Cleaning up the earth's highest rubbish tip


Mount Everest has been seriously polluted by climbers but now local Sherpas are restoring it to its pristine glory, writes GRANIA WILLIS

MOUNT EVEREST. Sagarmatha. Chomolungma. They’re all names for the world’s highest peak. But mankind’s determination to stand on the top of the world has left its mark on the mountain, garnering her a new name as the earth’s highest rubbish dump. In response, the world’s highest clean-up is aimed at restoring Everest’s pristine image, right up into the Death Zone and on to the roof of the world.

So what marks the 8,848 metre summit of the world’s highest peak? A metal tripod, left there by a 1992 American expedition re-surveying the height of Everest, and a jumble of Buddhist prayer flags, the new ones still garishly vivid and the older ones faded and shredded by the vicious winds that pummel the highest point on earth. Sometimes there are photographs of loved ones, but like the prayers that Buddhists believe are blown to the heavens from the multi-coloured flags, the photographs get scattered to the winds.

Despite the stories, the summit itself is not littered with discarded oxygen bottles and other trash. The place that has been dubbed the world’s highest rubbish tip is the South Col, at 7,920 metres, from where climbers on the Nepalese side of the mountain make their final push for the summit. Here, abandoned tents have been battered by winds that twist and break the aluminum poles, ripping the nylon sheaths as they flail incessantly. Oxygen canisters and other detritus scar the area, along with piles of human faeces, frozen into the rock and ice.

But other, more sinister memorials of man’s determination to reach the highest point on earth lie up there. Bodies of fallen climbers have become part of the mountain’s landscape, even to the extent that they have taken on the role of trail markers. Scott Fischer, the American leader who died in the famous storm of 1996 that claimed seven other lives on the same day, is still to be seen at the Balcony at 8,350 metres.

Of around 300 climbers that have died on Everest, 150 have never been officially accounted for and the Nepalese are keen that Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky, should not become a giant burial ground.

The staunchly religious and highly superstitious Sherpa people are not comfortable in the presence of death. Despite that, as part of the 2010 Eco Everest Expedition which is aiming to clear the mountain of rubbish, 10 high-altitude Sherpas will be bidding to bring down everything they can, including bodies. It is hoped that the team can retrieve Fischer’s remains and those of Swiss climber Gianni Goltz, who perished in 2008, and bring them down to Base Camp.

Eco Everest climbing leader Apa Sherpa, who is bidding this season to become the first climber to reach the summit of Everest 20 times, had planned to carry the ashes of Sir Edmund Hillary with him to the peak. But Buddhist lamas have stated that scattering ashes on the mountain would bring bad luck and the plan has now been abandoned.

It’s a massive task to clean up such an enormous area, particularly the upper reaches of a mountain where the thin air makes even putting one foot in front of the other a herculean task. But the members of the Eco Everest Expedition are driven by a determination to halt the desecration of their holy mountain.

This is the third successive Eco Everest Expedition. Last year’s goal of collecting two tons of garbage was surpassed within a matter of days. By the end of the expedition, a team of over 150 Sherpas had gathered 4,646.5kg of rubbish under the Cash for Trash programme, plus over a ton of debris from a helicopter that had crashed near Camp 1 in 1973.

This season the Eco Everest team, once again led by Dawa Steven Sherpa, will aim to bring down 6,000kg of garbage from Camp 2 (6,500m) and below and, in an extreme-altitude initiative, a further 1,000kg of rubbish from above Camp 2.

The Sherpas are a proud and industrious people, blessed with an almost superhuman ability to function at extreme altitudes. But the Eco Everest team members are not motivated by financial reward.

THE RUBBISH THAT has been revealed by the melting snows is more than an eyesore. It is polluting the glacial meltwater that feeds the valleys below, valleys where the Sherpas earn their living in the summer months.

It would be unfair to claim that the north side of the mountain, the Tibetan side, is cleaner, but it is a path less travelled and less traffic obviously means less rubbish. But climbers have undoubtedly left their mark here too, although some of the more eco-friendly expedition leaders try to live by the climbers and hillwalkers’ maxim: “Take only Photographs, Leave only Footprints.”

On both sides of the mountain, some of the bigger commercial enterprises request that their climbers pee outside and deposit only solids in the team toilets at base camp and advanced base camp.

Now, with the backing of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), the Eco Everest team is even selling biodegradable bags, not dissimilar to the ones socially-responsible owners use to clean up after their dogs, which at least means that climbers can do their bit to help in the clean-up campaign.

Climbers brave enough to make the tough decision to turn around before the summit are often comforted by being told that the mountain will still be there next year. If the Eco Everest team members have their way, at least the rubbish won’t be.