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Cloudy Days on Everest

Each spring for the past 21 years I have been going to Nepal. And each spring since the 1920's mountaineers have made their way to the Himalayas to climb, discover and test the limits of their abilities—each with his or her own hopes and motivations. Sherpa climbers who lead the expeditions first visit their monasteries to do divinations and obstacle-removing prayers ahead of the precarious journey they are about to partake in.

It is a spring rite which takes place in Sherpa households across the Himalayas and now the world—partly via Skype in New York and California. If the gods answer their prayers, the men will return in mid-May with smiling broad faces burnt from exposure to the sun—and the spoils of their hard work. They're home safe and will replenish physically and spiritually until the fall when they must go back to work again.

{%{"quote":"The long-running exploitation of the climbing Sherpa was exposed by the horrific April 18 avalanche. This epic disaster has had worldwide impact. Will it last?"}%}

As our plane banks right over the Bay of Bengal, I look through the window to get a glimpse of the Himalayas, and see Chomolungma—Mother Goddess of the World—Sagarmatha, better known to the outer world as Mt. Everest. I am not sure why, but even from the safety of the plane I am anxious, happy, restless and am overcome by emotions with this glimpse of Everest—the huge majestic black rock which takes center stage perched above all other great mountains. I wonder who is out there, and if anyone is on the summit today. I look through a set of binoculars and imagine they are powerful enough to see people climbing. I pray that the weather does not change.

I was fortunate to be with Sir Edmund Hillary on a similar flight in 2003 when we took off from Kathmandu en-route to London as part of the 50th Everest Anniversary celebrations. The weather was clear and the pilot made a special effort to get us close to Everest. I remember Sir Ed looking through the window with his distinctive smile, pointing out the villages he had walked through that lead up to Khumbu. Knowing Sir Ed, he was probably thinking of a new route or how he could make a school building larger so more children would have the opportunity to study.

On my trip last month, however, the entire Himalayan range including Everest was shrouded in clouds. I could not begin to imagine the magnitude below of the sorrow, the angst, the pain felt across the funerals of the 16 who died in this year's avalanche, plus another Sherpa who had died two weeks prior.

Two things stand in sharp contrast for me in the aftermath of this tragedy. On the bright side, the global support and sympathy for the families has been overwhelming. In the eyes of the world Sherpas have always been proud, easy going and hardworking people. Over the years Sherpas have also been seen as the ones doing the hard work but seldom getting the credit. And their tragedies on the slopes of Everest have played out time and again. In the past three years alone, 24 Sherpa guides have perished on Everest. 

The long-running exploitation of the climbing Sherpa was exposed by the horrific April 18 avalanche. All of a sudden climbing Everest is not as cool any more. This epic disaster has had worldwide impact. Will it last? My personal hope is that anyone who wishes to climb Everest or any other mountain in the future will have a clearer understanding first of the economics of their choice. 

Although the Government of Nepal is an easy target and has become the punching bag in the past month for the grievances, standing in the shadows are expedition operators who profit handsomely. They marginalize and at times intimidate climbing Sherpas, most of whom have little education and no one who speaks for them. 

The Sherpas often are pawns in this deadly game that operators have no interest in changing. The climbing Sherpas know that if they raise any issue about pay, life insurance, and the heavy loads they carry or the great risks they bear for expedition clients, they and other family members might be blackballed when jobs are assigned for the next climbing season. 

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Kathmandu a week after the tragedy, I was shocked to hear several Everest operators express a total lack of empathy for what happened. "We have to live, too, and will need to pass any higher costs on to the western operators," one told me when I asked why salaries aren’t more equitable for the climbing Sherpas. He blamed the Nepali Government for any injustice.

I had to remind him that life insurance provided by operators for a climbing Sherpa in 1971 would be equal to $45,000 in today’s dollars, yet the families of those Sherpas who died on April 18 are to receive a meager $11,000. Nothing more. This is barely enough to pay funeral expenses and a couple years of school fees. Then what will these families do? 

An acquaintance of mine contacted nine Everest tour operators in the U.S. by telephone after the disaster. Could they do anything to help the dozens of parents, spouses and children who had just lost their sole bread-winner? Most answered that they were doing the best they could, but offered no specifics. Two had set up funds for the Sherpa families. Neither would they even speculate about how this disaster might change their business practices.

