In 1971 three Norwegian mountaineers embarked on what they called an 'anti-expedition', designed as a statement against prevailing, extractive climbing culture in favour of an ethical, place-responsive approach. Canadian outdoor educator Bob Henderson tells the story.
Bob, tell us about the original anti-expedition ...
In 1971, three Norwegians - Arne Naess, Nils Faarlund and Sigmund Kvaløy Setreng - decided to return to Nepal, after a 1969 trip, to not climb a noted sacred mountain: Tseringma in Nepalese, or Gauri Shanker as it is known in English. Tseringma is in the Rolwaling Valley, a noted Beyul, or sacred hidden valley, west of Everest. This would be the anti-expedition.
The group, all mountaineers, had become disillusioned by the militaristic assault on both the mountains and local mountain communities of Nepal - a rather joyless, heavily structured assault with only one goal: summiting. Though Tseringma had not been summited, there were 40 pending applications for first accents from Western countries. This Norse group felt there should be more to it all.
Naess, Faarlund and Kvaløy Setreng would arrive in the communities of Beding and Na at the foot of Tseringma and spend time in the community. They planned to gain the trust of the spiritual leaders and request “permission” to climb to a height that local leaders deemed suitable to the spirits of the mountain. Kvaløy Setreng would be important to this work, as he studied Buddhism during repeated visits.
The team would also make a film edited for Norwegian television, and write and speak regularly on the topic of LNS and the anti-expedition to inspire changes in Western travel and climbing culture: return to a “more gentleman way with good manners,” as Faarlund would say.
So what did they stand for? The three lived according to what they agreed was a ‘life necessity society’ (LNS), compared to the ‘industrial growth society’ (IGS) - or ‘advanced competitive industrial dominion’ (ACID), in Kvaløy Setreng’s eco-philosophical formulation. I’d say there were three pillars to the anti-expedition:
- Honouring local traditions - i.e. not climbing sacred mountains that local people did not wish to see summited.
- Bringing a place-responsive way of learning to the place of travel. Immersive tours as a form of ecotourism are relatively common now, but back then they were far ahead of their time. Place-based learning is a dominant approach to outdoor education which has evolved over the last decade away from distant travel locations with little attention to the specifics of local heritage and nature.
- Seeking a more ethically grounded way of travel that was more attentive to the communities visited. I do believe they made a splash, as it were, at the time. Tseringma was elevated in attention in climbing literature and not climbed until 1981 by an Australian group.
How much of a risk would the original anti-expedition crew have been running in making such a statement against the prevailing culture?
Plenty. But this was their modus operandi. These mountaineers had one foot on the mountain and another in ecology and philosophy. Ecosophy, deep ecology, ecophilosophy and the Nordic concept of friluftsliv were intellectual threads they championed, such that they were outspoken from before the anti-expedition. Working against cultural conventions was an ecological imperative. I can hear any of the three saying/responding: “we are all at risk, within the IGS, of eco-catastrophe.”
The group made a conscious effort to bring eco-philosophy to mountaineering, with attention on how to travel well ecologically, not just efficiently. Peder Anker’s 2020 book The Power of the Periphery contains an interesting, critically minded account of this work and how it related to and changed prevailing outdoor culture in the West.
Do you feel a lot has changed since that expedition, in terms of adventurers becoming more or less sensitive to travelling in an ethical, constructive way?
Eco-tourism, for one. They were at the forefront of thinking more about what is good for the place and people. However, the risk and attention and assault on the summit as the only crown - all that was amplified in the 1970s and remains with us still.
The Everest fiasco, for example, is something they foresaw. We all know about the waste on Everest - eleven tons of garbage was removed during a 45-day cleaning initiative on Mt Everest in 2019 - and the deadly traffic jams to the peak that many must endure as part of the experience now.
The impacts on mountain culture are harder to quantify, although Sherpa deaths far exceed “client” deaths. When the three began to climb Tseringma, they requested aid from local young men. Two joined them for a mutual exchange: the local men taught ritual practices, and the Norwegian taught rope work and other climbing techniques. Nils Faarlund was particularly known for his technical footwork.
This brings us to the followup expedition you’re part of. Tell us about it, and how an anti-expedition today will differ from the original.
The latest plan is that we are going in 2022 for six weeks or so with a small group of people fascinated by the 1971 story. Hence we refer to it as a “legacy project”.
We will travel along the valley, not upwards. It is a four-day walk now into Beding, and a half day beyond to Na (the summer home for many) from the end of the road. Beyond that is Tsho Rolpa Lake, much threatened by flooding with glacial meltwaters.
We’ve faced pressure to not travel post-pandemic with an “anti” label, which sounds bad for the business of tourism. Point taken. But our message around the three pillars - the same as the original expedition - is not meant to be mean-spirited. The pillars, dare I say, are even more important today.
We are now the Rolwaling Legacy Project/Journey 1971-2021/22, because we have secured $10,000 CAD for the Rolwaling Sangag Choling Monastery School in Beding. It will cover maintenance and new initiatives over a five-year period. We hope a new water supply will be installed initially, given the previous waterworks were destroyed in an earthquake. We also plan to fund an additional girl’s hostel/dorm and classroom. Given the five-year commitment we are confident in these projections.
