A Greenpeace team is in the Himalayas documenting the impacts of climate change on the glaciers of the world's highest mountain. They've brought some old photos with them, and will hopefully be able to document before and after shots of a glacier.
John normally runs the photo desk here at the Greenpeace International office. As you might have gathered, there's a lot of "desk" involved with the job, but for the moment work has taken him far from the comforts of our Amsterdam office.
Here are his personal updates and photos:
20th April 2007 - Lhasa, Tibet
I can hardly believe it, after months in the planning, here we are, the Greenpeace team checking into the Lhasa Youth Hostel, for relaxation after the 6 hour flight from Beijing. Suddenly being in Lhasa the difference between Beijing at 600 meters and now at 3600 meters means my poor brain and muscles are craving oxygen and a kind of dizziness, headache and lethargy has taken over me.
Our team leader insists we rest but as soon as my head hits the pillow the pressure begins and I am decidedly uncomfortable. For the trip ahead we are planning to reach 5800 meters to middle RongBu, one of Mount Everest’s mighty glaciers. There, the team is planning to revisit the exact viewpoint from a 1968 image and recreate a comparison image…..am I going to make it, I scarily ask myself as I try to adjust to my new place – the roof of the world.
Why make a comparison picture of a glacier? Well these great glaciers of Everest are a water source to the major rivers of China and India serving millions of people and they are melting, retreating and disappearing, as out comparison picture will show, in just shy of 40 years!
Enough thoughts of the trip ahead try and rest we have a day in Lhasa tomorrow, taking it all in very slowly and where acclimatising is the key to success at the moment.
21st April 2007 – Llasa, Tibet
A late start and breakfast of Water rice, Yaks yoghurt and duck eggs in a nearby Tibetan Restaurant. I am slowly gaining ground from the altitude change and decide with a few colleagues to explore the city very gently. The sun is hot, the air dry but crystal clear.
From a short walk we find a small temple near the market and having my camera with me start shooting wildly. Suddenly from the main street we are in large courtyard surrounded by local people and monks chanting and spinning the famous Tibetan prayer wheels.
The people are warm and friendly with dark skin and red cheeks from the high altitude and the atmosphere and light is intoxicating, everywhere I look there is picture to be had. As a photographer sometimes you find yourself in a situation where there is almost too much to capture. This is one of those moments. I think to myself this is the real thing, not a show for tourists but a deeply religious and spiritual land where Buddhism is full on all day every day.
We find a restaurant for lunch and I settle for western foods as my stomach is still in the adjustment phase. It’s about 2.30pm and I am exhausted and need to return to the hotel for rest. Indeed it’s been a very exciting few hours but still need to gain the strength for the road ahead.
23rd April 2007
Our destination today will be Tingri, a small monastery town well in the Himalayas and on route to Everest Base camp. We break the start of our journey to visit a typical Tibetan farming village to interview them about changes in their water feed and get background pictures of working people in the Himalayan region. Get some great shots of the farmers still working the land with Yaks with very little evidence of industrialised farming.
Onward and a late lunch of beef and potatoes and Yaks milk tea. A tea that’s decidedly an acquired taste, a hint of English tea but buttery, thick and a light herbal after taste. Surprisingly it goes down well especially when the host recomends it for altitude sickness warding off colds and fevers.
Back in the Land Cruisers and we start a long and arduous climb to the dreaded peak of 5100 meters before our decent to Tingri 4400 meters. We get to the top in a blizzard and take pictures quickly of the big arch across the road festooned with player flags, which states ‘You our now entering Qomolangma Nature Preserve’. Its freezing and we jump back into the vehicle out of the snow. Sadly our guide says on a good day there is an unsurpassed panoramic view of the range including Everest. By the way, my guide has been to the summit of Everest twice, I am in awe of him. Onward to Tingri, It’s late, food and rest.
25th April 2007
The night before over dinner my Chinese colleagues explained as I was under a Tibetan tourist visa and they were under a China group visa when it came to check point with the Chinese soldiers I was on my own. The story goes - I was a friend they met in Lhasa and they were giving me a lift to Everest.
Next day at the checkpoint with all my papers at the ready and feeling strangely uneasy the soldiers ignored me. The soldiers don’t want to see the foreigner says our driver. Once through the gate we all burst out laughing as they could sense my relief and irony. In the late afternoon we arrive at Rongbu Temple Camp with much ado with police cars milling around.
Later we found out some American tourists had held a "Free Tibet" banner. A serious offence in China. We didn't need this, for our work will involve banners too. Later the clouds lifted and Everest stood proud against the deep blue sky in the late afternoon light. I felt humbled and elated at the same time. Here I am looking at the highest point in the world.
26th April 2007
Everest Base Camp is vast array of gravel and stone dotted with small collections of tents housing teams from all over the world preparing for the summit. We make our little Greenpeace encampment while the guides prepare food.
Ironically, our Greenpeace Climate team needs lots of energy for laptops, mobiles and camera gear yet all energy is from the generators owned by the larger camps. To solve this one of our guides takes us to his company’s HQ, one of the more permanent encampments and we enter another world. I am greeted by a large warm marquee style tent with stoves and gas heaters with tea being served to a large group of employees lounging around on sofas to watch a Japanese gangster movie on a large screen with surround sound.
