Around 700 climbers, guides, and porters — a record number — climbed Mount Everest, the tallest mountain range in the world, this year. But the amount of waste and damage these adventurers left behind also reached new heights.
Their abandoned tents, human waste, and other discarded items have contaminated a major source of drinking water used by the local Nepalese community.
Sherpas, the ethnic community that live in the mountains, found numerous tents in the South Col — a camp nestled between mountain peaks at 8,000 meters above sea-level — while working on the government’s cleaning drive this spring.
South Col is the highest campsite on Mount Everest, and left-behind oxygen tanks, food packets, and ropes are not uncommon as climbers are unable to carry the heavy items on their descent, Dawan Steven Sherpa, who led the independent clean-up of Everest’s campsites last month, told the Evening Standard. However, strong winds then carry and spread the waste all around the area, which Sherpa has been campaigning to clean up for the past 12 years.
In addition to leaving heavy items behind, some climbers also prefer not to use makeshift toilets but instead dig holes in the snow to use as open-air bathrooms. The human waste from these often overflows and spills to the base camp, sullying the local community's water sources.
The community uses the melted snow for drinking water but are now afraid to use it after seeing the contamination. For Sherpa and the local Nepalese community, Mount Everest is sacred — often referred to as “Sagarmatha” or “Water God” — and the pollution climbers leave behind soils this land.
"Everest is our god and it was very sad to see our god so dirty. How can people just toss their trash on such a sacred place?" Nima Doma, a climber who recently returned after a successful climb, told the Evening Standard.
It’s not just the tough terrain that causes people to improperly discard items while climbing.
"The problem is there are no regulations on how to dispose of the human waste. Some climbers use biodegradable bags that have enzymes which decompose human waste, but most of them don't," Ang Dorjee, who heads the independent Everest Pollution Control Committee, told the Evening Standard.
Dorjee said the use of these biodegradable bags is the best option for climbers and the environment, but the bags are expensive and needed to be transported from the United States.
Sherpa volunteers who cleaned Camp 2 estimate they cleared about 8,000 kilograms of human waste left behind last climbing season. This year, according to the Sherpa community estimates, about 30 tents and as much as 5,000 kilograms of refuse were collected from South Col. But it is hard to gain an accurate sense of how much waste was left behind on the mountain range since the waste only reveals itself when the snow melts.
The Everest Pollution Control Committee and other environmental associations have demanded that the government issue rules that can help keep the place clean.
For now, the government is working on a plan to tag equipment and gear carried by the climbers to keep track of these items and hold them accountable for not leaving them behind as litter. People who decide to make the trek up Everest would have to pay a deposit of about $4,000 (£3,100) before their ascent, and risk forfeiting the money back if they do not bring the items back.