Harshwanti Bisht was awarded the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal for her work in protecting the Garhwal Himalaya in Uttarakhand.
For the past six decades, Edmund Hillary has been a constant source of inspiration for mountaineers around the world. But he has also shown them why it is important to look beyond their expeditions and help people of the mountains. The schools, clinics, and airstrips that Hillary built in the Khumbu and his conservation initiatives have helped Nepal enormously.
Mountaineer, conservationist, and economics professor Harshwanti Bisht was inspired by Hillary and it was fitting that she was awarded the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal on Monday for her work in protecting the Garhwal Himalaya in Uttarakhand, the Indian state bordering Nepal.Hillary’s son Peter, also a mountaineer, conferred Bisht her medal at ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) in Kathmandu.
In 1981, Bisht along with Rekha Sharma and Chandra Prabha Aitwal were the first women mountaineers to summit Nanda Devi (7,816m) in the Kumaon Himalayas. Three years later, she was part of the Indian expedition to Mt Everest. But Bisht was not satisfied with simply conquering the highest peak in the world.
“When I was in the Khumbu in 1984, I saw how Sir Edmund Hillary’s work to conserve the natural environment and to bring economic opportunities had improved the lives of the Sherpas,” she recalls. “After returning home, I also felt like I had to do something for the people of the Garhwal Himalaya.”
In the last three decades, Bisht has helped restore the birch forests around the sacred Gomukh temple at the snout of the Gangotri Glacier to stabilise the moraines of the receding glacier at headwaters of the Ganga. She has organised eco-awareness campaigns, propagated endangered medicinal herbs, and introduced ecotourism values in an area that has been ravaged by unregulated tourism.
Bisht’s treatise on the economics of tourism in the Garwhal is regarded as the blueprint for sustainable development in the Himalaya. “The Himalaya provides us with recreation and livelihood and it is a vital part of our biodiversity, we need to be responsible towards it,” she explains.
Bisht also blames our negligence of mountain management for aggravating disasters like the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand, which killed more than 800 people. Environmentalists have traced the root of the disaster to ill-conceived development projects as well as unregulated tourism.
For most part of her 30 year career, Bisht has been a one-woman activist working without government or international assistance. Now she wants to see more women involved in the conservation and protection of the fragile mountain communities.
“The empowerment and involvement of women is vital for sustainable development,” she says, “but for this to happen women first need to gain an equal share of the local economy.”
Bisht is now collaborating with an NGO in Nepal to set up a network of women’s mountaineering clubs in colleges and universities throughout the Himalayan region.
Called Mountain Power, the program will provide girls and young women experience in sports such as climbing, trekking, skiing, and rafting as well as teach them about conservation of mountain cultures and biodiversity.
Says Bisht: “As mountaineers, they will combine sports with eco-friendly income earning activities in waste-management, afforestation, trail improvement, infrastructure design. We will be building a network of strong female leaders across two countries.”
Sherpa Hillary, MICHAEL DILLON
The benevolent mountaineer, LHAKPA SHERPA