At the core of what I call Everest Inc. is the climber, the ultimate enabler of this exploitation. The numbers of casual, recreational adventurers on Everest have soared in recent decades. Anyone hoping to join their ranks now should be willing to ask hard questions both of themselves and the expedition companies they might choose.

Would they be able to look into the eyes of a climbing Sherpa's newborn child, then assure his family their conscience is clear about how this father, husband, uncle or brother will be compensated and protected? Do those agreed terms sufficiently recognize the great dangers the guides must face? Do the climbers understand the ethics of their choices?

On Thursday May 29th, we mark the 61st anniversary of the historic first ascent of Everest. Indelibly linked in our memories is an enduring symbol of the human spirit - the iconic image of a man in a mask - my father, Tenzing Norgay—standing tall on top of the world with clear blue skies as far as eyes can take you. That image will be clouded over quickly, replaced by more photos of funerals and grieving families, if things don't change.

Norbu Tenzing Norgay is a vice president of the American Himalayan Foundation, and the eldest son of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to summit Everest.

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Night Sky Over Delicate Arch

I stopped at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, on my way from Ohio to California. Because there are so many images of this famous landmark—most of which are taken at the same angle—I decided to get a different perspective. I couldn’t believe how dark the sky became at night. 

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The Mother of All Anti-Fracking Tools

In Mora County, New Mexico, a patchwork of prairie, foothills, and high peaks on the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, unemployment stands at 16 percent, county workers operate out of leaky temporary buildings, and the population density is so low—just two people per square mile—that the tiny community and its largest town, 300-person Wagon Mound, are still classified as frontier by state health officials.

In short, Mora isn’t the kind of place that comes to mind for a national showdown on fracking. But in April 2013, county commissioners took center stage in the fight by passing the Community Water Rights and Local Self-Governance Ordinance, which declared it illegal for companies to extract hydrocarbons anywhere in the county, making Mora the first in the U.S. to ban oil and gas drilling outright, on public and private land.

Not surprisingly, lawsuits soon followed. The county was sued in federal district court in Albuquerque late last year by the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) and three local property owners. In January, a second suit was filed by Shell Western, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s sixth-largest oil company.

The likely outcome? Busy lawyers. But the suits could also set a nationwide precedent by settling an interesting argument: Does a community’s right to self-governance trump the rights of corporations? The county ordinance’s basic aim is to protect the water supply in a parched region of a drought-stricken state, but it also contains a bill of rights for the environment, which argues that natural ecosystems “possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist.”

The lawsuit by Royal Dutch Shell claims that Mora County’s rule denies the company its constitutional rights, chief among them corporate personhood, which states that a business has the same rights as an individual. (The controversial Citizens United Supreme Court ruling cemented corporations’ constitutional right to free speech.)

“This ordinance denies our property interest by declaring to criminalize virtually any activity undertaken by a corporation relating to oil and gas exploration and production,” says Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell.

Some environmentalists say that’s the whole point and are eager to test it. The ordinance was drafted with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit. CELDF cofounder Thomas Linzey acknowledges that provisions in the document contradict existing laws, but he relishes the chance to defend the self-governance statute before a judge. As the case goes into litigation, tiny Mora County, which doesn’t even have a stoplight, could help usher in a series of similar laws, and CELDF is working hard to ensure that this happens. It’s a fight Big Green groups have failed to take up, says Linzey, so it’s being waged at the grassroots level.

“Environmental folks don’t seem to give a shit,” he says. “They complain that the existing laws, which are stacked against us, are the only tools we have. We say maybe you should invent some new tools, because you’re not protecting anything.”

Banning oil and gas extraction under the purview of local government isn’t new. In 2010, Pittsburgh became the first city to ban fracking, which uses high-pressure water and chemicals to release oil and gas from subterranean shale deposits. Since then, more than 400 municipalities have instituted similar resolutions. The bans have mostly come in the form of zoning changes that keep the industry outside city limits.

But gas companies don’t drill in cities; they drill in the areas around them. That’s what makes Mora County’s ordinance unique. It bans energy extraction from a huge undeveloped area, nearly 1.2 million acres of rolling prairie, piñon and ponderosa forests, and 13,000-foot peaks.

“The oil and gas industry felt like it could contain these sorts of initiatives on a city-by-city scale,” says Eric Jantz, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is defending Mora County in the suit brought by IPANM. “But once you start getting into countywide prohibitions, that’s something the oil and gas industry has bigger concerns about.”

