A journey from sea-level to the top of the world: Global warming does not threaten only the Maldives

by / Tuesday, 15 April 2014 / Published in Maldivians

Many Maldivians have come to think of global warming as a phenomena that only threatens low-lying island nations like the Maldives. But in 2009, a Maldivian swimmer backpacked to the high Himalaya, to discover similar environment threats there.


This is the story of Ahmed Imthiyaz, a former Olympic swimmer, who trekked from sea-level to the foot of Mount Everest, and encountered extraordinary diversity in landscape, temperature, people, and altitude.


Ahmed, or Freddy as he is popularly called, trained for his Himalayan trek in the Indian Ocean. As a regular swimmer, he intensified his daily swimming routine, climbed stairs in construction sites, and walked round Male’, the capital of the Maldives, carrying a backpack with progressively heavier loads for two more than two months. But nothing he did at sea-level quite prepared him for the physical demands of a trek in the Himalaya.


After a harrowing flight from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, to a small airstrip carved on a mountain-side, Freddy strapped his backpack on and began to walk on the well-worn trail to Everest. Along the way, a two-hour continuous uphill slog to 3,600 metres caused him to develop symptoms of altitude sickness. Recalling the experience, he says: “As soon as I took off my backpack and sat down, I felt an incredible exhaustion and the beginnings of an unbearable headache. So I had a quick meal and went to bed, but the headache grew worse and I had to wake my team-mates up and tell them.”


But two days of rest and rehydration at that altitude was enough to cure the symptoms, and Freddy was ready to trek higher. On the way, he met environmentalists studying glacial melting in the Himalaya, and was treated to first hand data and photos on the subject. He also learnt from them that, following the much-publicised Maldives underwater cabinet meeting, the Nepali cabinet was planning to hold its own meeting in the shadow of Mount Everest.


As Freddy climbed higher, the landscape grew more barren and Himalayan snow peaks towered all around him. He was also exposed to snowstorms and plummeting temperatures. “The scenery was stunning,” he says. “But you just couldn’t stay out for too long to enjoy it.”


The highest point of the trek, Kala Pattar, is at an altitude of 5,600 metres, probably the highest any Maldivian had climbed to date. A week after Freddy stood on the summit of Kala Pattar, the Nepali cabinet held its meeting there in an attempt to draw global attention to the problem of glacial melting. Although Freddy had taken 10 days to trek there and had, therefore, acclimatised naturally to the altitude, the Nepali cabinet, which had been flown there, had to breathe bottled air.


For many people Kala Pattar is more than enough to satisfy their quest for adventure, but Freddy wanted to try other challenges. He went on to cross the formidable Cho La mountain pass to the edge of the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest in the Himalaya. According to him: “It was the most difficult part of the trek. Even climbing a mere 40 metres took an hour. At one point I was so tired that I had to lie down, and only got enough stamina to cross the pass with the help of chocolate.”


After a nine-hour walk, Freddy found himself staring at the Ngozumpa glacier which, according to local people, had lost much of its ice and snow. In many places, the land surrounding the glacier had given away and there were cracks in the ground. Well over a billion people depend on water flowing from these mountains and their lives could be impacted if the glaciers melted. It was a moment of enlightenment for Freddy: “I realised that global warming does not threaten only the Maldives but also the high Himalaya.”


Freddy crossed the cracking, hissing, and panting glacier to the beautiful Gokyo valley. The next day, which happened to be his birthday, he summited Gokyo Ri, a vantage point from which he could see four of the world’s fourteen 8000-metre mountains, including Mount Everest.


Asked if he would do the trek again Freddy says, without hesitation: “I trekked around Mount Everest on this trek but, if I get the chance, I would like to climb the highest mountain in the world.”


By Ali Rasheed for Haveeru Online


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