Incoming Chair of the Mount Everest Foundation’s Committee of Trustees, Rebecca Stephens, reflects on the history of the MEF and considers how its past helps point the way to an active future for this vital grant-giving body.

Rebecca Stephens welcomes the opening of MEF grants to Nepali applicants at the Embassy of Nepal, London

Several remarkable charitable bodies sprung from the 1953 Everest expedition, not least the Mount Everest Foundation (MEF). Founded on the generosity of the expedition members who donated proceeds from lectures, a film, and in Col. John Hunt’s case, his best-selling book, The Ascent of Everest, (a must-have for every stocking that Christmas), to collectively raise an astounding £100,000, equivalent to almost £3.5m in today’s money. All this went into a pot to encourage the ‘exploration of the mountain ranges of the Earth’, an objective that is still honoured seven decades on.

Another charity that sprang from that extraordinary expedition of 1953, was the Himalayan Trust, founded by Ed Hillary to give back to the Sherpas who had played such an instrumental role in making the expedition a success. The two charities, though with different objectives, share values – a love of the mountains, the mountain people and cultures, a sense of gratitude and a desire to give back. So it comes as no surprise that they’ve joined forces to celebrate decennial anniversaries of Everest’s first ascent.

As a trustee of the Himalayan Trust UK, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many MEF trustees over the years. Thanks to Duncan Sperry I now step into his shoes as Chair, a decision not difficult to make – anything to counter our risk-averse, screen-obsessed culture where a neighbour anxiously informs me that my daughter is up an apple tree.

A Piolet d'Or-winning line. Paul Ramden on the MEF-backed first ascent of Jugal Spire - Tim Miller

I wonder if the founders would recognise much of the world we live in today, particularly if they cared to venture to Everest.  But I think they’d be pleased that the Mount Everest Foundation upholds its initial ethos: to encourage and celebrate the spirit of the pioneer, to take initiative and forge something new. To lead, not just to follow. In climbing, that’s evolved into purer alpine tactics, and, as the impact of tourism increasingly puts pressure on local communities, so it calls for increased sensitivity to the mountain environment and the people who inhabit it, always remembering that we’re visitors in someone else’s land. As such it seems entirely fitting that as well as donating money to young climbers keen to develop skills and awareness in extreme environments, the MEF also makes periodic donations to charities that support local people and the environments in which they’re likely to climb.

Hillary and Norgay climbing on Everest - The Royal Geographical Society

I’m quite sure, too, that the founders would endorse the MEF’s latest initiative, passed under Duncan’s leadership, to extend the eligibility of MEF grants to Nepalis as well as Brits and New Zealanders. After all, it was the citizens of three nations, not two, that put Hillary and Tenzing on the summit, and as the ambassador Gyan Chandra Acharya pointed out at a celebratory gathering at the Embassy of Nepal, “better late than never.” I’m happy to report that, following this announcement, we have already received our first application from Nepal.

MEF-backed scientists at work on the Dona glacial lake in the Nepalese Himalaya

Another timely shift is a renewed emphasis on science; currently, around one third of the MEF’s grants are allocated to scientific research in mountain regions. There was a time when the environmental impact of climbing and trekking was measured for the most part as local: rubbish, pollution of rivers, and the felling of trees for firewood with resultant erosion of thin mountain soils. Today, what happens in the mountains is of global interest. The high mountains of the world are humanity’s water towers. With temperatures at altitude rising faster than at sea level, glaciers are retreating, the bedrock left bare, which in turn amplifies the warming rate and has consequences far beyond the immediate vicinity of the mountains.

The MEF now finds itself at the epicentre of the biggest existential threat to humankind. We are in a position to play a part in supporting scientific research. We support the pioneers – those pushing the limits in mountaineering, and intrepid young scientists in remote and lofty mountain regions who are the spokesmen and women of the effect of climate change. Never has the Mount Everest Foundation found itself in such an important position. As incoming Chair, I hope to see that it continues to rise to that challenge.

- Rebecca Stephens