22 Jul 2019 Story Ecosystems

Meet UN Environment’s new Mountain Hero Malcolm Wood

Photo by @guyboltonphotography

“We’re excited to announce that Malcolm Wood is the first paraglider, entrepreneur and environmental film-maker to join UN Environment Programme’s campaign, Mountain Heroes,” says UN Environment mountain ecosystem expert Matthias Jurek.

“He will be joining famous athletes such as Canadian ice climber Will Gadd, Austrian cyclist Michael Strasser, Kenyan skier Sabrina Simader, and British adventurer Ben Fogle, who help to draw attention to emerging environmental issues in mountains, including climate change, waste management and biodiversity loss.”

As a para-alpinist, Wood is used to organizing expeditions to some of the highest summits around the world, to attempt a paragliding or speed flight descent. Wood is planning—at some point in the near future when logistics and conditions are right—to speed-fly off the summit of Mont Blanc to draw attention to the region’s tourism footprint, and the dire situation of declining glaciers in the European Alps.

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Malcolm Wood approaching basecamp on Imja Tse in Nepal’s Himalayas on a training climb. Camps are continually being forced to lower elevations to remain near a water source as the higher camps that once held snow are now dry. Photo by @codytutts

As he climbs and watches over mountains, Wood finds it hard to ignore the clear signs of climate change. Melting ice is one of them. Mer de Glace, one of the most iconic glaciers in the Alps is receding at rates much faster than 5 or 10 years ago. Mountain climbers and skiers can’t help but notice, and question, the increase in avalanches.

With these changes taking place in the mountains, most people do not realize that almost a third of the world’s population relies on glacier and ice melt for their freshwater. With glaciers set to disappear in some of the highest mountain ranges, more than two billion people will be affected worldwide.

“The aim of the Mountain Heroes campaign is to raise awareness of the climate crisis in mountains and urge global climate action, in line with similar calls from António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations,” says Jurek.

As an environmental film-maker, Wood and his team have recently set out to use paragliders and speed wings to get previously unseen camera angles to deliver evidence of the climate crisis, raise awareness of the changes taking place and inspire change to prevent further climate deterioration. Their latest project, fittingly called “The Last Glaciers”, aims to visually depict the radical changes taking place on our planet.

“As a paragliding pilot, I think you have a greater awareness and understanding of the environment,” says Wood. “I think anyone with an increased understanding of what’s going on, or what they are seeing, should share those experiences, that knowledge, with other people. I hope that in some way, shape or form we can inspire other paragliding pilots and individuals to go and tell their stories, to share their experiences with more people and try to help tackle this terrifying problem together, as a community.”

Peru challenge

One of the expeditions within the project was to the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in Peru, where many of the world’s tropical glaciers can be found.

Studies show that glaciers in Peru have lost one third of their surface area since 1970 and there is serious concern that within the next 40 years these glaciers could be completely gone—a major threat to communities that rely on meltwater. Cities like Huaraz, in the center of Peru, take up to 90 per cent of their water supply from glaciers during the dry season.

The now unavoidable melting of glaciers in Peru will reduce water supplies in places that are already struggling with scarcity–28 per cent of the rural population in Peru have no access to drinking water, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics.

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With mountains crumbling due to glacier melt, the descent is often the most dangerous part of the climb. Malcolm Wood has been using ultralight paragliders to descend when conditions allow. Photo by @guyboltonphotography

As part of this expedition to Peru, Malcolm and his team set their sights on completing the first tandem flight off a summit at nearly 6,000 metres, in one of the most turbulent regions in the world for paragliding. After reaching the summit the first time, however, the team decided that wind conditions were too strong. They made a second attempt the following day despite having run out of food, leading to an exhausting climb. Malcolm successfully flew film director Craig Leeson down off the summit after a tandem paragliding flight allowed the team to get a bird’s eye view of the entire mountain range, providing a unique perspective on the retreating ice and snow.

Malcolm has always been ready for extreme challenges and now he is putting that to the test. Can he, and others, inspire a broken and decaying system to change, in order to give future generations the chance to enjoy the true beauty of nature and allow us to continue to live in harmony with our planet?

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The UN Climate Action Summit will take place in New York City on 23 September 2019 to increase ambition and accelerate action on the global climate emergency and support the rapid implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The 2019 UN Climate Action Summit is hosted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

For further information, please contact Matthias Jurek