We will be proactive in the community in other ways, too. Given we have been put on hold, we have time to assess what our contribution beyond financial support might be in the months ahead. We are in communication with the community and the school leaders by Zoom when they are in Kathmandu. The diversity of our team will lend itself to a variety of projects. We do know we plan to volunteer, teaching English in the community and exploring issues of climate change in the valley.
We also plan to use film, writing and speaking engagements to promote the original message. We hope a film blending images and messaging from the 1971 film will reach a wider audience than the first film, given international film festivals (we are taking the 1971 film back to the community so they can see it). Old men now remember the 1971 visit, and Kvaløy Setreng is known to the community for his many return visits. One of our partners in the school project has been told many stories about the 1971 visitors.
'We’ve faced pressure to not travel post-pandemic with an “anti” label, which sounds bad for the business of tourism. Point taken. But our message around the three pillars - the same as the original expedition - is not meant to be mean-spirited. The pillars, dare I say, are even more important today.'
This messaging seems to have informed how you went about forming a crew? I notice Kate Harris’ involvement - a writer we very much admire.
I found folks with a solid interest in Nepal and traveling with the right skills: a photographer, a filmmaker, a writer, a Buddhist study scholar, an academic of place-based outdoor education and two school teachers with curricular /classroom skills (for time in the school). You mention Kate Harris. She asked for us to keep her in the loop. We’ll see if she is free to join us. She mentioned the 1971 anti-expedition in an article for The Walrus. All team members were taken with the 1971 story as a unique mountaineering tale of super relevance today.
What do you hope to achieve?
It is all about messaging: inspiring others to see places and people more responsibly, in a more giving capacity rather than a harsh taking capacity. The three pillars of 1971 are even more necessary today. People will travel. But how can we travel better? Can we dwell more with a ‘nature as home’ mindset over a self-aggrandising ‘nature as a sparring partner’ perspective?
Of course, there will be environmental impact in all travel. We are keeping our group to a minimum and hope we can be part of a ‘new wave’ of travellers giving more than taking. We are not passing through quickly. We will get to know one valley well, not many valleys superficially.
You’ve worked in outdoor educational contexts for years. I wonder whether you’ve seen much change in how outdoor education (I suppose mostly in Canada) deals with the themes we’re discussing here?
I had to think about this to give a talk at an international conference about six years ago. I came up with four changes during my 40+ year career in outdoor education and guiding (mostly canoe) trips:
- Storification. People increasingly trust gadgets - commercial devices that separate us from nature more and more. For example, water purifiers even when the water is pristine. I lament folks not freely drinking from a cold spring without filtering it first. Another example is the loss of our ability to read the land, at least as an accompanying skill to support map reading. GPS isn’t bad per se, but over reliance is.
- Sportification. We are increasingly turning outdoor, self-propelled travel into sport. We valorise the physical too much. The spiritual - being in the present - is too easily lost to the bravado of physical challenge. Travel doesn’t have to be a ‘suffer fest’, but it is often thus to generate attention. Instead, we should take a few more days and really look around - come to know where we are: not in the Himalaya, but in this particular valley.
- Screenification. This is an obvious one. Students typically feel an emancipatory euphoria in giving up watches and phones for five days. I experienced that as a guide ten years ago. Contact with the world outside through a screen undoubtedly gains something, but intensely draws attention away from the moment. It loses something too, like missing the great play in a sport game cause you were looking down reporting on a lesser play moments ago.
- Safetyisation. Of course we must be safe, but that is a low bar it seems to me when it comes to our aspirations for travel or guiding. We must be more than safe. What about cultivating ecological consciousness? And seeking joy? I worry that the joy is getting lost in the safetyisation of outdoor culture. In my Canadian canoe-tripper context, axes have largely been removed from guiding trips for safety. But it is hard to get a warming fire in a three-day rain storm without an axe to get into wood! Now you have a bigger safety hazard in not being easily able to warm folks up.
'We are increasingly turning outdoor, self-propelled travel into sport. We valorise the physical too much. The spiritual - being in the present - is too easily lost to the bravado of physical challenge.'
In terms of adventure done right, where do you see good or exciting work being done?
I know an outfitter and guide in Nepal who is running ‘cultural immersion’ tours. There are lots of travel adventures for sure, but there is also cultural heritage and nature lore prominently shared. I also think of a summer camp in Ontario, Canada that used to identify with the joy of hard physical effort, but has now identified a collection of ‘joys’ to be intentionally appreciated when stopped at a swimming hole or having a silent paddle or stopping to talk with local folks on the trail.
I appreciate that I am prioritising the joys of travel over the singular joy of accomplishment. Some will prefer the rigours of the latter, but I think more will appreciate the relevance of the former - the many joys I have experienced for decades guiding. I am motivated mostly by what I have learned from years of guiding groups and watching what really excited individuals. Physicality, sure; but so much more.