Monday, December 31, 2012

A "junkyard" in the sky.

One of the most amusing things about internet searches is the manner in which they turn up results that promise more than they can deliver. I recently began researching efforts to remove garbage from Everest. Many fine articles came up when I searched Garbage Removal from Everest, but I also came up with various companies that had simply hijacked the noun from my search. "Dexknows Everest Garbage disposal," and "Everestwaste removal companies are ready to come to your rescue. Southwest" were among the more notables. Right.  Herein lies the problem; there are no waste disposal companies on Everest. 

National Geographic featured an article in 1963 written by Dr. Larry Bishop, where  he said parts of Everest had become "the highest junkyard on the face of the Earth." This was only 10 years after the mountain was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Since that time Everest has been summited by 3,800 people, attempted by many more, and become the final resting place for dozens. One can only imagine what Dr. Bishop might say today. 

I have climbed Alaska's Denali, a mountain that sees a very similar number of climbers each year as Everest, and found it to be remarkably clean. So why are conditions so different on Everest?  

Part of the explanation is surely owed to changing attitudes. Long before the weeping Indian commercials that brought social consciousness to the matter of littering in the United States, climbers were plying their passion on Everest. Their numbers were few and the landscape vast, so they probably gave little thought to what they left behind.  The garbage pile started. It is probably not a stretch to suggest each of us is more likely to litter when we see garbage around us. Thus, garbage begets garbage. With increasing numbers of climbers and support personnel the garbage grew faster still. This condition saw it's worst moment in the early 1990's when the total garbage on Everest was estimated at a horrific 50 tons.  

Altitude also plays a part. In short, when one is trying to stay alive little thought is given to environmental stewardship. As well, those who do not survive the climb likewise fail to gather their belongings from high camp. Where the garbage at base camp tends to be on the order of rubbish, up high it takes the form of spent oxygen canisters, tents, sleeping bags, and, well, bodies. Removing garbage from high camps is extremely difficult and dangerous. Try this; pinch your nose shut and breath through a coffee straw. That is about how much air you would have at high camp on Everest. Now, try picking a few things up. Do you feel a little light-headed? You will be moving slowly as you gather refuse at the South Col. Imagine the sub-zero temperatures and hands that are too numb to work properly.  You are in the Death Zone, an altitude at which the human body begins to shut down. You might be dying quickly. You might be dying slowly. But by definition you are dying. Would you risk your life to carry a torn tent down the mountain? 
In the case of body removal it comes down to manpower. First Responder literature estimates a team of 26 is needed to carry an adult out of the wilderness at sea level. Would it take three or four times that number at 26,000ft? Now you are up to 100 climbers to remove a single body and, statistically speaking, two of them will die in the process. 

Lastly, for most of the history of Everest climbing there has been no attempt on the part of the Nepalese or Tibetan governments to manage or regulate refuse on the mountain. Contrast this to Denali, where National Park Rangers visit campsites to insure strict compliance with the requirements for packing out trash and managing human waste. Climbing permits are revoked from those teams which fail. Climb over.

I have heard the cry that the Everest should be closed to protect it. This is an understandable and well intended reaction. After all, Everest is not just A mountain. It is THE mountain, the high summit of our planet and deserving of special treatment. Everest is also a sacred place among to the Nepali people, a church they have allowed us to enter, and in which we have left our trash. 

But closing Everest would be a blunt tool. It would not require us to change, and the adventurers of the world would simply move on to the next place. This would also fail to clean up Everest, and today's climbers are probably the best resource for doing so. Money enters into the question. A vibrant economy of tea houses, Inns, and eateries have sprung up to serve the thousands of trekkers and climbers who approach Everest on foot. These and the various support services to base camp are businesses which have opened an improved way of life to the people of this region, including education and modern health care.  

There is cause for optimism. In 1992 the Nepali government put various regulations in place requiring climbing teams to carry all of their waste back out of the Khumbu Valley, where it can be disposed of properly. Failure to do so results in some hefty fines. Glass bottles were banned. A financial reward was put in place for each spent oxygen canister a Sherpa brings off the mountain. "There's much more garbage (these days)," says Ang Dorjee, Chairman of the Sagmarmantha Pollution Control Committee, "but it's being much better managed." The major guiding companies have also gotten onboard, organizing focused efforts to remove legacy waste from the mountain as they clear out at season's end. As well, a number of privately and publicly funded "Environmental Expeditions" have removed many tons of garbage from Everest. One of the most notable of these was Nepal's Save Mt Everest campaign, a project sponsored by the Nepali Tourism Board in the spring of 2011. Twenty nine Sherpas removed 8 tons of garbage over a two month period. Progress is being made, yet some 20 tons of garbage remains. Half of that is at high camp. So the rest of the cleanup will be considerably more difficult. But the climbers of today are committed to the environment, having come of age in the era of Leave No Trace impact. They respect the mountains they climb and want nothing more than to see them pristine. There is awareness of the problem, the will to address it, and the kind of personal stake that can move a mountain of garbage one piece at a time.