On Top of the World

Cleaning Up a Legacy of High-Altitude Trash

Each year thousands of climbers answer the call of jagged snow-capped peaks and begin an arduous climb, pushing their bodies to the very limits of what is physically possible. Unfortunately, these challenge-seekers place the same stress on the pristine environment that lures them.

© Robert Chang

Historically, the sport of mountain climbing has not been synonymous with treading lightly on the Earth. In fact, far beyond the prints left by thick heavy boots is a trail of old tents, ropes, oxygen bottles, tins, glass and human waste that stretches from sea level to the highest peak on the planet—the summit of Mount Everest. “Since 1953, when people first began summitting Everest, there’s been a slightly different ethic and style in high-altitude mountaineering,” says Angela Hawse, a member of the Everest Challenge Expedition. “You take up a lot of resources and when the weather gets bad you go down and leave everything. It’s ended up in a lot of accumulation up there.”

Climbing mountains like Everest is not only a physical feat but a logistical one as well. An expedition may typically take five weeks to establish a route and ferry supplies up to higher camps. While the volume of supplies carried up the mountain has gone down over time (a 1963 American expedition hauled approximately 59,000 pounds of supplies, compared to the 15,000 that would commonly go up today), it is what becomes of them once they’re up there that creates the real dilemma. Once widely-accepted practices, like disposing of trash in crevasses, have actually proved themselves quite temporary fixes. Trash left in crevasses above Everest’s base camp, for instance, is eventually deposited whole at the foot of the Khumbu ice fall.

In response to increasing high-altitude traffic, local governments in some popular destinations have restricted the number of climbing permits issued, raised expedition fees and required that climbers leave environmental deposits, to be refunded only after trash is packed back out. These efforts, combined with heightened awareness in the mountaineering community, have helped curb the deposit of new waste.

But the littered Himalayan landscape remains, prompting veteran climbers like David Breashears, who filmed an IMAX production there, to call Everest “the highest junkyard in the world. Anything you need, we have it. Tent poles, spare oxygen, tent stakes and the odd corpse!” But as ethics on the mountain change, cleaning up this junkyard (and others around the world), has become a priority for many. For instance, Hawse helped coordinate a clean-up involving faculty and students from Prescott College in Arizona. Her team brought back 1,000 pounds of garbage and 89 spare oxygen bottles in addition to the 59 they carried with them.

Ventures like the Sagarmatha Environmental Expedition (SEE) not only brought down old garbage from high on Everest (over 17,000 pounds since 1994) , but set up a self-perpetuating process to enforce this cycle of responsibility. “Expeditions hire Sherpas to carry supplies and equipment up, but they traditionally turn around and come back down empty-handed,” says Chris Naumann, who coordinated the SEE effort at Base Camp. “We said, ‘We’ll pay you to bring it back down.’” This system of financial incentive has proven so popular with the Sherpas that it may soon become an expected part of the pay structure, allowing local economic forces to drive the program.

This community-based principle was recently transferred to the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan, the greatest consolidation of high peaks on the planet. In 1997, the nonprofit Central Asia Institute initiated a conservation awareness program for Balti porters that includes lessons in resource conservation, public health, safety and hygiene. Additionally, in just two years, teams removed over 10,000 pounds of debris left by foreign expeditions. This past March saw the first international clean-up project carried out on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and similar attention is shifting to Aconcagua in Argentina and the Mexican volcanoes. According to Naumann, “There are 14 peaks in the world over 26,000 feet, some less visible than others, but to some extent all 14 would benefit from clean-up work.”
Meanwhile, the spotlight still shines on Everest, where next March the Everest Environmental Expedition (EEP) 2000 plans to set an example for the new millennium by cleaning up the entire South Cull of the mountain, removing an estimated 800 used oxygen bottles and untold amounts of glass, tin and other trash, which will all be either repatriated, recycled or burned. In the case of spent batteries and gas canisters, this lengthy process begins with packing them out by yak to Lukla, flying them to Katmandu, shipping them to Thailand, and then finally on to a hazardous waste facility in California.

The 12-member team, and an additional 40 sherpas, will attempt to return that route to near-pristine condition, making it the largest clean-up in the mountain’s history. According to Robert Chang, the youngest climbing member of the expedition, “Everest is one of the most hostile and remote areas of the world. We want to project to climbers of the next century that you need to learn from the past, but can still summit the mountain successfully and do it in an environmentally friendly way—actually look at the stuff you’re bringing in and creating, not just what you’re bringing back.”

Bob McConnell, vice president of the American Alpine Club, agrees. He emphasizes the need for climbers to plan ahead when traveling to Nepal or Peru or Chile, and to think about how they can reduce what they take along and what they can buy locally. McConnell says mountaineers should do their homework and find out what sort of recycling is already there, and what local conservation efforts they can support. “Westerners fell into the trap of doing like the Romans do…But we’re guests; we wouldn’t go to neighbor’s house and leave a pile of garbage. When we go to someone else’s country, we also need to behave like we would at home.”

Brent Bishop, who first coordinated SEE and continues the porter-training program in Pakistan, is emphatic that the actual clean-up work “doesn’t merit the Nobel Prize. It’s something you should do anyway.” He simply calls it “part of your climbing. You should clean up the trash while you’re there, you shouldn’t get a medal for it…You should just go, get it done, and come home.”