Straight Talk with George Basch

The founder of Himalayan Stove Project hopes to change the future of Nepal, and the planet, with camp stoves.

At his home within sight of the famous steeps of New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley, George Basch’s mind is thousands of miles away—in the Himalayas to be exact, where he’s dedicated his retirement years to solving an insidious human health issue: Household Air Pollution (HAP). It is the cause of an estimated 4.3 million deaths a year worldwide, more than malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined.

Basch, 79, is founder of the non-profit Himalayan Stove Project, an effort to remove open campfires in thousands of homes in Nepal and replace them with clean-burning, fuel-efficient stoves that reduce indoor air pollution by 90 percent, and fuel use by 75 percent. Himalayan Stove Project has put over 3,000 Envirofit cook stoves in place so far. Basch took the time to talk to us about how the project works and the difference it’s making.

At a time when many Your age are enjoying retirement, you seem to be working 24/7. What started you on this mission to clear the air in Nepal?

My son, Paul, with whom I had hiked, trekked and climbed, committed suicide in 1998 at the age of 28. I wanted to memorialize him in a way that would have been meaningful to him. In 2001, I spent a month at Everest Base Camp, as support for blind climber Erik Weihenmayer’s successful summit. On my first visit to Nepal, I was enthralled by the people, but appalled by the lung-searing indoor smoke in their homes. I returned in 2009, and a solution to the problem presented itself—our first big shipment of stoves arrived in Kathmandu in early 2011.

How serious a problem is this?

It’s the world’s leading source of environmental death. Almost half the world is still cooking on the floor in open pits as if it’s the stone age. In September 2015, ski mountaineer and North Face team athlete Kit DesLauriers was on an expedition to climb Nepal’s Mount Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world, when she became ill with high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). As she recovered, a local Nepali family shared their meals with her despite having little food for themselves. DesLauriers was shocked by the amount of indoor smoke due to cooking over an open fire on the dirt floor, a method little changed for centuries. Today, she and The North Face have become strong supporters of our efforts.

OR Display w GB Chief Cook

We hear a lot about the difficulties of delivering humanitarian aid to Nepal. What has been your experience?

After the April 2015 earthquake, we brought in 20 larger stoves for mass feeding of the victims. Our team in Nepal skillfully worked their way through totally unnecessary red tape and the stoves made an enormous difference in the communities where they were put to use. Our latest shipment of 577 stoves has been held up for months. Luckily, we have a man on the ground in Nepal who understands the ins and outs of Nepali bureaucracy. It’s very aggravating, but we’re making progress.

What is it about the Envirofit cook stove that makes it so well suited for the project?

Envirofit is a Fort Collins, Colorado-based non-profit with incredible engineering and manufacturing talent. They’ve shipped more than one million clean cook stoves worldwide, designed for the greatest efficiency and built to the highest quality standards. We’re honored to be one small part of their global network.

Nepal is a dream destination for so many climbers or adventurers. How has the climbing community responded to your effort?

The Himalaya have occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of climbers and adventurers since the 1920s. We’ve received support from climbing greats including Conrad Anker, Sir Chris Bonington, Jimmy Chin, Dave Hahn, Tom Hornbein, Reinhold Messner, Doug Scott, Brent Bishop and many, many others. Outdoor gear companies have also recognized the value of supporting us, with donations from adidas Outdoor, Eddie Bauer, Kahtoola, MSR, The North Face and others, including personally from  Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. They are all behind us in a big way.

Nepal is a Third World country of 28 million. Can you realistically make a difference with a few thousand cook stoves?

Every stove that we deliver (at the very modest cost of $150) transforms the life of a family. Our all-volunteer organization and our Nepal team has the capacity to deliver over 5,000 stoves per year without having to create a large, ponderous organization. One of our advisory board members, Tom Hornbein, says what we’re doing “is just like climbing a mountain—you take one step at a time.”

What keeps you going?

One of my core values is to be a responsible global citizen, doing what I can to make the world a better place. Every stove we deliver transforms the life of a family, and memorializes my son. That’s immensely gratifying.

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