Mt Everest stands 8,848m tall – and thanks to shifting tectonic plates that add a few millimetres a year, the world’s highest peak is getting even taller. But Everest’s height isn’t the only aspect of the mountain that’s growing. Since New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepali Tenzing Norgay first summited the roof of the world in 1953, nearly 6,000 people have attempted the climb to the summit. Only 3,000 have succeeded. Meanwhile, visitors coming to see the region's myriad trails, small villages and to Everest Base Camp number in the hundreds of thousands.
Tourism has become the lifeblood of this mountain economy, but at the same time, tourists are threatening the stability of the entire region. While foreigners bring a boost to the local community – trekkers spend about 10,000 to 20,000 Nepali rupees a day on food, lodging, guides and porters – they also bring loads of gear, human waste and toxic trash, all of which clog the trail in peak season and turn the picturesque region into the site of one of the world's most challenging environmental problems.
I travelled to Everest’s Base Camp – the starting point of any summit attempt – in late December 2013, on the camp’s 60th anniversary. After a short flight from Kathmandu to the mountain hamlet of Lukla, it took me 12 days to reach Base Camp, trekking 160km and climbing 10,000 feet, hiking through dense forest, over a dozen suspension bridges, above the tree line and, finally, into a frozen landscape of ancient rock and glacial ice. The higher I went, the less oxygen was in the air, with only 50% oxygen at Base Camp’s altitude of 5,364m.
On my journey, I quickly realised I was in a region in flux. Some communities are ecologically friendly: they use solar power and green methods of waste removal, undertaking the daunting challenge of hauling non-biodegradable items off the mountain via pack animals as opposed to burning or burying trash.
Many others, however, are too concerned with day-to-day subsistence to care about their carbon footprint. After all, when every breath and step is a cold challenge, the sheer difficulty of survival trumps everything – which is why, further up, there are still some 200 bodies on the way to the mountain’s summit that have not been hauled down, or even identified.
That day-to-day difficulty of survival, and the lack of real infrastructure, explains in part why so much tourism waste remains on the mountain. Only a small fraction has been removed, leaving eight to 10 tonnes, including in the "death zone", the part of the mountain closest to the summit – like discarded oxygen cylinders, ropes, tents, batteries and plastic. Helicopters cannot fly to the area because the thin air disables their blades, making hauling this graveyard down nearly impossible.
Climbing teams are responsible for hauling down their own trash. The process is expensive and lengthy, and includes bringing all non-disposables, like batteries and empty oxygen cylinders, back to Kathmandu and on to their home countries. Sherpas store toilet and kitchen waste in metal drums and haul it 50km down to the town of Namche Bazaar, where it is used for compost. To pay for the processing and facilities, climbers pay a tax of 1,000 Nepali rupees per kilogram. Yet this regulated process of climbing teams removing their own waste for a tax only applies to a small portion of total Everest travellers: trekkers who stay in hotels as opposed to camps. Those who live on the mountain don't haul their trash down, choosing instead to burn or bury it once tourists are gone.
The trash build-up has led to some creative solutions. In 2011, Sherpa organisation Everest Summiteers Association and the Nepalese government collected 1.5 tonnes of trash, hauling it by yak to Lukla and flying it to Kathmandu, where items like ice axes were turned into local artwork for a temporary exhibition. Meanwhile, lobbying group-cum-NGO Nepal Mountaineering Association and another mountaineering agency, Asian Trekking, collect a few tonnes of trash from the mountain every year.