Exclusive Interview with Rodrigo Jordan, Chilean Mountaineer, Entrepreneur

Rodrigo Jordán, the first South American to summit Mt. Everest with his team, is Founder and President of Vertical, S.A., writer, lecturer and professor, entrepreneur, President of the Chilean National Foundation for Overcoming Poverty, and recipient of several national and international honors and awards.  Rodrigo sat down with me to discuss glaciers, climate change, how mountaineers can help increase public awareness, and the importance of collaborating on a global scale to address the effects of climate change.

KS: When did you first start climbing mountains?  What was the first mountain you climbed and what inspired you to start climbing?

Rodrigo Jordan, water, glaciers, public outreach, awarenessRJ: Well, it’s hard to say because we lived here in Santiago at the foot of Cerro San Cristobal, which is just over there.  I started going up that mountain since I can’t remember, so I must have been six or seven years of age.  We would play cowboys or soldiers or whatever up there.  So I was always engaged with mountains.

We would go to the seaside in summer.  My parents would rent a house and would all go down to the beach.  I would stay at home and go climbing the mountains behind it.  But my mother would get very angry because they had gone to this great expense to rent a house and “you’re not enjoying the beach!”  My father was more supportive.  But I became a more serious climber in the university, because I met then my mentor, a man named Claudio Lucero, and that’s how it all started.

KS: How do you describe this passion you have for mountains, glaciers and natural beauty to someone who has never explored, has never been there, someone who stayed on the beach and didn’t go to the mountains? 

RJ: You use a word, which I entirely agree, or it’s a very profoundly correct word:  passion.  This passion is something that has a very important component of irrationality, which for them it’s difficult to explain.  The way I’ve done it is by putting all these expeditions and trips into photos and slides, and showing them at lectures, and people love them.  And once you do that, they suddenly realize they haven’t really gotten into this.  Now they have a first glimpse, and you convince maybe 10% of the audience to go with you, and for those who go, they’re really changed.  That’s the only way I can sort of influence somebody with my passion.

 “If you stand in front of these massive glaciers of this white and blue ice with all the hues of blues, it’s so powerfully beautiful that you want them to be there for people to enjoy them…”

But if you try to explain it rationally, there’s really no use.  I haven’t been successful.  When people who are not mountaineers would go with me on a trek, or a hike or a small climb or a strong climb they all would come back, and I would meet them several years later, and they would all say things like “That was amazing!  I still remember the day we went climbing.”  Maybe it’s not enough to engage them completely, but then they realize what this is about.

KS: Having said that, glaciers are, in many cases, so far from urban areas and impacts in terms of environmental change take so long to realize in geological time.  Why should urban dwellers or just as people who aren’t constantly studying glaciers pay attention to glaciers?

RJ: At least to me there are two things in that.  One is there is an extremely important aesthetic component to it.  If you stand in front of these massive glaciers of this white and blue ice with all the hues of blues, it’s so powerfully beautiful that you want them to be there for people to enjoy them, even for those few people who go up there to see them.  In the case of Chile, we are very fortunate because you don’t need to go to extremes to go and see them.  Some of them can be reached literally by car, and you can be there.  So, people would have more practical reasons and I will go into them, at least one of them right now.

“In Chile, we’re so used to having drinkable water, you know, there, that it’s sort of granted.  And it’s not.”

But before I go into that, there is something powerful right there, and as I say, in its beauty.  If we were to lose glaciers we would lose a… [shakes head and pauses].  For example, deserts.  People say deserts are useless.  It might be, but you wouldn’t want the deserts to disappear from earth, because they are a beautiful landscape.  People who have gone to the deserts, and I have been to the desert many times, you really get joy and I think you complete your humanity by being in the deserts and relating to them.

So, in the case of the glaciers, well there is a practical reason.  Not only the beauty, but there is a practical reason.  They are the providers of our main water system, and that is the case for Chile.  In Chile, we’re so used to having drinkable water, you know, there, that it’s sort of granted.  And it’s not.

Rodrigo Jordan, Chile, mountaineer, climbingYou get that in the north of Chile, which is of course more desert where there is more drought.  The people in the north know the value of water coming out of these glaciers.  Here in the central region, not so much, and less in the south where there is plenty of water.  But gradually, if we start losing our glaciers, we’ll start losing our input of drinkable water, and we’ll be in serious trouble.  We now see that starting to happen in what we call Norte Chico, the small desert.  The big desert in the north is the Atacama [indicates with cupped hands] and then you have what we call Norte Chico and farther south is the central region.  This place used to be quite fertile and we’re gradually seeing how the actual battles for water are there, and that’s because up in the cordillera we’re losing our glaciers.  So there’s certainly a practical, very important reason to protect our glaciers.

