Death on Mt Everest: bodies, waste pile up on world's highest mountain
Think of Mt Everest. All 29,000 feet of it. It's majestic, breath-taking - and also full of shit. Human shit mostly and assorted garbage. It's the top of the world holding the detritus of human ambition - which translates to approximately 50 tonnes of garbage from camps, including used oxygen canisters and food wrappers, 12 tonnes of faeces, and the dead bodies of hundreds of climbers.
Human waste on the world's highest mountain has been an issue for some time now, leading to vocal protests by sherpas and criticism from various environmental groups in recent times. In a 2015 interview to The Guardian, Ang Tshering, chief of Nepal's mountaineering association, had explained, "Climbers usually dig holes in the snow for their toilet use and leave the human waste there." He added that the waste had in fact, been piling up for years around four main camps.
All the waste, discarded in ice pits, remains covered but when the snow melts, it all comes to the surface. A few camps, most notably the base camp, have toilet tents with drums to dispose of the waste. The sherpas carry the drums down to a lower area once they are full.
Acclaimed mountaineer Mark Jenkins, while writing an article on Everest in 2013, said that, "The two standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously crowded but also disgustingly polluted, with garbage leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement befouling the high camps." The situation is so bad that some climbers don't boil the snow even in very high altitudes because they're afraid of pollution. In a 2012 opinion piece for Washington Post, Grayson Schaffer wrote:
"Everest even has a sewage problem. When base camp's outhouse barrels are filled, porters haul them to open pits near Gorak Shep. Meanwhile, above base camp, most climbers straddle small crevasses to relieve themselves. The result: The peak has become a fecal time bomb, and the mess is gradually sliding back toward base camp. In 2012, Swiss climber Ueli Steck told me that he won't even boil snow for water at Everest's Camp II, because he thinks the lower boiling temperature at that altitude won't kill germs."
According to a recent Grinnell College report, every climbing season sees up to a staggering 26,500 pounds of human excrement deposited on Everest. Almost all the time, that waste is bagged and carried by native sherpas to earthen pits near Gorak Shep - it's a frozen lake bed adjacent to a village, at an elevation of 16,942 feet. No one knows the mountain better than the sherpa community. And even they are acutely aware of the seriousness of the issue.
Last year, when asked about pollution levels up near the base camp, Sherpa Pemba Nima told SummitClimb, that the situation is "awful." Dismissing the notion that the waste levels are localised in certain areas, he said, "Pollution is everywhere. Our main water source has been polluted. The dumping site is along the main trail to EBC, sometimes our local animals (yaks) fall into the pit. Even though it has been moved to different location now, I think it takes so many years to disintegrate because of the cold climate the pollution will remain there for many years."
Another sherpa, Dawa Steven, told the Washington Post that though some climbers do carry disposable travel toilet bags, it isn't enough. "It is a health hazard and the issue needs to be addressed," he had said.
To that end the Nepal government did impose some new regulations in 2014. Each climber was to bring down to the base camp 8 kg (18 pounds) of trash - it's the average amount that's discarded by a climber along the route, by official estimations. Teams that don't comply with the regulations will need to fork out the $4,000 deposit amount that's part of the climb.
The new rules might take a bit of time to have an effect. A year or two should be enough to assess whether the regulations can bring down the pollution and waste levels. The question is, will it be too late by then?