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Mount Everest’s Garbage Problem

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

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 didn’t make it.

Garbage Mountain

Climbers typically spend a couple of months getting to the top of Mount Everest and back to where they started from. 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).

But, there’s worse. There’s the poop problem. Eight hundred people plus hundreds of guides and Sherpas all have their 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.

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 off their climbing fee.

But 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.

“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.”

everests-garbage-problem

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. But, 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 in the peak (sorry about that) of 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.

And, 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.

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

  • “5 Secrets Of Climbing Mt.Everest.” Jordi Lippe-McGraw, Forbes Magazine, May 11, 2018.
  • “The Good, Bad, and Ugly Sides to Climbing Mount Everest.” Tim Pile, South China Morning Post, August 4, 2017.
  • “Everest Is Being Desecrated, Says Son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.” Anita Singh, The Telegraph, May 18, 2014
  • “Climbing Mount Everest: What You Need to Know.” Zachary Davies Boren, The Telegraph, April 18, 2014.
  • “How Much Trash Is on Mount Everest?” Kimberly Hickok, Live Science, July 15, 2018.
  • “There’s Way Too Much Human Faeces on Mount Everest, Experts Have Warned.” Josh Hrala, Science Alert, March 25, 2016.
  • “Death in the Clouds: The Problem With Everest’s 200+ Bodies.” Rachel Nuwer, BBC Future, October 9, 2015.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 09, 2018:

We've heard only the adventurous, glamorous side of the story. Now we're forced to consider the rest of the story. Thanks for making us aware of these other factors.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 08, 2018:

Hello Rupert, thanks for the update. How brave of her! Methink you will include this information in your next review of the story. Thank you, and have a nice day.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 08, 2018:

Thanks Miebakagh. But climbing Everest is not just "manly." Last summer I met a woman who climbed to the summit.

Her first attempt ended 200 metres from the top because of a storm. Her group went back to base camp and 12 hours later made another push. They climbed to the summit and back down to base camp in one continuous trek that lasted 36 hours.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 08, 2018:

Hi, Rupert, congratulations for another interesting story. Poeple found mt everest intimidating and challenging, but their still dare her. Courage indeed is manly. Otherwise, we should found a woman among the men climbers.

Thank you for bringging up the issue of polution. thank you for also telling the world the non-caring attitude of government after collecing climbing fee from the climbers. They do nothing about the waste and dead bodies. I think it can spread disease some days if not now.