Himalayan passion project turns obsession

·3-min read

He grew up farming before becoming a journalist at The Age and going on to work as an advisor to two prime ministers.

Simon Balderstone also helped organise the Sydney Olympic Games, has worked with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and turned a passion for Himalayan trekking into a multimillion-dollar fundraising project for impoverished communities.

But don't call him a renaissance man or his friends will chuckle.

"I'm a doer. I'll take that," Mr Balderstone tells AAP, wryly.

Despite his varied interests and fields of work, he says it has all been informed by a deep-seated desire to make a difference.

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

The foundation was borne out of a love for the people he and his fellow founders came across while trekking the mountainous regions of Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh.

Since it was established in 2002, the foundation has raised $15 million to improve the lives and environment of the often-overlooked communities in the foothills of the Himalayas.

"We saw a great need, a huge need," Mr Balderstone says.

"We'd seen vast areas of seriously under-resourced, poverty-stricken, even subsistence living in areas where there is no external income, just outside the areas where all the commercial climbing activity goes on."

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 the people - yes, to give something back, but in more practical terms, wanting to make a difference, wanting to improve their wellbeing and their work and life opportunities.

"The mantra we developed is that we provide what's needed most to those who most need it."

What started as a relatively small endeavour - fundraising to build one school - grew 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 Nepal Earthquakes and has provided some 55,000 people with access to better health services.

The foundation's flagship program involves training teachers in order to improve the education system in a sustainable way.

It has also supported school attendance for 6000 children by providing them with locally sourced uniforms, books, stationary and lunch money.

A distance-learning radio program set up during the COVID-19 pandemic was intended to reach 40,000 students. Some 1.5 million tuned in.

Mr Balderstone says he is proud of the foundation having been started from scratch by "just a group of climbing and trekking mates", who were inspired by the work of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Sir Edmund, the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest, established The Himalayan Trust, a New Zealand-registered charity that works to reduce poverty in the Nepalese mountain region.

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

While Mr Balderstone, who has navigated a stage-four melanoma in the past five years that "flattened him out", is stepping down as the foundation's chair, he plans to remain on the board and won't give up his treasured visits to the region any time soon.

"Seeing the faces of the people and seeing the outcome of the work we're doing, seeing the incredible results first hand ... I take great pride in that," he says.

But he does admit he's going easier on his body during recent visits.

"Where we used to walk over a lot of rough ground, a lot of us now do it a lot easier by heli-trekking," he says, laughing.