I’ve been to Mount Everest four times: first to climb, then twice to investigate glacial evidence of climate change. This year I thought I came back to ride. My friend Nancy and I rode 1,500 kilometres on bicycles over the course of one month from Yunnan’s Shangri-la arriving here at Everest on October 6th. But what I didn’t expect was that almost one week later we would return to the base of Mt Everest, in order to support 30 friends arrested in the Arctic, and to voice the demand to free them from here at the world’s “third pole.”
It was a tough ride. We were battered by snowstorms, and when we arrived on October 13th Mount Everest itself was not visible, shrouded in a thick blanket of clouds. The weather forecast was for three days of rain and snow. We had no choice but await the sun at the base camp.
The next day we awoke early. The snow outside had reached 70cm (28 inches). Four tents had blown over, causing panic among tourists who invited us to an emergency meeting to discuss how to get down the mountain. Nancy and I were determined to push through the bad weather. Nonetheless, many of the tourists had little experience with such conditions and had become extremely worried. With even solar power failing from the prolonged darkness, the phone signal was almost gone. Panic grew as the snow accumulated and altitude sickness started to take its toll.
It was at 10am on October 14th that we learned through the internet that a tropical cyclone in Bangladesh called “Phailin” had brought with it a blizzard. The blizzard had resulted in 14 deaths in India, with millions of people forced to move out of affected areas. And we were located in the most affected area. In the entirety of the camp only we Greenpeace volunteers had a 3G WIFI signal to connect us to the outside world, thus turning our tiny tent into a kind of UN News and Information Center. Americans, Australians, Russians: they all began to contact family members and embassies while calls came in from Interpol and media, and our phone batteries steadily drained.
Nancy was doing much of the translation for all the foreign visitors to assist in contacting their families. Our windproof jacket featuring the Greenpeace logo suddenly became a symbol of hope. Susan from Australia was suffering hypertension and altitude sickness, and yet didn’t fail to express deep gratitude. She mentioned that her son and environmental lawyer Cale is a Greenpeace supporter. Two other Dutch tourists were aware of the 30 detainees in Russia, and asked if we were at the base camp to do an action, pledging their support for Greenpeace. Also present were two tourists from Russia. In addition to helping them understand the situation they were now trapped in, we also asked them to support us in our Arctic campaign.
The blizzard seemed to bring everyone closer together as we witnessed for ourselves the immense power of extreme weather: a grim prediction of what our future will look like if we don’t end our dependence on fossil fuels and, as our colleagues in Russia are demanding, stop Arctic oil. It was a stark reminder of how important, and how heroic, the actions of our activists really are. The climate is changing, we are witnessing it now every day. And as scientists have long predicted, extreme weather events are happening more often, with greater strength, and with greater impact. If we have any hope at all of righting this ship and avoiding catastrophic climate change, we need more brave people like the Arctic 30 to stand up and create change.
At four in the afternoon the first team from a rescue squad arrived on foot, which gave us some hope. By 7pm a snowplow had arrived with a large rescue team to free trapped workers. The plan was to take us three kilometers down under the Rongbuk. At 10 the next morning, the road opened up and visitors were anxious to leave as soon as possible. Only our Greenpeace team stayed on in the camp, because with Mount Everest having yet to come out of hiding, our task was not yet complete. But the local rescue team made it mandatory: everyone was to descend.
“Phailin” brought with her such extreme weather. And at an altitude of 5,200 meters at the base camp of Everest conditions were inarguably tough. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the Arctic 30, lying in their prison cells, and suddenly the task became not difficult but important. It helped motivate me to push through the conditions and the sheer physical exhaustion that any actions conducted at such high altitudes can induce.
By five pm it was time for us to descend, even though Everest had still failed to emerge. It was frustrating to think we had failed to include the mountain in the collection of images from the people-powered global movement to free the Arctic 30.
For what seemed a long time I climbed down the pass, when suddenly, looking back, I saw Everest poke out of the clouds. As if a goddess had touched the mountain, we had just a few minutes to get our shot and let Everest bear witness to the worldwide day of solidarity for the Arctic 30. And then back the mountain went, disappearing into the darkness of the day, like a prisoner back into her cell after a few precious moments in the fresh air.