The Tseringma Pilgrimage, 1971: An eco-philosophic ‘anti-expedition’

The following essay will soon be published in Canada in a book, edited by Aage Jensen and Bill Henderson, commemorating the Norwegian ecophilosopher Sigmund Kvaloey Setreng.

The idea behind an eco-philosophic ‘anti-expedition’ to Tseringma came up in the spring of 1969, when professor of philosophy Arne Naess and his assistant Sigmund Setreng camped at Nagarkot, not far from Kathmandu. They were relaxing after a car drive from Oslo, Norway, to Varanasi, India, to attend a conference on Gandhian non-violence.

From the vantage point of the former hill station, the Himalayan giants from Annapurna to Chomo Langma—also known in the Western hemisphere as Mont Everest—appear as a breathtaking panorama. Equipped with his experience in high altitude mountaineering since leading the Norwegian expedition to Tirich Mir in 1950, Arne’s attention was soon drawn towards the grand Gauri Shankar. This impressive mountain was once recognized as the highest mountain in the world, probably because it dominates the view from the vicinity of the capital. Although it has lost this status, it holds a prominent position in Hindu as well as Buddhist culture as the abode of worshiped deities.

To the Sherpas, who live in small villages at the foot of the snow-covered holy mountains of Himalaya, Gauri Shankar is the most sacred mountain. In their language it is known as Tseringma. While studying the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy behind the Sherpa’s admirable way of life, Arne and Sigmund had become acquainted with the renowned friendliness the Sherpas had towards fellow humans and Wild Nature.[1] Before leaving Nagarkot, they concluded without hesitation that they had to return to Nepal as soon as possible to get in touch with the remarkable Sherpas and enjoy the marvellous rock and ice on a mountain of such symbolic importance, as well as study a culture unparalleled in its relationship with Wild Nature.[2]

Sigmund and I were college mates with a mutual fancy for jazz and mountaineering. Thus he turned up to enthusiastically share experiences from his Asian odyssey soon after returning home. It was music to my ears when he expressed his desire to revisit the Sherpas and the sacred summits of Tseringma. Since I had left my position as a research officer in biochemistry and microbiology in 1967 and become a full time professional in mountaineering, I was ready to leave at short notice! But severe threats towards our beloved mountain landscape at home urged Sigmund and me to give priority to a campaign to defend Mardoela, the fourth highest free falling waterfall in the world. Meanwhile, having said goodbye to his position as a philosophy professor at the University of Oslo, Arne followed an invitation to work and lecture at the University of Berkeley.

 

When all three of us left for Kathmandu in early September, our preparation, mental and physical, had been extensive. Sigmund had been the leading activist behind the non-violent action to defend Mardoela against damming, according to the philosophy of Gandhi and the developing ‘ecophilosophy’—a way of arguing for the inherent value of Wild Nature. The rudimentary beginning of this new field of thought was established under the Arctic Tower of Stetind in 1966 by Arne and me, drawing on an early introduction to ecology during a stay at a German technical university. Arne contributed to what we chose to call the Tseringma Pilgrimage with his thorough study of Buddhist philosophy and Sherpa culture. He also obtained support from a German research foundation in Nepal for the organization of our trek and the permission to visit a restricted area. My contribution was, among others, to care for the complete equipment, including the construction of special gear for high altitude camping and mountaineering, which was not in stock at shops those days. I had also been an active partner in the further development of ecophilosophy and the concept of an ‘anti-expedition.’

To practice the concept of an ‘anti-expedition’ was our chosen way of raising a protest against the pressure on Wild Nature and the Sherpa culture caused by the heavy, army-inspired expeditions that had been intruding on pristine regions in the Himalayas since the 1920s. Hundreds of ill-equipped porters, along with luxury kitchen services for the sahibs, dependent on taking firewood from exposed tree line areas, made a damaging effect. The social impact of such invasions also disrupted the cultural patterns of small Sherpa villages and at times more or less depleted the rations, which with much effort had to be harvested in steep and sometimes faraway places. The most serious consequences were—and still are—the impact on religious life, the loss of workforce due to the men in the villages taking part in expeditions, and sometimes the loss of indispensable family support in mountain accidents.

 

As mountaineers we were deeply critical of the Alpine Club’s gentlemen method of mountaineering—essentially, attacks on the mountains many worshipped as sacred. Our eight-day trek to a village at the foot of Tseringma had only eight porters—all of them from Rolwaling and equipped in their traditional way. Two trusted expedition helpers, Pasang and Lachpa, came with us to be our rope mates—not high altitude porters! They were our cooks, too, when we were all together in the same camp and could enjoy true, vegetarian Sherpa meals. We had, of course, brought the food from our travels in Kathmandu valley, and from home we brought fish and geitost.[3]

We carefully avoided any safari equipment. We had consequently selected lightweight mountaineering gear for our small camps and for alpine style climbing. To be able to follow Arne’s old concept of climbing for the joy of discovering and not for ‘attacking’ the summits, I ran a course in alpine climbing on rocks near the village for Pasang and Lachpa, so that they could be qualified rope mates, handling at that time nature-friendly and state of the art equipment. We brought pitons for icy conditions, but not to be used for fixing ropes. As it was our firm intention to demonstrate a new approach to mountaineering in the Himalayas, any sort of technical aids were incomprehensible.

 

In agreement with the Lama of Beding, Yelung Pasang, we set the limit for our climbs to an altitude of around 6,000 meters. Sigmund became our liaison with the Lama, who demonstrated his faith in him by inviting Sigmund to study and sleep in the monastery next to the cell of Yelung Pasang himself. Thus Sigmund, with the help of Pasang (the rope mate) as an interpreter, had frequent dialogues with an exceptional representative of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sigmund gave priority to making acquaintance with Sherpa families to take part in their everyday lives. He also followed the celebrations of Buddhist rituals, whereas Arne and I spent most of our time in close contact with Tseringma. When all three of us met every now and then in Sigmund’s study to elaborate on our versions of ecophilosophy,[4] Arne and I were pleased to learn about Sigmund’s research into living Sherpa culture.