John Olivas, the Mora County commission chairman who helped pass the ordinance, says county commissioners voted for the sweeping legislation because regulations and zoning rules—typical anti-fracking tools—are simple loopholes that the industry would one day march through. “If the price is right for these corporations,” he says, “they’re coming.”

Karin Foster, the executive director of IPANM, counters that Mora County has been commandeered by a rogue environmental group. “This community-rights ordinance appeals to uneducated people in small communities that feel like they need to fight the man,” Foster says. “I don’t think the people leading them have their interests in mind.”

Some locals agree. Mora County is 80 percent Hispanic, and many residents are suspicious of Anglo groups coming in with an agenda, be it industrial or environmental. “That’s a real missionary attitude, to come into a place and say, ‘We’re going to protect you,’ ” says Sofia Martinez, an environmental -justice activist from Wagon Mound. Martinez opposes fracking, but she wishes that the county had taken a regulatory approach, one that didn’t expose it to potentially lengthy and expensive lawsuits. (Though the county has pro bono representation, by CELDF, among others, it may have to pay damages if it loses.)

Mora County’s case is likely to take years to resolve. Any ruling will almost assuredly be appealed, moving the case to the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver. But for now, Mora has become a cause célèbre, with other counties—like San Miguel, in New Mexico, and Johnson, in Illinois—considering similar bans. Cities and counties are now even working on community ordinances outlawing things like factory farms and GMO crops.

“We’ve all heard about Mora County,” says Sandra Steingraber, one of the nation’s most outspoken anti-fracking activists and author of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Steingraber has been watching the fight all the way from upstate New York, where she’s battling at the township level. “The science is certainly on our side, and it points to the need for a nationwide ban,” Steingraber says. “Now we’ll see if the law ends up on our side.”

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How the Clintons are Stopping Traffic

It’s no secret that Africa’s elephants are in danger. Widespread poaching, fueled by demand for ivory in China and ineffective regulation, have led to alarming population losses, from 1.2 million in 1980 to only 500,000 this year. Today, approximately 96 African elephants are killed by poachers every 24 hours. Last September, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI)—a project of the Clinton Foundation—launched an $80 million effort to bring together foreign governments and NGOs to help protect the seven-ton mammals, in part by capitalizing on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic experience. Millie Kerr sat down with Chelsea Clinton, the 34-year-old vice chairwoman of the family foundation, to check in on the early progress.

OUTSIDE: How did this issue hit your radar?
Clinton: In 2012, we realized that we’d been unaware of the crisis—similar to what it had been in the 1980s—and we were both sheepish about that, because we think we’re pretty plugged-in people. When my mom was secretary of state, one of the things that drew her attention to this was the fact that the Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Kony, the Al-Shabaab and the janjaweed in West Africa, Al Qaeda in North Africa, and many of the rebel and terrorist groups in Central Africa are trafficking not only in guns and humans, but in ivory.

And that prompted the initiative?
When my mom left the government, we knew this was one of the areas we wanted to work on together. She had relationships with many of the leaders who impact the demand or trafficking. We thought that, through CGI, we could bring together those people—governments, NGOs on the ground, foundations that can help fund the work—to really make a coherent, coordinated effort. For the first time in recent history, it became clear what the governments, NGOs, and academic partners were committing to in order to stop the killing, traffic, and demand.

Have you seen any progress?
There’s been tremendous progress, especially on the demand side, though we certainly don’t deserve credit for much of it. In China, influential CEOs pledged to no longer give ivory as gifts, and [former NBA star] Yao Ming has been a tremendous champion in his work with WildAid, which has run a number of campaigns in China that seem to be making a difference. Most of the ivory in the world is sold in China and Vietnam, though also here in the United States. We worked with the president’s task force on wildlife trafficking, and we’re thrilled with the policy that emerged from that, which is to ban all commercial imports of African ivory into this country. I think that’s an important step—not only in helping stop the demand, but also for our moral authority. 

You were in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zambia last year. Did you see 
an impact on the ground?
I saw an SMS platform that lets local villagers report poachers. That’s been successful—not necessarily in stopping the poaching, but in limiting and deterring it. They used to find multiple carcasses of elephants that had been poached by the same group. Now, with this early-alert system, the rangers are able to deploy. They may not be able to save that first elephant, but they can save the second or third.

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