But in the last decade the trickle of intrepid seekers has become a flood of trekkers, carrying in their supplies on their backs or horseback to Lake Akkem at the base of Mt. Belukha (50 kilometers from the nearest village), and leaving their garbage to rot away in the wilderness. A hundred years ago, that worked fine, but now it is piling up, sullying the gorgeous alpine terrain.
Valery Yakubovsky, head of the mountain rescue service there, and his medics had been regularly collecting the garbage and burying it, but the amount was increasing with each season. The previous year, Valery said, he and his crew spent a whole week in September picking up garbage. And they had run out of places where there was enough soil on top of the bedrock to bury it. Additionally, hundreds of trekkers using the bushes as toilets without attention to the water supply, had created a health hazard. The situation at the climbing base camp further up the mountain was even worse, because there was no possibility of burying garbage there. Piles of climbers' discarded oxygen bottles surrounded the camp.
What to do? Not only did the mess need to be cleaned up and the garbage transported out to a less sensitive area, but trekkers needed to be educated to leave no trace.
I, Carol, have been one of these trekkers for the past several years. With a desire to steward this sacred place, one summer day in 2005 I was able to discuss my interest with Valery and we hatched a plan. In summer of 2006, I was planning an international expedition, and was still trying to figure out how to get a mixed age group up the hill safely and in relative comfort. Valery suggested that I fly everyone by helicopter, and I suggested that the empty return trips could be used for carrying out garbage and carrying in building materials for outhouses.
I took this idea back to Moscow and started looking for environmental funding. Immediately, Lena Lebedeva of World Wildlife Fund/Russia offered some starter funding and staff support to work with all the stake-holders (Valery, Belukha National Park Director Igor Sailankin, possible volunteer groups, other possible funders, etc.) to formulate a plan. That collaborative planning, implemented by Sergey Shafarenko of WWF-Siberia, turned out to be a major task. There was much debate over whose responsibility continuing clean-ups should be, how the garbage should be collected, transported, and disposed of, and what kind of educational campaign would work.
Although the helicopter, in the long run, did not work out for transporting our group, it did eventually carry out garbage. And together with our international expedition, our Russian co-travellers and a few other trekkers spent an afternoon picking up 22 big bags of garbage. Shortly thereafter, another party had the helicopter at the lake, and Valery arranged for the garbage to be transported out.
Of course, the need for trekker/climber education remains (although a sign was installed at the beginning of the trail), and will be part of further initiatives.