 

After Arne had spent a couple of weeks in physical and mental dialogue with Tseringma, he unfortunately fell ill and thus he could not follow us on a 6 day trek over the Tesi Lapcha Pass to the home village of Pasang and Lachpa in the Khumbu valley. We decided to make the best out of the new situation and use Arne as a ‘post runner’—a method of communication in Himalayan expeditions before electronic equipment took over—to deliver a petition for a ban on summit climbs on Tseringma and other holy Himalayan mountains. Sigmund, in his role as a liaison, arranged for an open village consultation in front of the monastery. Following introductory remarks by the Lama, the villagers unanimously signed the petition, addressed to the King of Nepal, with whom Arne and his brother Erling had an earlier rendezvous.

 

After Arne left, Sigmund and I remained to continue working on patterns of thought for a nature-friendly future in a “literally breathtaking camp” in the lap of Tseringma, as Sigmund put it. But after unforgettable days and starry nights, winter was approaching and the time came to move on. Our trek over the Tesi Lapsha Pass to Thame added new dimensions to our pilgrimage. The trek was in itself grandiose. The most lasting impression we got from Pasang and Lachpa’s village was the impact made by the construction of the hotel Mount Everest View and the impending impact of an airfield to be established in the best potato fields of the village.

 

Back home we were deeply moved by the once in a life time experience, eager to work it out and share it with our countrymen, as well as mountaineers and people looking for new ideas for a greening world. Sigmund’s one-hour TV documentary was a vivid presentation of our pilgrimage and a powerful introduction to ecophilsophy and ecopolitics, which was strongly influenced by our encounter with the remarkable Sherpa culture. We used the film as well as my photographs for our lectures and seminars. Sigmund returned to Sherpa country over and over again, expanding his ecophilosophical and ecopolitical work in a jazz-inspired improvisation in the spirit of the Norwegian folktale hero Askeladden.[5] He consistently followed Gandhi’s lead, seeking conflict to expose and settle by non-violence unacceptable situations. Thus he ceaselessly challenged the ideology of industrial economic growth in a manifold of ways till at last heart disease slowed him down.

Arne’s encounter with Sherpa life during our 1971 pilgrimage, and the opportunity to study Sherpa traditions and Sherpa/Tibetan Buddhism in medias res, influenced markedly his version of ecophilosophy. His enduring efforts for this new field resulted in an international discourse with participants from all continents. A talk he gave in Bucharest in 1972 at the Third World Future Research Conference, where he argued for ‘deep ecology,’ is considered to be the first international presentation of ecophilosphy.

Sigmund and I did not share Arne’s belief in changing the culture of modernity by means of philosophical arguments alone. Having already worked for six years with Wild Nature in the Norwegian and Alpine tradition, all the time moving towards a change of social values, I brought back learning practices in the home of culture[6]—Wild Nature—with a lasting effect. This has been the backbone of the learning processes I have been conwaying[7] to professionals of most branches in modern society, as well as for individuals in search of deep acquaintance with Wild Nature, to enable a nature-friendly career or simply for the joy of the encounter.

 

The Tseringma Pilgrimage of 1971, along with the Mardoela non-violent action, did make a difference in the greening of Norway in the 1970s, changing patterns of thought, political practice, learning processes, and social organization. Then the oil-era happened and a blossoming ‘spring’ changed into an early ‘autumn.’ But the seeds are slumbering and the grassroots show signs of a paradigm shift. A change for a nature-friendly future is forthcoming as soon as the signs of spring we create are so abundant that they coalesce in a vårløsning.[8]

There is no way to nature-friendliness—nature-friendliness is the way!

Notes

  1. Faarlund originally writes this as ‘Free Nature,’ which accents what to him is the most desirable quality of wildness. — ed.
  2. Wild Nature: having the seasonal, diurnal and growth rhythms unimpaired.
  3. Caramelised milk sugar—an exquisite ‘up hill food’ from Norway.
  4. Faarlund’s original text reads: ‘…to elaborate on our versions of the fusion of the natural science of ecology and the philosophical keel and rudder—values orientation—for an ecophilosophy…’ Later in the original text, he repeats the phrase ‘values orientation.’ Although for clarity I had to amend the specific wording, it is important to note the importance Faarlund places on orientation and values as instrumental to the paradigm shift necessary for the respect of Wild Nature. — ed.
  5. Askeladden is the main character of many Norwegian folktales. In many stories he is rejected as eccentric and unusual compared to his two brothers, but, when a challenge presents itself to all three, he is the only one to succeed, thanks to unconventional thinking and creativity. He often represents the innovator who instigates a paradigm shift. — ed.
  6. The phrase ‘home of culture’ is an idiosyncratic one developed by Faarlund and others in the article “Nature is the Home of Culture—Friluftsliv is a Way Home.” The article explained the Norwegian tradition of Friluftsliv, of which Faarlund is part, and its ultimate quest to ‘to bring about a change in the modern affluent societies… [by working] to help re-establish cultures where nature is the home of culture.’ — ed.
  7. A conwayor (‘outdoor educator’) is a mentor in the Norwegian Friluftsliv tradition, whose main purpose is to find wild ‘learning rooms’ for students to develop a positive and freely developing relationship with nature. — ed.
  8. Translates literally into ‘spring break,’ but is similar to the phrase ‘vår lösning’—‘our response.’ — ed.