September 21, 2022

A Himalayan passion project turns into an obsession

He grew up farming before becoming a journalist at The Age and working as an adviser to two prime ministers.

Simon Balderstone also helped organize the Sydney Olympics, worked with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and turned his passion for trekking in the Himalayas into a multi-million dollar community fundraising project. poor.

But don’t call him a renaissance man or his friends will laugh.

“I’m a doer. I’ll take it,” Mr. Balderstone told AAP, wryly.

Despite his varied interests and areas of work, he says it was all driven by a deep desire to make a difference.

Next month he will step down as chairman of the Australian Himalayan Foundation – a passion-turned-obsession project he helped set up 20 years ago.

The foundation was born out of a love for the people he and his fellow founders met while hiking in the mountainous regions of Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh.

Since its inception in 2002, the foundation has raised $15 million to improve the lives and environments of often-neglected communities in the foothills of the Himalayas.

“We saw a great need, a huge need,” Mr. Balderstone said.

“We had seen vast areas of severely underfunded, poor, even subsistence living in areas where there is no external income, just outside the areas where all the commercial climbing activities take place. .”

These communities were struggling to provide education for their children, had insufficient health services and their natural environment was deteriorating, he says.

“We were inspired by our love of people – yes, giving something back, but in more practical terms, wanting to make a difference, wanting to improve their well-being and their work and life opportunities.

“The mantra we have developed is that we provide what they need most to those who need it most.”

What started as a relatively small undertaking – fundraising to build a school – has grown into a multi-faceted operation with far-reaching impact.

The foundation works with governments, consults on climate change projects, helped build 85 classrooms in 26 schools after the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, and provided some 55,000 people with access to better health services. health.

The foundation’s flagship program is to train teachers in order to sustainably improve the education system.

It also supported the school attendance of 6,000 children by providing locally purchased uniforms, books, stationery and lunch money.

A distance learning radio show set up during the COVID-19 pandemic was expected to reach 40,000 students. Some 1.5 million people logged in.

Mr Balderstone says he is proud that the foundation was created from scratch by “just a group of fellow climbers and trekkers”, inspired by the work of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Sir Edmund, the first person to summit Mount Everest, set up The Himalayan Trust, a New Zealand-registered charity that works to alleviate poverty in the mountainous region of Nepal.

His son Peter Hillary is one of the founding directors of the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

As Mr Balderstone, who has gone through stage four melanoma for the past five years which has ‘flattened’ him, steps down as chairman of the foundation, he plans to stay on the board and will not give up. not his precious visits to the area anytime soon.

“Seeing people’s faces and seeing the result of the work that we do, seeing the amazing results firsthand… I’m very proud of that,” he says.

But he admits his body is less bad during his recent visits.

“Where we used to walk a lot of rough terrain, many of us now do it much easier by heli-trekking,” he laughs.