Overall, there was a high level of compliance with our environmental management plan (EMP) while we were at base camp. The parts of the expedition spent in Bishkek and involving transport followed it less successfully, but these required the most ambitious and arguably the least important mitigating actions. More detail is given in the sections below; refer to EMP (below) for intended strategy. We carried out approximately 70 litres (roughly 20-25kg) of waste, mostly food packaging. The majority was packed in the field into empty milk powder tins. We left some packaging (mostly outer cardboard) in Bishkek and retrieved it before our return home. Once back in the UK, as much as possible, including used batteries, was recycled.
Travel and Bishkek
Although we used scheduled flights, flying east across five time zones made it impossible to avoid flying at night on the outward journey. The return flight was, however, completed during daylight hours. Partly because of the large amount of luggage and partly because of awkward timing, most of us used private cars and taxis to get to and from the airport, but as these were full they were on a par with public transport for fuel efficiency. On our return, a superfluous taxi journey was unavoidable: our booked cars got caught in a traffic jam on the M25 and were unable to get to Heathrow, forcing us to seek an alternative vehicle. We had very little control over our overland transportation (a 6-wheeled Ural truck-bus). The most that can be said is that the vehicle seemed in excellent condition, did not drive too fast, and stayed on roads and tracks where they existed. We were just able to manage to walk-in from the road head to base camp without needing porters or donkeys, although we were on the limit of this and it did mean multiple journeys were required. However, a path existed most of the way and by using this we minimised additional erosion and plant damage.
In Bishkek, we stayed all but one night in two apartments; Community-Based Tourism, which organises eco-friendly homestays elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, does not operate in the capital. Nevertheless, the apartments were more environmentally sound than a hotel, having a smaller footprint and allowing us to control gas, electricity and water usage. Except for the final night, there was no air conditioning. During the course of the entire trip, five person-nights were spent in hotels in unavoidable circumstances. While in Bishkek on our way to the expedition area, we generated more waste than expected. This was largely due to drinking large amounts of bottled water in 500ml units left at ITMC by another expedition (dehydration was not an option). Although we kept some of these to take back to the UK for recycling, space was at a premium and some had to be discarded. As planned, we were able to minimise food packaging through buying the majority of supplies loose or in large units from Osh Bazaar.
At base camp
The lack of flat ground at base camp made it impossible to periodically move our tents (other than the store tent) and cooking area as planned. It also proved impossible to prevent paths from developing; again, this was partly due to topographic limits. However, because the river was some 30m down a steep slope from camp, people did tend to plan ahead so that they could do several things while there and minimise movement around camp. Additionally, the climate was significantly wetter than anticipated and the vegetation correspondingly lush, meaning that the grass is likely to recover relatively quickly.
The assumption that all food would be eaten proved far too optimistic. Particularly early on when appetites were affected by altitude and illness, significant amounts of cooked food had to be disposed of: far too much to dry out and add to the normal waste. We solved this by burying it along with vegetable matter. This was not a perfect solution; ideally we should have been more careful about only cooking food that we thought we would eat (and indeed, we got better at this as time went on). Some of our spare uncooked food was donated to the residents living in the last house in the valley. While this should probably not be encouraged in the long run, we felt that as a one-off, and in return for their generous hospitality, this was acceptable. The remainder of the spare uncooked food was donated to ITMC or brought back to the UK. We were able to use refillable gas canisters (supplied by ITMC) and most of our food required minimal cooking - the only exception was a bag of what we thought was couscous, but seemed to need simmering for several hours to be at all palatable!
Central provision of biodegradeable toiletries and washing-up liquid (Lifeventure blue soap, Kingfisher natural toothpaste, Boots natural insect repellent) ensured that no toxic chemicals were used. Sun-cream was the only exception. The implementation of washing and washing-up routines worked well; in particular, a pair of tights mounted on a ring of garden wire was excellent for straining waste water to catch food scraps, which were then buried. For personal and clothes washing water, it was decided that straining through tights was unnecessary and natural filtering through rocks and soil would be enough to protect the aquatic ecosystem. Human waste disposal went almost exactly as planned. Base camp provided natural privacy in separate areas for urinating (a large area so the effects were dispersed) and locating the poo trench, both well away from the river. Using the trench was unexpectedly pleasant: the area was clean and did not smell, and the system hygienic and easy to use. The main problem was the rate at which we filled the trench. This was initially much higher than expected owing to widespread occurrence of traveller’s diarrhoea, which unfortunately also meant fewer people available to dig the trench! Nevertheless, we managed to keep up with demand, even if the trowel gave up the ghost on day 2 (B&Q Verve trowel not recommended). As a result, we discovered that an ice axe is a very useful tool for trench-digging, and is also good at preserving sods of turf that can be replaced afterwards. The trowel handle found a new lease of life as the engaged sign.
After some debate, we decided to bury toilet paper in the same trench (rather than burning it or burying it in a separate, deeper pit) for the sake of hygiene. Placing a stone on top of the paper before covering with soil seemed to prevent it from escaping. There were a few teething problems regarding the dimensions of the trench, the direction from which it should be used and the fact that there never seemed to be enough soil to put back afterwards, but these were minor issues. The marmots must have had an unpleasant few weeks and the hillside is likely to take some time to recover from our activities; nevertheless, this is a highly recommended system and much better than any of the alternatives for an un-portered expedition of this size.
Large portions of the approaches to the mountains were on moraine, meaning that we did not need to worry about trails developing. It was, however, very difficult to avoid accelerating natural erosion processes by dislodging rocks. We undoubtedly left crampon scratches on several rock sections (time and weather constraints often meant that removing them was inadvisable), but the little abseiling we did was from natural or retrievable anchors, and we abandoned no gear. The use of ‘poo packs’ while at altitudes higher than base camp was always a somewhat experimental part of the EMP, and met with mixed success. Their main limitation was that they did not cope with liquid and so could not be used in all cases. There were also complaints about the smell. However, there is no doubt that we left less of ourselves up the mountain than we would have without them.
The EMP was written with only the expedition phase of the trip in mind. Although it would have been great to carry the same principles right through the subsequent week of travelling, this proved impossible, in large part due to the necessity of buying bottled water everywhere. We had intended to continue using our water filters, but they had clogged up too much to meet our requirements by gravity alone, and the provided tap adapter failed to work with any tap we found. We tried to minimise packaging by buying 5L bottles and decanting it to our own reusable containers wherever possible. There was some debate as to whether, with limited luggage space, we should sacrifice some of our expedition rubbish in order to take home our post-expedition plastic bottles, the logic being that the bottles could be recycled in the UK. Although this made absolute sense, it was eventually decided that it was important to make a statement by showing unequivocally that it is possible to bring home all the waste generated by a mountaineering expedition. In addition, it would have been very difficult to keep hold of all the bottles for this week because of the amount of travelling we did. We used public transport (minibuses) almost everywhere. Taxis were only used for short distances and always by multiple people; in fact they were nearly always filled.