KS: Just to put something in a more historical mountaineering perspective, you talked about how when you started climbing as a child, there was this sense of wonder and it became a passion and there’s no rational way to explain it to people.  It’s just a beautiful thing that you constantly go back to.  How does a great accomplishment like leading the first South American team up Mt. Everest in 1992, and over the last 20 years after that accomplishment, impact your perspective on alpine ecosystems and on glaciers?  How is that different than just the wonder?

RJ: Well there is something to say about that.  When I climbed Everest 20 years ago, when I did it [points to himself], we climbed as a team.  And I’m not saying this to be politically correct, it was a “we” thing rather than an “I” thing.  We worked very hard for nearly 10 years and we failed twice.  There’s a whole story about climbing Everest, but we were, during that time and in this case, I was extremely focused on that objective.

“…20 years ago I was totally focused, my eyes were totally constrained as a predator on the summit of Everest.  I couldn’t see anything on the side.”

Just to give you an example, as we were walking in on our last expedition, on the Tibetan plateau, we were approaching Everest on what is known as the Kangshung Face – this side [indicates with hand], barely seen by Westerners.  Before us, maybe, I don’t know, maybe two or three expeditions had been on that side.  So we were walking, in the early 90s, on the last bit of Everest that was sort of untouched.  And we were in intimate relation with the Tibetans, with the landscape that was untouched, as I said…and I didn’t see anything of this.

I was so focused that we needed to climb and climb.  And the Tibetans who were helping us ferry loads, I would see them as a barrier that we needed to cross (they were not helping us, no, they weren’t going with us), rather than enjoying the immense wonder, as to say, of being able to relate to a totally different culture.  So what I’m trying to say is that 20 years ago I was totally focused, my eyes were totally constrained as a predator on the summit of Everest.  I couldn’t see anything on the side.  Once that was achieved, and everything happened after that, we started working with kids and going out to the mountains, our eyes sort of started looking around, and we could see this beauty, this wonder.

Rodrigo 3

And one of the wonders was because of these 30 years of me climbing or even more, in Chile, you actually see how these glaciers have thinned and retreated.  It’s happened in your lifetime.  And so, you start reading all these things about climate change, and so you get naturally involved.  You have inputs and stimulus from all over the place, from the mountains you’re climbing, from the things you read in the newspaper, from documentaries you see on television.

So you say, well there’s something more than just climbing and focusing as a predator on the summit.  And so my whole perspective on mountaineering has changed and because of that our expeditions have changed – and rather than just keep on climbing, which we still do, we will also do expeditions to Antarctica, to Greenland, to Patagonia, to do research.  I wouldn’t say our research is very simple, but at least we should document what’s going on with these magnificent landscapes that gradually we are losing.

KS: You’ve talked about why you care about climate change and that this should probably be a universal truth for everyone.  If it’s happening, we should care about it, it’s just that simple, with the connections between glaciers and water, especially seeing that we live in a large ecosystem with plenty of interactions.  This year [2012], you are going to climb Everest on the 20th anniversary of your team’s historic 1992 summit.  If someone were to invite you a month later to a global summit on climate change, what would be your ideal philosophical or technical solution to global warming or climate change?

Let’s get a couple of things correct at least in my sense.  One is that, to me, global warming, and because of global warming, climate change is happening.  Of that I am now totally convinced based on what I’ve read, researched, traveled, seen in the last 10 years – I’m convinced it’s happening, and I don’t think anyone wouldn’t say that.  Some people might argue why it’s happening, and this is very important, because some people might say, well these are natural cycles of earth and the universe. Some people might say, no, the main factor is human.  Some would say that it’s a combination of both, and that might be still in the realm of discussion, but it’s happening and we need to do something.

“When all of that has happened and you have been impacted in your soul, with these views, with these landscapes, then you would, I think, care about them, love them, and start protecting them.  That is my point of awareness.”

What I don’t like when people say is if it is not human caused and it’s a natural cycle, well, we shouldn’t do anything.  I don’t think humans can see and stand there while all this is happening and say we should do nothing.  Even if this is, and I don’t think it is, even if it is a natural cycle, we can still be helping at least diminish the effects of climate change on our natural systems and ecosystems.

