Entries from Responsible Climbing
June 17, 2020
Categories: Responsible Climbing
Black Lives Matter. This isn’t a belief or personal opinion; it is a fact. And here at RMI we feel it is time for us to speak up about it. The last few weeks have been incredibly painful and emotional, but for the Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) communities in our nation, the last few weeks are representative of daily life – this is just one of the times the rest of us decide to tune in. The murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others are not isolated events. They are the painful and violent windows into the systemic racism that underlies nearly every part of our lives. It is especially noticeable in the outdoors.
We have always seen nature, and specifically the mountains, as the ultimate equalizers. The mountains do not care about your race, ethnicity, gender, economic background, sexuality, or disability. If the mountains do not want you to summit, no amount of wealth or privilege will get you to the top. But the mountains, and their equalizing power, come at the end of the approach, and what we often forget is that the approach is much longer for some of us than for others. So many of us take our privilege for granted, the privilege that allows us to simply put on our boots and start climbing. But for millions of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, there are countless barriers between them and the mountains. Economic restraints, white-washed media, a lack of outdoor education, subtle racism on trails and in parks, and a plethora of other issues conspire to keep BIPOC out of the outdoors. According to a 2014 national park study, 91% of all national park visitors in the Pacific Northwest are white. This needs to change.
We have been asked, rightly so, why we have not released a statement clarifying our position sooner. We did not feel it was right to say something without first educating ourselves and understanding the barriers faced by BIPOC in the outdoors. The need for this education can be seen as an indictment of our own complacency over the years. A few weeks is not enough time to call ourselves fully educated on the topic, but we are trying. Here at RMI Expeditions, Whittaker Mountaineering, and Bight Gear we are now in the process of gaining that education with the goal of taking significant actions to reduce barriers and increase representation of BIPOC in the outdoors.
We want to use our voice and our capital in a more meaningful way than a one-time donation or post, because this issue is endemic. To design and implement the kind of long-term, high impact program we have in mind, we need time. We will be releasing an action plan in the coming weeks and look forward to your suggestions and ideas, as we still have a lot to learn about our privilege and the ways we can best help our BIPOC outdoor community. And once our action plan is released, we ask that you check in on us and hold us accountable, whether that is in two months, two years, or two decades.
The mountains have the potential to provide adventure, fulfilment, growth, and wonder to people of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexualities. It is high time we help BIPOC communities grasp that potential.
Owner of Bight Gear, RMI Expeditions, and Whittaker Mountaineering
April 28, 2015
Categories: Guide News Responsible Climbing
All of us at RMI are truly grateful for the support shown in regards to our Everest climbing team, Sherpa team, and guides—Dave Hahn
, JJ Justman
, and Mark Tucker
. Our thoughts are with our team, the people of Nepal, and all those affected by this tragedy.
It may be weeks before we really can comprehend the damage and devastation caused by this earthquake. While the rugged and mountainous terrain are a big part of what makes Nepal beautiful, this terrain also makes it very difficult to help those in need after such a major catastrophe.
There are many great organizations helping out with disaster relief efforts in Nepal, and more help and money is definitely needed. We feel the best way to help is by donating to organizations that are directly involved with the disaster response. The organizations listed below have staff members in Nepal and are working hard to provide clean water, food, shelter, and medical aid to those in need. These selected organizations have also been vetted on the charity rating site Charity Navigator
and score well for their accountability, transparency, and financial standards.
We want to encourage everyone to do what they can to help the people of Nepal.
Doctors Without Borders
American Red Cross
We thank you for your continued support as our team, and many others, begin their journey home.
RMI Guide Alex Van Steen
recently presented at Sustainable Summits: The International Mountain Conference on Environmental Practices
, hosted by the American Alpine Club in Golden, CO. Alex was invited to discuss RMI’s partner-building efforts on our Carstensz Pyramid Expedition
. Carstensz Pyramid, a steep limestone peak located on the island of New Guinea and one of the world’s Seven Summits
, is one of the least accessible peaks of the Seven Summits and presents a mix of environmental, cultural, and outfitting challenges. On major expeditions the success and overall experience of the adventure depends largely on the close ties of the team, including with local partners. RMI is very active in creating close-knit relationships with our local partners. To that end, Carstensz also best exemplifies RMI’s efforts in creating long-term and sustainable partnerships in leading our adventures and in our dedication to Responsible Climbing.