There is also a large red carpet covering the whole floor. We get our batteries charged, watch the movie and drink tea. My thoughts wander to our Greenpeace two man sleeper tents waiting in the bitter cold just 3 minutes walk away.
27th April 2007
We wake up to thick snow. However it is training day and after breakfast get kitted out for a 3 hour trek. I feel good and at one with the altitude at last. I follow our guide and after an hour catch a glimpse of the Middle Rongbu glacier in the distance. Our objective is in sight.
However last night’s snow has whitened and blended the glacier with the natural rock and stone making the comparison image difficult to see the retreat. So a wait for the snow to melt and pray for no more. is all that matters now. Oh dear my batteries running low on the laptop, time to go next door and get a recharge at our guides super luxury HQ!
29th April 2007
The big day has come. Up at 5.00am pitch dark, freezing cold, Everest a massive presence etched in moonlight, all is very silent bar the distant generators supplying energy to the big climbing team settlements. We have 4 porters, one guide, a videographer and 2 Greenpeacers. The local Tibetan porters carry the bulk image equipment, food and vital needs. The weight they carry over vast and inhospitable environments defies imagination.
Gathering together we set off about 6.00am calculating to return 12 hours later bearing in mind weather, difficult terrain and unforeseen events going against us. All goes well and we set off with dawn just breaking and already Everest summit has just in a speck of sunlight hitting it.
We cross the vast moraine left by the glacier, which 40 years ago would have been ice and virtually impossible to cross, to get to the western side for the vital link shot to the 1968 original viewpoint. I am feeling fit and slightly smug that my Amsterdam Gym training is finally paying off. After 4 hours trekking the 1968 site is in grasp and ahead my videographer colleague actually whispers in my ear the word ‘success’. I am excited and have strange surges of energy even at 5800m.
“OH NO” shouts our guide slightly ahead of us and points to a huge crevasse where the mountain has collapsed taking our path with it. He says we have to abort the mission it is too dangerous to go on and says other crevasses are ahead too.
My heart stops, I sweat madly and my mind is swirling with absurd alternatives. I start making ridiculous deals with our guide like going way down using ropes or climbing high up the mountain and coming back down again. I am now close to tears, but my guide firmly puts our safety first. It’s in conceivable this could happen! I look heavenwards. “Don’t you want the climate saved” I plead! We have lunch, regain our senses and so I make a ‘close’ comparison picture from our nearest point to the original. I sulk and have to give an interview to video camera where I am making silly mistakes to camera, my mind still spinning. We eventually make our return back to camp. After 3 hours trekking back my spirits lift. We make great banner shots with the whole Tibetan team by glacial lakes and deteriorating moraine. We arrive back at base camp earlier than planned thoroughly exhausted and confused.
30th April 2007
I lie in the sleeping bag dying to pee and thus make the amazing performance of getting thoroughly dressed to brave the cold and relieve myself and redoing the performance to get back into the sleeping bag again.
However, a positive thought hits me. Yesterday’s disaster might not be a big negative. Why not produce a near comparison picture but with a caption telling a more chilling truth – that the exact viewpoint could not be achieved and likely not even to exist now because the disappearing glacier and dryer conditions are causing erosion of the mountainsides. Our Tibetan guide can confirm this by stating in 2004 he took a Japanese team successfully along that path. I rush this message and pictures back to the International Picture Desk in Amsterdam in hope that indeed the failure to find the viewpoint was indeed the story!
Time to move from Everest base camp. Tonight we stay in Rongbu temple the highest monastery in the world with the best views of Everest to be had in the region. The atmosphere here is calm. We have now left the intensity, power and kind of madness found at Everest Base Camp.
1 May 2007
On the road from Rongbu Temple to a small village called Pu Mai, where our guide’s pupil’s family have invited us to spend the afternoon with them, we see a family manually irrigating their land. As part of the project we agree to stop to talk and photograph them. I am immediately struck by an image far from Tibet. The landscape is very dry and desert like in feature. The air is thin and hot. Their two young sons are naked and sitting by the field while both parents are working hard on the land. The image resembles more like Africa or India. As we talk to them they ‘guide’ the small water flow into their field of high altitude wheat while other villagers are gathering, curious as to our presence.
Later we take a detour to visit the family of or guide’s pupil deep in the Tsang heartlands. The family live in a typical Tibetan rural house in a small community. They greet us and serve us Yaks milk tea and as a treat Yaks meat ‘rare’ off the carcass is given first to me, being the ‘foreigner’ to taste. I have to admit it is succulent and very tasty as I am encouraged to eat more and more. Later in the afternoon as the eldest son shows me around the village a localised sandstorm blows up and everything momentarily comes to a standstill as dust and debris thrashes around. It passes and the rhythm of farming life once again carries on. As we drive back to the guest house our mission creeps back into my mind – hundreds of villages like the one we just visited are dependent of the Rongbu Glaciers for their very existence and these are the first people to use the precious water source. If the glacier’s predicted rate of retreat could make them obsolete by 2050 then what will happen to these heartlands and the people dwelling in them?