But I wouldn’t go for a solution.  I don’t have a solution.  I’ve been in seminars asking experts.  I would go for more of a universal awareness.  I think if I were to go to one of these huge seminars and I could make one wish granted, I would make the wish that humanity should be thoroughly aware of what is happening.

Rodrigo Jordan, social entrepreneurWe, because we’re in the elite of the world, we’re informed.  If you go to Africa, if you go to India, China, millions, billions of people are not aware of climate change.  They might be aware of the effects of climate in their plantations, in the outcome of their agricultural work, but they won’t call that climate change.  They don’t realize that this has to do with a problem on the planet.  So, if we were to make humanity aware of climate change, I am sure solutions would come out of that.  Humanity has been confronted with severe problems and has been able to deal with them.  If we all were aware, I think we would be capable of dealing with climate change.

KS: What can mountaineers do, from amateur mountaineers all the way up to professional, highly sponsored mountaineers?

RJ: You know, I think because of the mega cities we live in, and especially Latin America, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, Mexico City, they’re huge.  You need to understand the metropolitan area of Chile, if you would add Santiago to it’s main port, Valparaiso, and Viña del Mar and the outskirts, it’s nearly 10 million people; two thirds of the country live in these huge mega cities.  What happens with that is that a great percentage of the people, 80% or 70% of the people, never go to nature.  I’m talking about nature in general, wilderness areas, much less mountains, much less glaciers up those mountains.

So if you don’t see glaciers, if you don’t experience them, if you don’t live with them, for that individual, literally they don’t exist.  Not only do you need to see them, to realize they are there, you then need to do some work to understand what processes are going on there.  When all of that has happened and you have been impacted in your soul, with these views, with these landscapes, then you would, I think, care about them, love them, and start protecting them.  That is my point of awareness.

“I think if I were to go to one of these huge seminars and I could make one wish granted, I would make the wish that humanity should be thoroughly aware of what is happening.”

So what mountaineers can do is, they can do two things.  They can try and bring people up there and share – mountaineers are not very good with this.  You know mountaineers tend to be solitary, or just me and my friend, my couple climbing.  We’re not good at inviting other people.  We see other people as a burden, or as it’s a load.  But if we were able to bring people up into the mountains, facilitate their access, then at least we would be into that ladder of knowing, understanding and loving.

Okay, if they don’t want to do that, they need to do what you do – bring back not just the memories, but pictures, writings, and really produce.  And now these things [shows iPhone] can help us with sharing and tweeting something or on FaceBook, “look, I was up there on Cerro Morado” and we can expand and bring into these city dwellers the beauty of these landscapes.  That would help people to get onto that first step of the ladder actually, of knowing, understanding, and loving, and caring.

KS: Do you have anything else you would like to add that would complete the picture of how you see this global issue from your perspective?

RJ: The only worrying thing about this is the fact that you’re saying it’s global.  Look at a small country like us.  It is my understanding that Chile is one of the highest carbon producers per capita in the world, if you put it on a per capita basis.  But in real terms, nobody cares.  We could have a huge carbon footprint for a country like us of 17 million people and it doesn’t make any difference, if huge countries like the United States, China, India, and all of Europe are not dealing with carbon footprints.

So you see what I mean is that it’s really a global issue.  If we don’t all agree in working, I wouldn’t say together, but I’ll do my share and you do yours, then there’s little sense for me doing my share.  If the Chilean government, Chilean companies, and Chilean citizens see that, and I won’t say they don’t, that other huge countries like China, India, South Africa, are not doing their share, why would I, why would we?  And that adds a further complication to this whole issue.  People would say then, it’s unachievable because we cannot agree.

There is the case, and I love to tell this story, about Antarctica.  We finally signed 12 different countries, and then another hundred signed, the Antarctic Treaty in which we all agreed that we would manage Antarctica collectively and protect its resources and everything.  So there are examples of us, and I mean “us” in a very big word, working together.

KS: Thanks, Rodrigo!  There’s a lot of material here and you’ve given us a lot to think about.

Rodrigo 5

Rodrigo Jordán Interview, March 19, 2012, Santiago, Chile

KS: Kurt Sanderson

RJ: Rodrigo Jordán

© Copyright 2013 Kurt J. Sanderson unless otherwise noted.