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Mount Everest’s Garbage Problem

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Garbage and human waste accumulate on Mt. Everest at a shocking rate.

Garbage and human waste accumulate on Mt. Everest at a shocking rate.

Garbage Mountain

Ah! The breathtaking experience of standing on top of the world and taking in the pristine beauty of the Himalayas. No. Don’t look over there. About 800 people attempt to climb to the summit of Mount Everest every year; they leave behind tonnes of trash, piles of human waste, and, sometimes, the bodies of those who don’t make it.

How Garbage Accumulates on Everest

Climbers typically spend a couple of months getting to the top of Mount Everest and back to where they started. During that time, they usually dump a lot of trash. Discarded oxygen bottles and camping gear litter the landscape. There’s food waste, camp stove fuel canisters, and even beer cans; all the detritus that climbers haul up the mountain but can’t be bothered to carry back down.

Experienced Everest climber Troy Aupperle sounds sympathetic but doesn’t condone the littering, “You barely have enough energy to get yourself off the mountain, so anything you don’t have to carry or can get rid of, you just off-load so you can get down” (Live Science).

The Poop Problem

But there’s worse. There’s the poop problem. 800 people, plus hundreds of guides and Sherpas, all have regular bowel movements. Peter Holley of The Washington Post has done some calculations. He says about 11,793 kg (26,000 pounds) of human excrement is taken off the mountain each climbing season. It gets tossed into pits near the village of Gorak Shep. Then, along comes the monsoon season, and the crap gets flushed into the river system.

But that’s only the stuff that gets deposited in makeshift outhouses. One technique climbers use is to scoop out a hole in the snow and take a dump. You have to hope you don’t scoop out a previously scooped-out spot. It’s cold, so the stuff doesn’t decompose. It just builds up.

Base camp where climbers acclimatize to the altitude before pushing to the summit

Base camp where climbers acclimatize to the altitude before pushing to the summit

Cleaning Efforts

The Nepalese government has tried to clean up the mountain. Sherpas are paid two dollars for each kilo of trash they bring in. Climbers are also given an incentive. If they bring down eight kilos of rubbish from the mountain, they get a substantial discount on their climbing fee.

None of this pleases Norbu Tenzing, the son of the first man to the summit. He told The Telegraph that if his father “were alive, he would be very sad to see how heavily trafficked and desecrated the mountain has become. He went on to say that “It is a travesty what has happened to this beautiful mountain. Everest has become a cash cow, where the government takes millions of dollars a year but very little, or nothing actually goes back. The business of Everest is all tied to money.”

The Death Zone

In addition to the poop and trash, bodies are strewn around the ascent to the summit. What’s called the “Death Zone” starts at about 8,000 metres. That’s where oxygen levels drop significantly, and conditions become increasingly hazardous. It’s a place where frostbite can take off extremities such as toes, fingers, and noses. And the air is so thin that helicopters can't fly to rescue someone in distress.

At least 250 people have died trying to get to Everest’s peak, and 200 of them still lie on the mountain. They are a grim reminder to those climbing that they might join them. The remains of Tsewang Paljor are known to all who make it to the summit. He was killed in a blizzard in 1996 and is called “Green Boots” by climbers because of the colour of his footwear. According to the BBC, “When snow cover is light, climbers have had to step over Paljor’s extended legs on their way to and from the peak.”

Climbers encounter the bodies of those before them who didn't make it.

Climbers encounter the bodies of those before them who didn't make it.

Avalanches account for 29 percent of the deaths on Everest, while falls kill 23 percent. Acute altitude sickness and exposure take care of 21 percent. Recovering a body from the mountain is a dangerous and very expensive proposition. The solution is generally to push a corpse into a crevasse and out of sight; that has to be done quickly after death before the body gets frozen in place. For some, that’s not feasible, and they remain out in the open. However, Green Boots and some others that have lain for years in the Death Zone have been moved and buried under stone cairns.

Conquering the Peak

Mount Everest is 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) high; its height has been recalculated several times. The first people to reach its summit were Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. That was in May 1953, and since then, more than 4,000 have done the same thing. Only about 30 percent of those who try to reach the summit actually get there.

To be successful, you need to be at the peak (sorry about that) of your physical condition. Several years of training and experience in mountain climbing are a prerequisite. The physical demands are so enormous that you’ll need to consume up to 10,000 calories a day. However, altitude sickness might make you feel nauseous, but you’ll have to overcome that and chow down anyway.

Jamie Clarke is the chief honcho of the athletic wear company LiveOutThere, and he’s climbed Everest twice. He told Forbes Magazine:

“Most of us who attempted Everest had cracked ribs because of all the heavy breathing. The air is so dry that it causes violent coughing fits—so violent you can actually crack a rib. But my climbing leader handed me a roll of duct tape and told me to splint my chest and get back up that mountain.”

Violent storms are a frequent occurrence on the mountain, and it’s always cold. Park your inhibitions. Those bodily functions about which we all tend to be a bit squeamish are not going to be performed in the privacy of a locked bathroom.

Many climbers leave flags at the summit.

Many climbers leave flags at the summit.

Not for the Faint of Heart—or Shallow of Pocket

You’ll have to devote a lot of time to the challenge. The nearest airport is Lukla, which The South China Morning Post says “ . . . is regularly described as the world’s most dangerous and the final descent is not for the faint-hearted.”

After you’ve disembarked and retrieved your stomach, you face a two-week uphill hike to the south base camp. This is where you’ll stay for a week or ten days because the oxygen level is only half what it is a sea level, and you have to acclimatize to that. But there won’t be much rest because you’ll be hauling supplies up to higher base camps.

The final push to the summit will take several hours, and if successful, you face the long and arduous trek back down again. Still want to give it a try? How deep are your pockets? It’s going to cost you about $45,000.

Bonus Factoids

  • On May 21, 2019, Kami Rita Sherpa reached the summit of Mount Everest for the 24th time. His 23rd and 24th ascents were completed in a single week. He holds the record for the most successful climbs. In May 2021, he completed his 25th successful climb to the summit.
  • The peak is known to Tibetans as Chomolungma and to the Nepalese as Sagarmatha. The British Royal Geographical Society named it Everest after Colonel Sir George Everest, who was the surveyor-general of The Great Trigonometrical Survey in India. Interestingly, he pronounced his name Eve-rest, with the first syllable rhyming with heave or leave.
  • The first measurement of Mount Everest in 1856 found that its peak was exactly 29,000 feet above sea level. Surveyor Andrew Waugh decided that looked too neat, so he added two feet.
  • Mount Everest is still getting taller. The Himalayan Mountains are being thrown up by the collision of the Indian tectonic plate smashing into the Asian plate. Everest grows about half an inch taller every year.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor