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Real Summit Meetings

June 15, 2002

Poets speak of mountains as eternal. The ancients feared them as the abodes of dragons or demons. Nineteenth century climbers went to conquer them. Modern climbers toil to cleanse them of the trash left by their predecessors. And mountains are far too often the stage for rebellion and warfare.

In fact, high mountains are fragile and subject to environmental damage, swarmed by tourism and chipped away by indiscriminate development. The challenges to mountain ranges throughout the world are so daunting that the United Nations has declared 2002 the International Year of Mountains.

The action stems from a determination at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago that threats to mountain areas were as serious as rain forest destruction and the man-made deserts creeping across dry areas of the world.

Conferences and forums are being held around the globe to increase awareness of threats to mountain areas and take steps to protect them. One is the Banff Mountain Summit in the Canadian Rockies Oct. 27 to 29 in conjunction with the annual Banff film and book festivals. Renowned mountaineers such as Reinhold Messner, the first to reach the summit of all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks (that's 26,247 feet, for Americans), and Patagonia outdoor clothing company founder Yvon Chouinard, will discuss topics such as the culture of extreme landscapes and corporate responsibility in the mountains.

The Year of Mountains also will be noted Sept. 28 at a Denver dinner and forum of the American Alpine Club celebrating the 100th anniversary of the climbing club's founding. The organization's goals include the promotion and dissemination of knowledge about mountains and their conservation and preservation.

The beauty of the mountains of Kashmir is legendary. That has not deterred India and Pakistan from a nuclear-tinged standoff over control of the region. The United States has fought Taliban and Al Qaeda in the forbidding mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The mountainside bobsled run for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo was a fire base for Bosnian Serb gunners' attacks on the city a few years later.

Another major problem is the melting of alpine glaciers due to climate change. Mountains are the source for half the world's water supply. In the Andes, the Quelccaya ice cap, the main water source for Lima, Peru, is receding 300 feet a year, 10 times its shrinkage rate a decade ago. Water experts fear the same will happen to the snowpack of California's Sierra Nevada.

Talking about mountains' problems will not solve them. But as government officials become aware of these threats, they can seek solutions. Perhaps it will be as William Blake wrote in the early 19th century: "Great things are done when men and mountains meet."

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