At the Sustainable Summits Conference, Alex introduced the concept of “Giving Relationship” in developing partnerships to the gathering of land managers, climbers, planners and scientists representing the world’s mountainous regions.
“The model that we propose is the model that RMI uses all over the world. The difference here is that Papua is so challenging on so many fronts and the culture is so significantly different than anything we’ve experienced anywhere else in the world. Our model is a social ethic, a little bit like “Leave no trace,” the environmental ethic, or “Do no harm,” the medical ethic, but focused in a positive manner: “Giving Relationship” is our social ethic,” explained Alex.
To best explain the concept of “Giving Relationship,” Alex shared several stories from his time in Papua:
“The essential question when I was speaking with [local Papuans] was, “If you want a partnership, what does partnership look like for you? What do you want?”
“Moses Sondagau works with the local regency government. He and I walked together from one village, Sugapa, to another, Hitadipa, which was about four hours, and we had a significant time to chat. What I learned was that Moses had worked with tour operators for the past decade or so as a porter, and the abuses that he saw toward the porters spurred him to work for the government on behalf of his people.
“Moses now ensures that commercial operators treat their porters well and pay their porters as promised. What he told me was only 75% of the porters had been paid as promised. His task is not an easy one because he is effectively policing both foreign operators as well as the Indonesian operators. That said, he was shocked because I spent so much time chit-chatting with him on the way to Hitadipa. I asked him about his family, I showed him pictures of my own family, and I engaged in what I consider just standard kindnesses that you would show to anybody who you were walking a few hours with, but he told me that no foreigner had ever expressed so much interest in him as a person as I did that day. This really rather shocked me. I told him, “Moses, you are an ‘usua me,’ you are a good man, you’re working on behalf of your people and you’re doing a hard job.” He sincerely appreciated that.
“In this arena of going into schools and sports clinics and churches, I was invited and took the opportunity to speak at two church services, I assisted with an inter-faith Muslim/Christian soccer camp, and I spoke in two high school classrooms at an international school. One of my most intense experiences came in this arena.
“We’d been hiking through the jungle all day and the rain was just incessantly pouring on us. We were coming into a village called Gamagae and all of a sudden I hear all these men yelling. As I am walking into town I see all these people running toward me and one of them was highly agitated, really waving his arms and yelling loudly. This is how I was introduced to Atan Topani.
“I know a bit about Moni culture - I know that they speak loudly; I know that their language is clipped; I know that they don’t smile the same way that we smile, at least not right off the bat – so I was aware of that – but I also didn’t see any or didn’t hear any of the standard language that let me know that they were welcoming me. They were yelling but I wasn’t hearing ‘amakanea,’ ‘amakanenga,’ some of the welcoming phrases that I normally hear.
“Atan was really upset because the last tourist group to come through had come into his church and made a mess. They cooked in his church and left garbage in his church and then left the village. Understandably, he was upset. He wants tourists. He really wants tourists. But he needs tourists to behave considerately. Atan and I spent about two hours doing what’s called “muna muna” - “men’s talk.” Together we developed the “Sugapa Route Visitor Protocols
” for travelers: what to do or what not to do when you visit these villages.
“Here again, the essential question was, ‘Atan, if you want a partnership, what does a partnership look like?’ And Atan says, ‘I want visitors, and they are welcome to use our church as shelter, but I want them to be considerate of my community.’ When I came home, I translated this document into Bahasa Indonesian, Dutch, German, Spanish, Japanese and Russian, and now they are ready to be posted in different villages along the Sugapa route.”
Part of a “Giving Relationship” entails sitting down on equal terms and discussing the desires and needs of both parties. A simple concept, yet not always followed in many outfitting practices.
“In my most recent trip, I spent just under a month and visited about ten communities, going village-to-village and connecting with random individuals.
