Nepal can’t keep up with trash building up on EverestA ban on littering at source is the only way to clean up the world's highest peaks
Mt Everest Base Camp (EBC) will have a record number of international expeditions this year, turning it into a global village. But with this comes the problem of waste disposal on the glacier.
Some 500 climbers are attempting to scale Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse this season, and there will be four times as many support staff and high altitude guides living, eating, resting and going to the toilet in a tent-city stretching 1km along the Khumbu Glacier.
Before the climbers reach base camp, supplies — food, climbing gear, oxygen cylinders, ropes and more will already have been transported from Kathmandu by helicopter. Porters, chauri and jopke carry additional supplies.
But when they return from the mountain, whatever they used during the climb will likely be left behind, adding to the 140 tonnes of garbage that is estimated to have accumulated on Mt Everest in the seven decades since it was first climbed in 1953.
The Tourism Industry Service Delivery Directives 2013 stipulates that tourism operators and climbers return with the equipment they used during their expedition, including oxygen cylinders, regulators, tents, plastic, as well as faeces.
Read also: Chopper vs Chauri below Everest, Bhadra Sharma
Each climber is also required to bring down 8kg of waste at the end of expeditions. If climbers fail to follow the rules, expeditions stand to lose a $4,000 deposit made before the expedition.
However, the legal systems in place have been ineffective due to negligible monitoring at base camp. Most expedition liaison officers have no knowledge or understanding of mountaineering and many do not even stay at base camp.
The liaison officers are paid by expeditions themselves and could not be bothered about checking if the expeditions evacuated their waste.
Which is why the Nepal Army had to step in with its 'Safa Himal Abhiyan' to clean up Everest four years ago, deploying 10% of its soldiers assigned to guard the Sagarmatha National Park to clean up the mountain.
The army gets funding from the government, non-governmental organisations as well as the private sector, and has been mobilising Sherpas and high altitude guides in mountain cleaning efforts.
Read also: Mt Everest City, Monika Deupala
Soldiers go through a month-long garbage collection training in the high Himalaya. Once the trash is collected, responsibility for the biodegradable waste is assigned to local communities, while non-biodegradable rubbish is flown to Kathmandu by helicopter.
The military has collected 76 tonnes of garbage from Mt Everest, Lhotse, Pumori, Ama Dablam, Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Kanchenjunga. This year, the target is to bring down another 35 tonnes.
The Army is also conducting awareness to reduce the impact of climate change on Mt Everest and surrounding peaks that are part of the World Heritage Site. But there are questions as to whether the military’s involvement is enough to clean up the Himalaya.
“Cleaning the mountains has encouraged the involvement of local mountain communities,” said Nepal Army Chief Prabhu Ram Sharma during a program recently. “But this campaign is not just an issue of importance to one particular community — it should be a national priority.”
More than 300 climbers have lost their lives on Mt Everest, many in the death zone above 8,000m. And while the bodies of most have been buried under the ice for decades, increasing global temperature has meant that the bodies of deep frozen climbers are now exposed. Avalanches increasingly bring human remains down the Khumbu Icefall.
The Nepal Army retrieved four bodies from high up on Mt Everest in 2019 and there are plans to recover more remains this year. "But the higher along the mountain a climber dies, the more difficult it is to bring them down to base camp," says Khimlal Gautam, who has summited Everest twice, and is the Chief Survey Officer of the government.
He adds: “Moreover, recovery efforts are expensive and dangerous as rescuers risk their own lives during the process which is why many bodies from the South Col have not been brought down yet.”
Waste management has been a challenge also on other mountains which are becoming popular like Manaslu, Annapurna and Kangchenjunga.
Gautam, who has been to EBC every year since 2011 to see the impact of climate change says that increasing human activity on Everest and surrounding areas have posed challenges to sustainable waste management. He proposes restrictions to entry for non-climbers on EBC, saying, “Everest Base Camp is for mountaineers, so there is a need to regulate the movement of non-climbers in the area.”
Read also: “If the ice is gone, we are done”
Meanwhile, locals point out that the government has taken funds and sponsorships to clean up the mountains from expeditions and has failed in its duty.
“Everest will never be pollution-free if helicopters continue to transport material directly to base camp,” says Mingma Chhiri Sherpa, chair of the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality.
The municipality banned the use of plastic products but eased it during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sherpa says that waste management in the region needs a long-term strategy.
Residents and the local government for their part say that they will manage the garbage along the trekking routes as long as the government takes the responsibility for trash at base camp and higher up.
Says Sherpa: “Waste management will be an endless cycle of polluters continuing to litter, and cleaners continuing to pick up after them if garbage control is not coordinated from Lukla itself.”
Read also: Letters from Everest Base Camp 1