKNP) out of the 58 total mountaineering expeditions to Pakistan in 2012, 24 were to the Baltoro region alone, amounting to 1,356 total visitors, in addition to their support staff. Regrettably, the current systems in place to remedy the effects of tourism to the glacier are feeling the strain and are unable to sustain this level of traffic.
For instance, a Liaison Officers (LO) is commissioned to accompany each expedition to ensure that the group responsibly exits the glacier after the trek or climb – in theory. Unfortunately, LOs are often unaware of the actions of individual trekkers when walking, as it is impossible to keep track of every member individually. Additionally, LOs are only assigned to foreign groups, their primary function being that of maintaining security, as it is a restricted area. They are not Park Rangers as one would find in some National Parks abroad. Local groups are left to manage their own ethics, which sadly they often fail to do. Garbage is thrown with abandon on the trails and in camps. Some local tour groups go as far as spray-painting rocks, which proves extremely difficult – almost impossible – to remove. One group (which shall remain nameless) with multiple noted instances of this infraction that was contacted directly to manage their footprint by an NGO promptly told the petitioner to ‘go remove it yourself’ if there was so much concern. This is the mentality of some of the trekking enthusiasts from the south answering the call of the mountains. It is also important to note that this phenomenon is by no means only confined to the trails and glaciers in the north. Locals of Karimabad, the capital of Hunza Valley, apparently had to hire a tracker and trolley to remove the deluge of waste left behind on the main street after the Eid crowd finally departed in 2014.
Mandatory briefings including those on environmental considerations are another standard measure employed to prepare visitors for the trek, but again only to foreign groups. However, the share of foreign tourists in the total volume of visitors to the area is a mere 14% as opposed to the 86% who are local (Pakistani) tourists, according to a report by the Secretary of Tourism, Government of Gilgit-Baltistan. Local groups are significant perpetrators in environmental misconduct but often try to shift the blame on porters and local expedition staff. This is of course ludicrous, as most of the garbage found on the trail consists of boxes of biscuits, cans of food, empty juice boxes and candy wrappers. Anyone familiar with porters and their diet on a trek will know that they carry none of that due to the expense and subsist mainly on freshly stone-baked bread, dry fruit and some daal or vegetables.
There are also multiple NGOs and civilian organizations working to relieve this pressure and remove that which has been discarded carelessly on these magnificent wonders of nature. The Alpine Club of Pakistan (ACP) first started cleanup expeditions early in 1994. In 2012, they managed to remove a staggering 8,000 kg of waste left over by climbing expeditions in partnership with Italian NGO EVK2CNR. The Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network collected 2,750 kg in 2015 through their project “The Baltoro/K2 Clean-Up Expedition Camp 2015”. Islamabad based NGO High Altitude Sustainability Pakistan (HASP) and Skardu based NGO Khurpa Care Pakistan (KCP) collected and responsibly disposed a total of 11,195 kg of waste from the trail in 2015 and 2016 under their “Sustain Baltoro” cleanup expeditions. However, there is much more to be done as garbage continues to pile up year after year.
Liaison Officers are only assigned to foreign tourist groups, their primary function being that of maintaining security. Local groups are left to manage their own ethics which, sadly, they often fail at
An increase in the use of animals for porterage in recent years is also adding to the negative impact, with the trails sometimes supporting almost as much traffic in terms of mules, donkeys and horses as it does of humans. Compounding the damage from this footprint is also the fact that it is a border area, so there is additional pack animal traffic related to supply lines there, according to one stakeholder interviewed. For one thing, their waste is strewn all over the track as, unlike humans, they do not go off track to relieve themselves – they simply defecate on the glacier while on the go. Furthermore, animal rights aside, these quadrupeds are simply not meant for the rocky and slippery terrain of the glacier and its moraine. Many get injured and die, their rotting bodies left behind as a reminder of human cruelty and apathy. The carcasses directly on top of the glacier threaten to contaminate this important fresh water source. Water at the top of the country, which should be the purest, is currently undrinkable – with many porters and tourists often suffering from water-borne diseases unless it is boiled and treated before drinking. There is no estimate available currently of how many carcasses have accumulated on the glacier but, just as a marker, over the 2015-2016 period the HASP/KCP cleanup expeditions alone removed 89 pack animal remains from the glacier. It is arduous work involving sawing them into pieces to be able to pack and carry them down the glacier. Many other stakeholders are also hard at work attempting to regulate this with the help of the government in hopes that in the coming years the use of pack animals will be banned, especially on the Baltoro Glacier.
There are further problems regarding higher camps where nobody is working currently. When some groups return they leave their discarded tents, ropes or equipment behind – which is also one of the causes of environmental damage up there. A campaign led by Mountain Wilderness in the 1990s aptly named “Free K2” managed to bring back some abandoned ropes and equipment. However, since then there have been no such efforts. One seasoned mountaineer interviewed about this occurrence asserted that “When you are climbing you are only thinking about your own safety. It’s difficult enough to remove yourself from the mountain. So, bringing back rubbish or waste from that height is a real challenge”. According to him our High-Altitude Porters (HAPs) – or Khurpas as they are called in the local language – could prove extremely effective in gradually removing this waste. However, the cost of such an endeavour would be exorbitantly high. From Camp 1 or 2 a strong HAP can conceivably remove about 25kg to base camp. But as they go to the higher camps, the amount they can bring down reduces. Movement in that extreme environment is hard enough: carrying an extra load would be extremely difficult. Hence even though there is a dire need – especially on K2 – to remove the waste and ropes left behind on the higher camps, not much is being done currently to remedy this. These is also a safety hazard to future expeditions so there is a dire need for earnest, regular efforts to clean the higher camps as well.
Water at the top of the country, which should be the purest, is currently undrinkable – with many porters and tourists often suffering from water-borne diseases unless it is boiled and treated
It is tragic to witness that despite all the parallel efforts being conducted by separate well-intentioned groups, the waste is piling up as fast as they can bring it down. They are all working hard on their own initiatives but for this mammoth task a few organisations working separately or sporadically will not be enough. There is an urgent need for a large-scale effort which includes all the stakeholders, including the government. Innovative rules and regulations, as well as how to better enforce them, need to be discussed and negotiated. Research needs to be conducted on measures being tested by other countries – Nepal for instance, which is struggling with similar problems on the route to Everest. Awareness also needs to be raised as a priority amongst all groups and individuals travelling to the north on the importance of responsible and sustainable adventure tourism.
It seems that those being ‘called’ by the mountains don’t realise that it is a privilege, not a right, to have easy access to so many extraordinary trekking and climbing opportunities. At this rate, there won’t be anything left for the next generation if responsible tourism is not promoted rigourously and all stakeholders don’t come to the table as equals to discover effective solutions to protect our natural endowments.