“One of the other cultural differences that really was striking to me was that even if you enjoy conversation or you consider yourself a patient person, you have nothing on the Moni. The Moni absolutely love to converse and converse. I found that I had to sit for hours and hours and converse, which was really challenging for me. When I would converse with the people, when I would sit in their huts and at their tables and tell them that I was traveling through the land - rather than helicoptering - to meet the people whose lands I wanted to travel with my customers, they were all incredibly receptive. As a matter of fact, one gentleman – said, ‘This is good talk. This is good talk.’ I won’t ever forget that because it means so much for the Moni to say that.”
A "Giving Relationship" goes beyond being empathetic and actively listening. It also means contributing the skills and experiences we have to our partners in order to prepare them for future collaborations. During his recent visit to Papua, Alex led a training seminar for local porters to teach the practices and progressions of a climbing expedition.
“I had arranged with our Moni partner for various Moni villages to come together – or the men in those villages to come together – in one place and participate in a seminar where we could teach them how to work with tourists. The training seminar was a raging success. We discussed what was working well in other areas where we operate, like our Peru and our Nepal treks, what wasn’t working well, such as porters being mistreated, which we hear a lot about, and what we might need to change, for example, there is no plan at all for human waste in Papua. We discussed how to keep the porters healthy and safe along the trek and in the mountains, we practiced setting up tents, and we concluded by awarding certificates of accomplishment to the porters who participated in the training so that they could show evidence of learning to whatever tour operator might want to hire them; not just our guides, not just us.
“It is difficult to know if this is accurate or not, to be quite honest, but I was told that this was the very first time that a foreigner ever hosted a seminar for indigenous Papuan people; this is the very first time that an indigenous Papuan man was the tour operator rather than an Indonesian or a foreigner. Thirty-five men from varying villages, some were Moni, some were of the Dani tribe, received certificates.”
“Giving Relationship” is far more than a simple catch phrase, it’s a long and complicated process but one that we feel is the only legitimate way to pursue a sustainable partnership.
“As a biased-toward-action American, I wanted to do more. We all do; we want to do it all. But the truth is that relationship building is an incredibly slow and incredibly lengthy process…I don’t immediately even expect others to replicate the couple of years and all the trips of relationship building that I’ve done there, especially not if you’re only going there for a one or two week adventure and maybe once in your life. But in visiting anywhere even once, we can know so much more about this place than simply, ‘I need rubber boots because there’s a lot of mud!’ We can know a lot more than that.
“We believe that this social ethic of “Giving Relationship” does equal access in Papua, not just for the sake of access, but also for the sake of the people and the land there,” explains Alex.
In simple terms, this type of relationship building and long term approach to our partnerships and our climbing objectives is the right thing to do.
See the full presentation here…
Alex Van Steen
is a Supervisor at RMI with over 240 ascents of Mt. Rainier by way of more than 20 routes. Since 2012, Alex has led RMI’s effort to create a sustainable tourism industry and developed RMI’s position as the only western commercial guide service to partner with an indigenous Papuan outfitter. He has taken his training and education to Papua and spent time with local community leaders building relationships as well as training and educating porters to work with expeditions. Additionally, Alex has spent more than a decade involving himself in community outreach and education. Locally, he works extensively with at-risk youth as a mentor, pastor, and guardian.
Every summer, RMI climbing teams consume over 7,000 gallons of drinking water at Camp Muir, the primary camp on Mt. Rainier
's Disappointment Cleaver Route. For many years, melting snow in a large barrel heated by propane created drinking water for Camp Muir. We knew that there was a better way to provide drinking water to our teams and it just required a little bit of creativity, brainstorming, and initiative. Over the course of the 2012 and 2013 climbing seasons, a new solar thermal system was installed at Camp Muir. This system, designed to use environmentally benign and free solar energy to efficiently melt snow, provides drinking and cooking water for RMI climbers and guides at an elevation of 10,060'. The system was designed and built by RMI Guide and alternative energy professor Mike Uchal
and his colleague Dr. Brian Raichle, who is a professor of solar energy technology at Appalachian State University. RMI Guide Cody Doolan also contributed with the design, installation, and maintenance. RMI's Solar Snow Melt System, part of our commitment to Responsible Climbing
, reduces our environmental footprint on Mt. Rainier by minimizing the need to burn liquid propane gas in order to melt snow, cuts our operating costs, and reduces the environmental footprint of the helicopter used to transport propane to Camp Muir.
