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Climb Every Mountain

The American Alpine Club names Alton Byers as this year's recipient of the David Brower Conservation Award.

Name a mountain range anywhere in the world and Alton Byers has probably climbed it at least once.

"I think it all started when I was 3-years-old and climbing Mt. Fuji," said Byers.

Byers grew up as part of a very large extended family in McLean.

"I grew up with my cousins," said Byers. "I think there were 17 or 20 of us living on Park Road in McLean, and so we grew up farming and getting up and pulling corn. It was an unusual but really interesting way to grow up — there were 6 aunts and uncles and 17 kids."

As the son of two Foreign Service Officers, Byers was lucky enough to also get the opportunity to live in countries around the world.

"We lived in Japan, and then Greece when I was 13, and there were so many mountains over there," said Byers. "And then I went to East Africa when I was 17 and climbed Kilimanjaro."

That climb had a profound effect on Byers. He graduated from high school and promptly got a summer job at Yellowstone National Park.

"I would hitch hike to the Grand Tetons every weekend and I fell in with these hippie climbers and they taught me how to climb," he said.

In 1973, Byers traveled to Nepal and trekked for several months.

"That's when I kind of knew, yeah there's a mountain geographer out there somewhere, and that's what I want to be."

Byers earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then went on to earn his master's degree while working on a field site in the remote mountain regions of Nepal. In 1980 he became a climbing and trekking leader and met his wife Elizabeth when she participated in one of his treks on Mt. Everest. After getting married, Byers worked on a large conservation project in Nepal and then went on to earn his Ph.D.

"We lived in the Mt. Everest area for a year," said Byers.

Elizabeth Byers has fond memories of this year that was "spent in a little hanging glacial valley at 13,000 feet," and says it is perhaps her favorite place that they have ever lived.

"It was probably one of the most spectacular settings I have ever seen," she said. "We lived in a little stone hut, and you always knew what the weather was because you would just look through the little stones — and you never ever took your down coat off."

Elizabeth Byers says that life with her husband has "never been boring."

"We have been to a lot of interesting places," she said. "He's a wonderful combination. He's a man of action, but he's also very compassionate, and he's a very good father."

TODAY BYERS IS the director of research and education at The Mountain Institute in Elkins, West Virginia. The Mountain Institute got its start in West Virginia in 1972, but currently has its headquarters in Washington D.C.

"We focus on the conservation of the environment, as well as the economic development of the community," said Bob Davis, president and CEO of The Mountain Institute. "Those are really the keys to creating sustainability."

On Feb. 7, which just happened to be his birthday, Byers found out that he would be receiving the prestigious David Brower Conservation Award from the American Alpine Club. The award was created in 1991 and is given annually to "a person who has made important contributions to the protection of mountain environments, and whose active personal role deserves public recognition."

"It's just a real honor to be recognized by something like the Brower award," said Byers.

David Brower was an active alpinist with over 70 first ascents of mountains in the American West. A member of the 10th Mountain Division, he was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in conservation.

Peter Ackroyd, Chairman of the American Alpine Club's International Conservation Committee, worked with Alton Byers on the Mount Everest Alpine Conservation and Restoration project.

"I can say that he is passionately concerned with using his knowledge and skills to protect and restore mountain environments," said Ackroyd. "He is constantly looking for new opportunities to improve the habitat and lot of the mountains and the people we all so enjoy, and I think we will see many more excellent projects from him in the future."

Bob Davis has worked with Byers since 1989, and agrees that the award was well deserved.

"He works very hard at everything he takes on," said Davis. "He has dedicated his life to mountains, mountain geography and the conservation of mountain ecosystems."

THE CREATION OF THE Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council is one of the most significant projects with which Byers has been involved. Byers helped to create the 23-member managing council of local Sherpa people in 2003. It was part of his efforts to put a stop to mountain ecosystem damage caused by unregulated adventure tourism.

"These fragile ecosystems are being severely degraded," said Byers. "I got a start-up grant to go and do something about it."

By forming the Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council, Byers has been able to help the local mountain natives to preserve their home by teaching them what needs to be done to protect the environment from the 27,000 trekkers and tourists that visit Mt. Everest every year. For example, mountain plants and shrubbery were formerly being burned and used for fuel. This practice has subsequently been banned by the Council.

"The sherpas knew what was going on, they just didn't know what to do about it," said Byers. "Now they are protecting their own ecosystem."

Peter Ackroyd says the Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council is a testament to Byers' "ability to inspire a community and take control."

"It has been a pleasure and an education to work with him," said Ackroyd.

Byers says that he hopes to take on similar projects in the future.

"My dream is to take the success of the Everest project to other areas," he said.

He is currently working on projects that would take The Mountain Institute to Africa and Russia.

"There's always another mountain range," said Byers.