How dirty is Everest? The Everest Clean up Debate

Both Sky and BBC news recently featured reports of an Everest clean up expedition where 20 people braved the dangerous “death zone” conditions of Mount Everest to clear the peak of rubbish left behind by climbers. Sky news calls Everest the worlds highest dump, with more than 4,000 adventurers having scaled the peak since 1953. The reports also featured a video of the trash collection by tourism officials in Nepal. Extreme Everest Expedition 2010, led by Namgyal Sherpa, went above the 8,000-metre mark to collect empty oxygen bottles, gas canisters, torn tents, ropes and utensils. The expedition grabbed the attention of the media as this was the first team to venture into the thin air and freezing temperatures of the so-called death zone. There have been many expeditions to clean up Everest over the years. Just how dirty is Everest and does it really need such massive clean up operations? Or are these expeditions just a way for people to raise the finance for their Everest climb? And what actually happens to the waste? Katy Dartford takes a look at the issues involved.How dirty?

Himalayan expedition and trek leader Roland Hunter, who runs The Mountain Company, says Everest is actually relatively clean these days. Most gear left over by expeditions such as abandoned tents and used O bottles will be brought down by Sherpas for resale. Most expeditions bring all rubbish down with them at the end and all toilet waste is brought down in barrels from Base Camp. There are also many liaison officers from Nepal government who will check Everest Base Camp, if they are not happy then the team will not receive their environmental bond back.

Hunter argues that the real scandal is the amount rubbish at the other 8,000m base camps in Nepal such as Makalu and Dhaulagiri, places that dont catch the eye of the BBC or Sky news. Caroline Letrange who runs Reach Summit, another company running Everest expeditions, agrees; We pay a huge tax to Nepalese authorities that is only refunded when we bring back all our rubbish, included human waste, so that we dont contaminate the glacier’s water to villages downstream. Cylinders are sometimes left nowadays but only in extreme situations as a single cylinder cost around 420 dollars. Eight-timeEverestsummiter,Kenton Cool, has had more experience than most of what its like on each of the Camps on Everest. My experience is only on the South Side and most clean ups are held there. Base camp is actually very clean and tidy, Camp 1 and the ice fall are not too bad as at camp 1 new snow comes down and covers the trash. He says its from then onwards that things get worse. Camp 2 at 6400m is a bit of grim really and its got a lot worse this year. He explains that at end of 2009 a sudden severe storm came in and a number of teams had to get off the mountain quickly and couldnt get back on to clear the camp out. There are bits of tent, kettles, pots and pans, Kerosene, Mars bar wrappers and human waste. It’s got significantly worse in the last few years.The Extreme Everest Expedition 2010 team were trying to clean rubbish form Camp 4. This ground above 8000m is the death zone and the highest camp. It is a filthy place with pots, pans and tents, from both commercial and non commercial expeditions says Kenton. So is it excusable to leave waste behind? Possibly not, just because its 8000 meters up rubbish shouldnt just be dumped. But it is logistically harder to get your rubbish down and you may not be fit enough to do it, so is it more excusable than the mess at camp 2. There are also some bodies up there and its a big operation to bring them down.

A money maker?Roland believes these environmental clean up expeditions are simply a ploy for people to raise finance for their Everest climb, which are becoming increasingly hard to fund. Once the media have picked up on Everest eco expeditions, the expeditions will normally find a sponsor, and Hunter argues that there have been well documented eco expeditions that have left behind more rubbish than they have taken away. Once they get to the mountain their main focus is for the summit. Most of the media have no direct experience of the situation so write an article based on a press release from slick marketing coming from these expeditions so many people in UK and US think that Everest is full of rubbish which is simply not the case these days. Kenton Cool agrees, if you say youre going to clean up anything other than Everest then people will congratulate you and say its a very worthy thing- but it will be hard to get sponsorship. But if you climb Everest its amazing and you can get the sponsorship to make these things happen. Everest is a honeypot and companies are willing to invest in Everest. It would be great if the money went to clean up other places, but investors will get back more from being associated with Everest than Annapurna 3 for example.

What happens to the waste?

The big question mark surrounding cleanups in Everest is what actually happens to the waste. You take it down to Gorak Shep and dispose of it there but what happens to it? There is no waste disposal facility there so you would have to take it to Kathmandu and thats the problem. While its 6000 meters up the mountain it cant pollute the local water supply. But I you bring it down to Khumbu Valley and its not disposed of properly then you have a bigger problem. Id be really interested to find out what theyre doing with the waste.While overall clean ups are generally agreed to be a good thing, both Hunter and Kenton agree that there are other things the Nepalese government could and should be spending the vast sums they receive in tourist taxes and permits. Weve got to keep things in perspective here, there are things in Nepal where a lot of money could be put to good use. You only have to go to the slums of Nepal to see there are bigger issues than cleaning up Everest. Nepal is the poorest nation in South East Asia. Every day people die of cholera and typhoid so to be really concerned about a bit of rubbish on Everest seems crazy. But that said, if things can be cleaned up I am all for that without a shadow of a doubt.

What do you think?

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4 Replies to “How dirty is Everest? The Everest Clean up Debate”

  1. A debate about dirty mountains is a good thing. And no, Everest is not the only mountain with rubbish in the world, the problem well spread.

    As the highest mountain in the world, Everest will always get more attention than others. So Everest is chosen to be cleaned, more than others. Some expeditions just do it to get attention and funding to climb it, others really try to do something good. Its easy to question all these initiatives, and perhaps, the money spend by climbers to climb a mountain, could be spend more wisely. But if we raise that question, then everything we do for our own entertainment can be questioned isnt it? Where do we draw the line then?

    I personally dont think that its a good idea to say to climbers: dont climb anymore because you destroy the mountain. I think its better to get a dialogue started about how the climbing community could minimize their impact and perhaps, spread awareness about even more important issues and raise money to support local problems. If a team of Everest climbers is able to get funding for this, then that might be a good thing. Even if personal interest get mixed up. Or does it makes some of us jealous because we spend so much private money on our own expeditions?

    Anyway, there are many people trying to do something good. Perhaps the road to perfection is difficult and unclear, but at least there are some people trying to make the world a better place. Lets not just drop a few firm and populist phrases here, its better to start a real dialogue! We all know the famous words of our favorite Asian philosopher: every journey of a thousand miles, starts with a single step. Lets just do that and keep this dialogue going…

  2. I say keep everybody off the mountain until the issue of bringing back your trash can be figured out. It makes my heart and soul sick to see that people have turned this majestic wilderness into a trash dump! Man is about to make our home planet uninhabitable – we need drastic measures now!

  3. Hi Maureen and Armand,

    Thanks for your comments. Maureen, unfortuntely I don’t think that is ever going to be an arguement that more than a handful of people will listen to. Climbers will always want to climb Everest and other mountains besides, so are we not better engaging them in thinking about best practice, and working with local authorities to resolve issues? Man won’t compromise on enjoying what this incredible world has to offer, but I think there is a way we can do that and look after it too…..

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