How it works:
A small electric pump powered by photovoltaic panels pulls water from the burn barrel, a large barrel used to melt snow, uphill to a solar thermal collector. The collector, a conventional flat plate solar thermal collector is the kind that is typically used in residential and commercial domestic hot water systems. The water is pulled by gravity through the copper pipes in the collector and is heated by solar radiation before returning to the melt barrel. RMI guides keep the barrel fed with clean snow from the snowfields above Camp Muir and this snow mixes with the warm water and melts into liquid form. A controller turns on the pump in the morning and off at the end of the day when the sun goes down. Because the collector is uphill of the barrel, gravity drains water from the collector at night to prevent damage from freezing water. This system design eliminates any problems associated with overheating during late season conditions when solar energy can be plentiful and strong.
How it performs:
On warm, sunny days at Camp Muir, typical in the late summer, the solar snow melting system heated the 30+ gallons of water in the burn barrel to above 100°F. That is nearly spa temperature! On cold, sunny days, often found early in the season, the system heated water to temperatures above 40°F - enough to effectively melt snow. Propane is still used during storms that last several days, when solar radiation isn’t strong enough to heat the collector, but the solar snow melting system dramatically reduced the amount of propane burned during the 2013 summer climbing season.
Anecdotally, before the 2013 climbing season the propane burner was running for around 3.5 hours per day to melt enough snow to provide drinking water for the RMI teams. During the 2013 climbing season, guides estimate that the burner was needed on average around 15 minutes per day. During the summer climbing season of 2013, we estimate the solar system saved approximately 250 pounds of propane, the associated cost of transport that propane, and 0.33 metric tons of CO2 emissions.
This project is part of RMI’s commitment
to the outdoor community and environment as we work to reduce the environmental footprint of our climbs in order to ensure that many future generations are able to enjoy the same mountain environment that we enjoy. The RMI Solar Snow Melt System is a great example of practices that can reduce a business' environmental footprint and provide cost savings at the same time. By the end of its first full year at Camp Muir, the system paid for itself with savings in fuel and helicopter transport costs. The next time you make it to Camp Muir, swing by the guide shack and check it out! The guides would love to show you the system in person.
is a Professor of Alternative Energy at Appalachian State University and guides trips on Mt. Rainier and Mt. McKinley
for RMI Expeditions. Mike lives the mountain life, rock climbing, paddling whitewater, mountain biking, trail running, and skiing whenever he has spare time.
Yesterday, RMI Guide Alex Van Steen
joined a host of other local professionals at Columbia Crest STEM School
’s First Annual STEM Career Fair. The presenters who were invited to speak tied their professions directly into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and encouraged the approximately 125 first through sixth grade students to see the connection between what students were learning in the classroom and what knowledge and skills professionals required in their careers.
The presenters included geologists, meteorologists, naturalists, biologists, veterinarians, computer programmers, science librarians and a variety of other environmental educators. While Alex tied his roles in environmental management, human resources management, and job place safety to the STEM program, the truly exciting part for the students came when they had the opportunity to put hands on all the climbing and mountaineering gear used for the mountain climbing demonstration. Students crawled around in tents and into -30 sleeping bags, saw short demonstrations of how camming units and pitons (yes, pitons!) worked, and some students even donned an 8,000 meter down suit. Big smiles, lots of questions and fun learning!
Long-time RMI Guide, Alex Van Steen
, visited a local second grade classroom at Columbia Crest STEM School
as part of RMI’s Community Outreach program. STEM schools, a relatively new concept in Washington State, have a distinct emphasis on hands-on learning and the integration of science, technology, engineering and math into student lessons. RMI
has partnered with Columbia Crest STEM
to bring our mountaineering experiences right into the classroom. With Alex, the second graders studied the essential question, “What causes a volcano to erupt?” Students thoroughly enjoyed the lesson and learned ways to explain and create their own shield, composite, cinder cone and caldera volcanoes!
