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.
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
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
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
More collection trips are being organised – but they are
not enough. On my trip, I noticed how many bottles, candy wrappers, cigarette
butts and other signs of man pockmarked the land. Occasionally, deep piles of
trash were piled high in mountain switchbacks. As well as unsightly, trash
build-up has caused routes to become more dangerous: Sherpas avoid certain
sections that are too covered with trash, leading to some
paths becoming more used – which in turn causes melting snow and ice, exposing
deep crevasses and risking an increase in the death toll. Of the two to three
dozen yearly Everest summit attempts, only about 60 to 70% are successful, with
three to four deaths a season, reports the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
Tourism is creating other problems for the local
environment, too, including increased population density, over-dependence on
wood as a fuel and construction source and the overgrazing and cutting of
mountain slopes to feed livestock. Tourism accounts for an estimated 10%
increase in wood consumption, according to the Nepalese government, which leads
to an estimated 240 million cubic metres of mountain topsoil lost on Everest every
year, further triggering forest depletion.
Beyond trash collection, groups such as the Nepal
Mountaineering Association and the Trekking
Agencies' Association of Nepal, an advocacy group issuing trekking
permits, are lobbying the government to increase the use of renewable energies
and develop permanent campsites with basic utilities. They also want to
introduce a basic code of conduct in the Himalayas, banning firewood for fuel
and the use of plastics. But it's unclear who would enforce those rules, and
whether offenders would even be fined. In response to growing pressure, the
government recently announced that officials now will check to ensure that climbers
are bringing 8kg of waste down the mountain with them. How these
regulations would be enforced, however, was not specified.
In Nepal, a country known for legislative deadlock,
corruption allegations and weak infrastructure, effective change will be slow.
Half a decade after a bloody civil war between Maoist insurgents and the ruling
monarchy – and only months removed from a November 2013 presidential election
precipitated by protests – Nepal's government is more concerned with the rising
problems of hunger and geo-politics. “The majority of Nepal is fighting for
basic needs. Until basic needs are fulfilled, people do not care about deforestation
or pollution,” said Keshav Pandey, senior vice president of the Trekking
Agencies’ Association of Nepal. “A porter doesn't care to throw plastic [onto
the trail]. He just thinks about the money of the day."
Thanks to the money tourism brings, the region also
has little reason to make changes that could curb visitor numbers. Everest
climbing permits cost 235,929 Nepali rupees – an amount that excludes the cost
of gear, air transport, porters, camp and staff fees, food or travel insurance.
For comparison, climbing fees for Nepal's other mountains range from about
18,000 to 38,000 Nepali rupees. The 6% of climbers who take on Everest account
for 65% to 70% of the monies collected in total revenue.
"The first thing [the government] are concerned
with is money,” said Nima Nuru Sherpa, the vice president of the Nepal
Mountaineering Association. “Locals are stakeholders. Money should go back to
stakeholders." Instead, he said, only about 30% of the total money
tourists spend returns to locals in terms of profit. The rest goes into
government coffers, he said.
Repeated attempts to speak with government officials
went unanswered. Emails and phone calls were not returned, and while in
country, I was unable to secure a meeting with officials.
There may be one silver lining to Everest’s tourism
problem, though: as word of the environmental issue spreads, hikers may begin
to head to other Himalayan peaks, therefore reducing the traffic on Everest. After
all, Nepal's Himalaya range is home to eight of the world's highest peaks.
Supporters point out, however, that broad environmental policies will be needed
to ensure those peaks are protected from tourism’s consequences too.
The attention caused by Everest's trash problem is a
step in the right direction, said 31-year-old Suman Thapa, who started working
as a porter at 17, but the mountain has a long way to go. One of the biggest
hurdles, he said, is overcoming foreigners' blind excitement to just climb – and
getting them to think about their impact on the mountain.
"People are not fully aware of the
conservation of the mountain. They are educated but they don't understand even
when we do our best to convince them," he said. "We have to think
about the next generation."
story has been updated to clarify how much trash remains on the mountain.