Marion Chaygneaud-Dupuy: the altruistic mountaineer who cleans the peaks of the Himalayas

- through Fabrice Groult

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A Frenchwoman living in Lhasa for eighteen years, Marion Chaygneaud-Dupuy is the winner of the 2019 Terre de Femmes Prize for her action to clean up Everest. In three years, it has enabled the evacuation of 8,5 tons of waste, or three quarters of the quantity accumulated at high altitude. After studying Buddhism in the Darjeeling region with Bokar Rinpoche, a Tibetan master from a nomadic region, Marion has become an eco-responsible mountaineer. The teaching of Bokar Rinpoche advocating the integration of meditation into daily life, Marion decided to undertake with her Highland Initiatives foundation the cleaning of the high peaks (Operation Clean Everest) to protect the Himalayan populations from the dangers of pollution.

You carry out two projects which come together: raising awareness of the Tibetan vision of mountain and the evacuation of waste from Everest in order to stop pollution Himalayan. Can you tell us more?

I have been a trekking guide on the trails of Tibet for twenty years, a mountaineer on the highest himalayan peaks and today I am climbing peaks over 6000 meters up to Everest. After receiving a Buddhist teaching centered on daily altruism, at the University of Lhasa, the idea came to me, while climbing, to clean the summits.

At what altitude did you notice the accumulation of trash? And from what altitude does climbing become difficult?

From 6000 meters up to the glaciers, at the border between rocks and eternal snow, the climbing becomes difficult, but there is rubbish all the way to the top. The higher you go, the less waste there is, because the passages become rarer, and you only stay at the top of Everest for a maximum of one hour because of the lack of oxygen. From 7000 meters, some climbers start taking oxygen. In Lhasa, at 3650 meters above sea level, adaptation is already difficult for foreigners; at 5000, it becomes a real challenge. The real difficulty of acclimatization arises from 7000 meters: you walk in slow motion, every effort counts, the body gradually self-regulates. Tibet, with its multitude of glaciers, is the playground of mountaineers; we therefore treat areas up to 8000 meters, the yaks bringing the waste back down to the base camp.

Do Tibetans and Nepalese have better resistance to altitude? Does the mountain represent a sacred territory for them, the depollution of sites a positive action for karma?

Being born in these high altitude regions, they have an adaptability written in their genes and a better capacity for self-regulation. The mountain represents a sacred ground for the Tibetans as for the Nepalese, the place of residence of the protective goddesses of the earth and living beings. The summit of the world symbolizes a benevolent presence in both spiritual and material life, in particular thanks to the economic impact of the mountain industry. That is why, receiving its protection, we must keep it clean. 

But climbers continue to leave litter. What is your action to stop this process?

We do prevention and cultural mediation during expeditions, transmitting the Tibetan perception of the mountain to foreigners. The locals thus become the ambassadors of their vision and reclaim their responsibility by setting up a waste disposal system and suitable deposit areas. Previously, there was no device to lower waste, such as yaks, expensive and requiring a specific budget. It is an action that I initiated, with the involvement of the local government.

How do Tibetans react to Himalayan pollution and its impact on the mountain?

By setting up the management of waste devices and information for the general public, so that the pollution of Everest does not remain an isolated case and that this model is applicable to all the peaks of the Himalayas, in particular those where are the sacred sites frequented by the pilgrims circulating around the mountains, and where one finds cans, glass bottles, plastic bags… The pollution of the glaciers contaminates the water of all the river basins, the India to China. The climbers, from the United States, Russia, Switzerland, China, Japan, represent 300 people a year on the north face of Everest.

Do you intend to extend your action to the whole Himalayas?

Yes, by multiplying awareness-raising and mediatization actions, to festoon China and the international scene. There is also an artistic project to recycle waste from 7000 meters above sea level, brought back to Lhasa to the Mountain Museum, to be transformed into contemporary art installations. As well as a line of Tibetan clothing made from waste and created by the students in order to mobilize the attention of young people. An initiative carried out in collaboration with the fashion department of the University of Tibet.

This cleaning company therefore provides jobs for local communities?

Yes, and it's very lucrative: an Everest expedition costs $60 and leads to local mobilization.

Are you based in Lhasa?

Yes, because I want to create there, according to my master's wishes, an Institute of Nomads that promotes their traditional knowledge and their relationship with nature. Their knowledge in the field of ecology will be validated by scientists in order to perpetuate their economic activities and that they continue to live in their territories more comfortably. It is a project that combines wisdom, economy and ecology. The institute is being built in northern Tibet, on the plateau where they live, 4500 meters above sea level.

“The mountain represents sacred land for Tibetans and Nepalese alike, the place of residence of the goddesses who protect the earth and living beings. »

We are starting a collection of their ancestral knowledge, which we have validated by Chinese and foreign scientists. The project, endorsed by Beijing, will preserve the Tibetan ecosystem, giving nomads their status as guardians of the environment, which will have a decisive impact on the preservation of their way of life. Because the largest rivers in Asia have their source in this region, on which three billion inhabitants depend for their water supply. Tibetan cultures carry within them this eco-consciousness, the nomadic way of life being respectful of the links between man and nature.

Is the eco-awareness of nomads linked to an approach overall?

Indeed, because they know that by doing so, nature will take care of them. The Mountain Museum in Lhasa represents a zoom on a sacred geography specific to Tibet and the Buddhist vision of the mountain as the abode of the protective deities of the Earth.

What does mountaineering mean to you?

Surpassing oneself. Determination makes it possible to approach all the challenges of life with responsibility, an ability to go beyond with an enterprising spirit, which makes it possible to cultivate one's strength and transform difficulties. This is the teaching that I received.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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