RMI Guide Alex Van Steen
In February 2013, I spent several weeks in West Papua with the express intention of connecting with villagers who live along the trek followed by our Carstensz Pyramid
climbing programs. I traveled with two translators - one a long-time friend who grew up in West Papua and the other a member of the Moni tribe, a man who truly has a good heart for his people.
I visited about ten villages and had numerous trailside chats. I spent many hours chatting (as well as eating, and playing soccer & table tennis!) and had opportunities to share our vision with various folks: government officials, village elders, tribal chiefs, pastors and school teachers.
The constant thread throughout the conversations involved villagers expressing frustration with tourists who came to “take photographs” and “take summits” but who did not (as it was described to me) “give relationship.” It is understandable that folks were upset when they weren’t paid as promised by unscrupulous outfitters or when they felt unsafe being asked to porter into the high country (the tribal peoples have not traditionally traveled above the jungles, see story below), but it truly resonated with me that when they felt most disrespected was when they were treated as if they were nothing more than pack animals. Quite frankly, they explained, why should they leave their tribal community and upset their daily lives only to be mistreated or underpaid?
|The Moni name for Carstensz is Mbai Ngela. It means "Forbidden Egg." The story is that in years gone by when the mountain was snow covered, it resembled an egg, and the fore-fathers forbade their people from going there because it was the hunting grounds of evil spirits and those spirits always killed those who ventured there. Even today, villagers have a very difficult time understanding the science of hypothermia and often will point to and tell of places along the way where the spirits have killed a poor wayfarer!
I knew that in order to eat this elephant, I would need to take it one bite at a time, so I started with small bites of “giving relationship.” I found that when I played soccer (which I am convinced is the lingua franca of relationship) with the local men and boys on village airstrips, that we had laughs to share (mostly at me tripping on the uneven surface!); when I offered to show folks photos of my family, they showed me their village (!); and for all my “otherness” (some folks, I was told, had never seen white-skinned people), I was never
denied the hospitality of a meal or a hut as respite from the rain.
Another small bite was the creation of the protocols (below) to be posted in a church along our route. The pastor in this village of twenty people, a good man named Atan, had initially wanted to run me off. I agreed to keep walking, but in deepening the conversation as to why, I learned that an earlier group of tourists had – in his word – “desecrated” the church by leaving garbage there. I whole-heartedly agreed that such practices were unacceptable, and offered to create protocols to instruct tourists how to behave. Through my translators I was able to build a simple list of what it would take for his village to feel respected. They fully wanted tourists to stop for the night but they also needed tourists to respect that privilege.
As I look forward to my next trip, I hope to take a few more bites of the elephant!
THE SUGAPA ROUTE VISITOR PROTOCOLS
This church serves an important role in the community. Guests are welcomed to find refuge here and are asked respect the following requests. This will help ensure use of the building for future travelers.
• Please stay off of the raised area which surrounds the altar. This area is for local religious personnel only and it is considered offensive if others trespass there.
• Please keep hot water, stoves & cookware out of the building. This helps keep the area clean.
• Please hang a trash bag just outside the building to collect your garbage. Villagers will burn your trash for you.
• Because of the importance of Sunday worship, travelers should not expect access to the building on Saturday evenings or Sundays.
• Please do not use the church grounds or property for toilet needs. Ask the Pastor of the church where it is appropriate to wash and use the bathroom.
• Please offer a donation for your use of the church. This is an appropriate and considerate way of expressing thanks.
Download a multi-lingual copy of the Sugapa Route Visitor Protocols here
In every part of the world where we travel, some RMI individual is tasked with developing & maintaining the quality program presented on the web. Whatever their role, that individual typically has a personal attachment, investment and history with the lands, mountains or peoples visited during the program. Their effort includes much more than simply creating an appealing itinerary and a glitzy web presence. The behind-the-scenes work includes addressing RMI’s environmental responsibilities, social responsibilities, and the development of solid logistical support, from understanding local customs to establishing a safety net. Most importantly, this effort involves building relationships with the local community, helping to ensure that we operate as partners wherever we travel with whomever we work. For Carstensz Pyramid in Papua, New Guinea, I get to be that individual.
