Every year, the United Nations celebrates December 11 as International Mountain Day with its roots in the 2003 document ‘Managing Fragile ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development’. It aims to serve not only as a reminder to cherish these peaks, but also set and follow through ambitious goals to keep their baffling biodiversity intact. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites list lends protection to some of the National Parks situated in Mountainous regions including the famous Sagarmatha National Park (home to Mount Everest) and Yellowstone National Park that is filled with gushing geysers, hot springs and rare animal species.
Mountains loom large in some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes and though they constitute a mere 25 percent of the earth’s landmass, they house more than 85 percent of the planet’s diverse flora and fauna. From hiking trails in alpine meadows and pristine glaciers, to quaint villages and monasteries that dot the terrain at high altitudes, the mountains have something for everyone. More often than not the highlands are home to amphibian species, mammals and a plethora of birds that coexist with indigenous populations and tribes accounting for a stunning ethereal landscape.
With consecutive lockdowns world over, the air quality index has improved putting the spotlight on these majestic peaks. In Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Mountains were visible for the first time from the city since the early 1990s. Closer home, the Dhauladhar range made headlines after it was visible from Dharmshala after decades and the snow-clad Pir Panjal Mountain range from the plains of Jammu.
Says Rhea Tuteja, an HR manager from Mumbai, who has gone home to Kullu, “As they say, out of sight, out of mind. Watching the mountains up close makes me want to trek! Luckily, I have a home here, which serves as the perfect base to make day trips to Solang valley and Rohtang Pass to experience the Mountains. Other than that, I am training for a marathon with a group of friends. The air has never been fresher and the hills are one of the best places to train!”
Despite the pandemic, trekking the path less trodden is a popular theme with city weary youth. While some of them are working from home in their hilly hometowns, the rest are temporarily shifting base up north. According to industry insiders and those in the hospitality sector, workcation packages in the mountains are the new ‘it’ thing and hotel chains are quickly accommodating to COVID-19 related issues. For example, the Park Hotels in Jammu offers gold-certified hygiene and cleanliness programme S.H.I.E.L.D that enforces sanitisation protocols at every step of the way.
“Significant travel demand is being led by millennials followed by corporates as they look for business trips, staycation and workcation packages that offer an immersive experience. We are also seeing a lot of traction in domestic travel from locals as well as tourists who make Jammu as their base before going on trekking expeditions,” says Nitin Gupta, Director — Operations, Zone by The Park Jammu.
In countries where culture plays a significant role, mountain peaks are believed to be the abode of deities and are ardently revered by all. For example, the Hindus believe Mount Kailash to be home of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. This Tibetan peak is also sacred to Buddhists, Jains, Bon Po and Ayyavazhi religions.
In New Zealand, Mount Taranaki is worshiped by the Maori tribes and carries a deep spiritual significance and life force. In Italy, Mount Etna is believed to be the home of Vulcan, the Roman God of fire and forge. Many mythical wars and ancient battles were fought on peaks as well such as War of the Titans on Mount Olympus in Greece, the Trojan war on Mount Ida (current day Turkey) and Mount Athos associated with Alexander the Great.
History shows that mountains are a part of a complex ancestor worship as well. The ancient Inca used to conduct child sacrificial rituals on their mountain tops as they believed these places acted as portals to the Gods. Cultural and community identity is also centred around peaks fostering conservation practises of alpine forests.
As Bruno Messerli and Ives write, “The Armenian people regard Mount Ararat, a volcano in eastern Turkey believed to be the site of Noah’s Ark in the Bible, to be a symbol of their natural and cultural identity.” Certain activities are banned around the region, especially if they are detrimental to the mountains.
Elevating our mountains and protecting its vastly diverse ecological systems is a priority. We live in a global village with shared air space and a finite supply of natural resources. High carbon footprint, plastic pollution on highlands and global emissions have dire consequence. However not everyone faces the brunt equally. Take Bhutan, for example, the only carbon negative country in the world, that despite practicing conscious conservation is sitting on a ticking time bomb.
Mountains worldwide are threatened by climate change and the accelerated rise in temperatures is melting Bhutan’s glaciers at an astonishing speed over-flooding glacial lakes and destroying forests.
Over tourism is not helping either. Though coronavirus has given the peaks a much-needed respite from mankind this year, it won’t last long. Alpine ecosystems need time to rejuvenate. Conscious travel by aware tourists and a sustainable approach by governments is needed to protect our Mountains from the lows.
Add these to your bucket list
1. Denali, Alaska
2. The Andes, Peru
3. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
4. Mount Elbrus, Russia
5. Matterhorn, Switzerland
6. Cilaltépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico
7. Mount Khuiten, Mongolia
8. Annapurna, Nepal
9. Damavand, Iran