In 1999, Zhong Yu became the first woman to reach the summit of the Haba Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province. 16 years later, she retraced her steps on another mission: to discover what we leave behind when we walk in nature.

Pollution has permeated the fabric of our everyday lives and no one knows this more than the residents of China’s cities, where blankets of smog hang heavy over towering high rises and ever-expanding highways. It is something inescapable, that we can see, smell and even taste.

But what about other places? The isolated pockets of nature that we believe to be untouched and free of pollution and industrialisation?

Some pollutants are invisible to the naked eye. They can be silently carried through air and water, to even the most remote corners of the planet.

So Greenpeace teams from around the world set out on expeditions, to eight of the world’s most majestic peaks, to collect local samples of water and snow and test them for traces of certain pollutants. For Greenpeace East Asia, that meant the Haba Snow Mountain in Yunnan, southwest China.

The mountain is located in an area dubbed Shangri-la – a famous mythical hidden utopia- and it gets its name from the language of the Naxi people, who live in the deep valleys which surround it. To them ‘Haba’ means “flower of gold”. The main peak is 5,396m above sea level, the snow line is at 4,900m, and it’s encircled  by four smaller peaks. This is a holy land for climbers, and the destination of our expedition.

I see myself as a fairly experienced mountaineer, but for this trip preparation was of particular importance.Taking samples at such a high altitude and in potentially harsh weather conditions would present a challenge. This didn’t just mean having the right equipment – a well-formed team was also essential.

Haosi, our mountaineering coach, is a local professional mountain guide and coach. He has hiked to the peak of Haba Snow Mountain over 1,000 times and holds the astounding record of guiding groups of mountaineers up and down the mountain four times in one day. We could really count on Haosi. He is an expert: professional, reliable, considerate, and a great problem solver.

In 1999, when Zhong Yu first climbed the mountain, she was guided by Haosi. Sixteen years later these two old friends reunited, with a new challenge.

Zhong Yu showed me old photos of the first time she climbed the mountain. Incredibly, she climbed the mountain in only a cotton jacket with a broken zipper. Haosi was wearing an unprofessional suit and plain cloth and rubber running shoes without socks.

Her first attempt at the mountain, in May 1999, was fraught with difficulties. The weather was good at the beginning, but they soon came to a glacier, where they met dense fog which reduced visibility to almost zero.

While climbing the steep slope, the team lost their direction and had to rely on GPS to guide them. On the way to the top, one of the crampons that Zhong Yu was wearing broke off. It felt like for every step forward, she slipped back two.  She and Haosi had no choice but to break away from the team.

In the end, because of the dangerous conditions, the rest of the group had to turn back as well, only 30m from the top.

In October of the same year, Zhong Yu challenged the mountain once again.

This time they made it. The weather at Haba had barely changed, but the fierce wind, low temperature and poor visibility could not stop her this time. The team of eight finally reached the top.

Setting Out Again After 16 Years

I carried the equipment and goods for collecting samples, which weighed 20kg more than my own weight. I set out with Zhong Yu from Beijing, to Lijiang, to meet our cameramen, then straight to the Haba village, right at the foot of snow mountain, without stopping to rest. When the four of us looked up, the mist was so thick, it covered our view of the snow line.

Base camp, at 4,070m above sea level, served as the halfway point. We stayed there for a couple of days, preparing ourselves for the momentous task ahead.

As Haosi gave us a sobering explanation of the dangers of the climb – that we needed to pay attention to every detail, from how to walk on the snow, climb a snow slope, the pace at which to climb, to how to use the ice axe, ropes and the protection station – it dawned on us how hard this task would be.

Finally, he requested everyone drink a pot of tea made of Alpine lichen to prevent altitude sickness.

“What’s different since 16 years ago?” the cameraman asked Zhong Yu. She said the village road was wider, but other than that there seemed to be little change But on the way to the top, her memories came back all at once, just like it was yesterday. The mountain and nature hadn’t changed much, but because of the human activities in the valley, the village had changed a lot: road repairs, new buildings, an increase in travelers and facilities. The enormous rise in the popularity of mountain climbing has had its impact.

Increasingly, people are seeking to push themselves and explore faraway, obscure, exotic places.

But what are we leaving behind, besides our footprints? What are the invisible changes we are make when we visit a remote, or ‘untouched’ area?

This journey hopes to answer that question.

Lei Yuting is Head of Research Unit at Greenpeace East Asia