The description of our program
strikingly claims that we are the only outfit in the Western Hemisphere to partner exclusively with indigenous Papuans. Does it make you wonder how that came to pass?
Papua’s somewhat notorious reputation extends beyond the daily rain, and slick mud and logs of the jungle trek, and beyond the remote nature, sharp rock, and high altitude of the actual climb. And that’s already a lot! Truthfully, for those who research their objectives carefully, Papua’s reputation extends even beyond the uncertainty and flexibility required to visit an area where political tensions and security concerns exists. Shouldn’t you choose your outfitter most carefully?
In February I spent approximately three weeks in New Guinea’s “interior” with the intention not just to climb Carstensz Pyramid again, having guided a recent trip, but, as I enjoy saying, “I went to meet people.” Most of my time was spent among the Moni and Dani tribes of the highlands, but I also had the opportunity to shake hands with Indonesian government officials, Papuan regency representatives, folks with the Freeport mine, school teachers, pastors and missionaries, both Indonesian and expat, village elders, and even folks who were likely associated with the freedom movement (though that was difficult to tell because it seemed like politics was on everyone’s lips.)
I met a lot of people, explained what I was up to, and had many discussions with many people (with both tribal and Bahasa Indonesia translators helping me). Some folks expressed utter amazement that I was walking through their lands. This is predominantly because I was off the beaten path, i.e., not on the traditional, historical routes which have seen a good bit of use (and abuse). My presence also elicited appreciation (something I didn’t necessarily expect) because I was choosing to walk through the land rather than helicopter over it. Very practically speaking, people explained, flying over their lands excludes them from the benefits tourism can bring. I was already convinced that the model for sustainable tourism needed to include the indigenous peoples who inhabited the lands we wish to travel though en route to Carstensz, and spending all these weeks on the ground emphasized my sense for following socially responsible practices.
RMI's commitment to Responsible Climbing
pursues environmentally and socially responsible practices. This is simple enough to say, but a significant investment of time, energy & money is required to make good on those words. I have been told by many of the people with whom I connected in Papua, that my “relationship building” excursion (which included porter and trekking guide training, as well as discussions regarding tourist behaviors and expectations for each of the villages along the trek) was the first of its kind by a Western outfitter.
Sadly, the people of Papua (whether indigenous or Indonesian) have become accustomed to transactions which center solely around the exchange of money. I would suggest that for a tribal culture, where community is highly valued, to encounter trekkers & climbers with expectations to “take” home interesting stories, photographs and a summit, who repeatedly fail to “give” relationships, virtually guarantees a poor experience for both sides. I’m not trying to paint too broad of a picture because the truth is that each individual Papuan also wants what is best for his/her own person, family or tribe, just as we do in the West. I do, however, suggest that our social responsibility must encompass more than just paying porters well for work done well. Failure to build strong relationships will lead further down the present path experienced by many Western outfitters: where porters feel poorly treated and are sometimes not paid, and where tourists feel exploited and are sometimes extorted. Looking further down that path, do you wonder what it might look like? It looks just like the tensions which closed the route through Beoga years ago after hostages were taken. It looks just like the tensions which are currently threatening the Illaga route following a hostage/extortion situation in July 2012, or the abandonment and subsequent death of a sick Danish climber by a highly experienced outfitter. It looks just like an increasing number of operators who no longer have the option to peaceably travel through tribal lands and now offer helicopter transit up and over “tribal tensions.” And honestly, with some of the political and societal tensions which exist, unless outfitters work to develop relationships which are in line with indigenous tribal cultures, tourists will have no options other than to hire armed police or military to escort them through tribal lands. Wouldn’t it be more culturally and socially responsible to build relationships with the native peoples in which both parties collaborated to build a sustainable model of tourism?
I encourage you to follow my blog at http://climbcarstensz.wordpress.com
as I continue to share stories of what I have learned and of what we seek to build over time.