Mt. Everest: The Holy Grail of the climbing world. Each year 230,000 people travel to China and Nepal to hike Everest and its sister peaks in the Himalayas. All climbers generate garbage, and the mountains have no way to process it. It’s a delicate environment where trash remains frozen for eternity—or until the greenhouse effect takes over and releases the stench of rotting what-have-you.
For perspective on the garbage problem, some numbers are in order. In 1963 six people reached the summit. In 2012, more than 500 made it to the top. This created a traffic jam at the final ascent, known as the Hillary Step. Climbers waited for hours to hoist themselves up along a rope. Those that made it to the summit had a hard time finding a place to stand. Another several hundred attempted to make the summit but were turned back by bad weather or common sense. But their garbage was just as real.
And it’s not only garbage that is left behind. Some 200 bodies of climbers who perished in the mountain’s “death zone”—the area above 25,000 feet where the oxygen level is insufficient for sustaining human life—dot the landscape. The death zone is literally a place between life and death. From Camp 4 to the summit, each climber’s body is in the process of shutting down and the goal is to get to the top and back before that happens.
For those who don’t make it, their bodies may be pushed over a ledge so climbers don’t encounter them. Others remain in the crevasses into which they fell. All are frozen solid in the positions in which they died, a process that can happen imperceptibly between one breath and the next as they stop for a momentary rest.
Even George Mallory, who died in 1924 just 800 feet below the summit on the world’s first ascent of Everest, still lies face down where he landed. His body was discovered in 1999 during a special expedition. His clothing is ripped, and his back is exposed to the frigid air in a manner that makes the grandma in me want to cover him up with a blanket.
While the “Leave No Trace” ethic runs deep in many areas of the world, this is not the case in Nepal, where climbing is big business and the ineffective government has little recourse in enforcing efforts to treat the mountain as the religious force that Buddhists believe it is.
Given the difficulties in climbing the mountain, bringing a dead body down is harder than it seems. Several people attempting to recover bodies have died themselves. Now these 200 bodies are used as landmarks to guide Sherpas and their clients. Needless to say, the bodies will remain preserved and frozen until the rosy-fingered dawn of climate change reaches out and melts the Himalayan snow.
Thus, given the issue of its ill-fated explorers, it’s not surprising that the mountain suffers a litter problem. Expeditions are supposed to take their garbage with them, but this largely hasn’t happened. When commercial climbing took off in the 1970s, climbers routinely left tents, foot packaging, and what have you on the mountain. Things are better now, but it seems that the $65,000 in fees that each climber pays to the government of Nepal for the privilege of climbing makes them feel entitled to leave their empty water bottles and oxygen canisters behind.
According to writer Pablo Figueroa, “In essence, the mess at the top of the world is socially caused, and it has to do with the naturalization, promotion and exaltation of a culture of ambition and self-glory.”
Human waste is a big issue. None of the villages on the hiking trail to base camp have waste treatment systems. A group called Eco Himal is pushing for portable toilets at base camp and maybe even a waste treatment facility. Climbers are supposed to carry their own waste with them, but that’s not really feasible, given that climbers may stay several weeks at Everest Base Camp and higher levels. As of 2015, human waste at Everest Base Camp is stored in barrels that are later removed from the mountain. But this isn’t the case at the other three higher camps where it remains a huge problem.
The waste issue is monitored by the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, which is small, underfunded, and lacks the authority to do much about the problem. However, one recent improvement is that all expeditions must pay a $4,000 deposit on their equipment in hopes they will bring back what they took. This is helping enormously, according to people who have seen a marked difference in the once-trash strewn base camp. But much still gets left behind. Even when waste does make its way back to Kathmandu, the city has no recycling facility to handle it.
According to one article in the Guardian, in 2010 the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee recovered 25 tons of garbage from Everest; about half was paper and plastic, the other half human waste. What remains on the mountain stays perfectly preserved, like the bodies of those unfortunate climbers. In 2014 the Nepali Ministry of Tourism required all climbers to descend the mountain with 18 pounds of trash, which is the amount that the average climber generates during his or her time there. However, enforcement was sketchy to nonexistent.
Climate change is adding to the problem. Glaciers are receding, and freshwater is increasingly contaminated with human and animal waste. All of these factors create a situation that is unsustainable. The campaign “Saving Mount Everest 2011-2012” is on a quest to restore dignity to the mountain, but its quest is far from over. According to one Sherpa quoted in Treehugger, “The garbage was buried under snow in the past. But now it has come out on the surface because of the melting of snow due to global warming. The rubbish is creating problems for climbers . . . . Some items of garbage are from Hillary’s time.”
According to Mark Jenkins, writing in National Geographic, there are six ways to restore Mt. Everest:
- Limit the number of climbers and Sherpas on the mountain.
- Make teams smaller to reduce the traffic jams near the top.
- Certify climbing companies to make sure they know and exercise proper safety and conservation procedures.
- Require climbers and Sherpas to have high-altitude experience beforehand.
- Leave no trace. Those who leave garbage or human waste on the mountain will suffer penalties.
- Remove bodies to show respect for both the living and the dead.
It’s an uphill battle, but one that’s worth it if we are to truly respect the awesome power of Everest and respect the memory of those who have lost their lives seeking to reach its summit.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.