A very thorough definition of “leave no trace.”
To summit Mt. Everest is a notoriously difficult, expensive, and dangerous endeavor that only a limited number of people are able to attempt in any given year. But even the world’s tallest mountain isn’t free from the all-too-common issue of littering. In fact, the litter situation on Everest is compounded by the fact that the harsh conditions make recovering trash its own Herculean task.
“The peak has become a fecal time bomb.”
The litter that mars the pristine and dramatic beauty of Mt. Everest has been a source of concern for years now. In 2017, climbers on the Nepal side removed 25 tons of trash and 15 tons of human feces. “The peak has become a fecal time bomb,” wrote Outside magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer in a Washington Post op-ed from 2014. But now Chinese officials are taking new steps that aimed at keeping that particular bomb from detonating.
One of those changes is that the base camp on the Tibetan side, which saw 40,000 visitors in 2015, will be closed indefinitely to tourists. (Climbers who have obtained a permit to summit the mountain are still allowed.) The closure will give a team of 200 people time and space to clear trash at base camp as well as higher elevations. Tourists willing to make the trek can still visit the base camp on the Nepalese side.
The second change is that climbers will now be required to carry out all of their waste. And not just bottles and cans but waste of the human variety.
The announcements were recently made by Ci Luo, director of the Chinese Mountaineering Association. But these are just the latest developments in efforts to contend with the issue of what to do with all the trash that’s been accumulating on Everest. Just over a month ago, China cut down on the number of permits it issues to prospective climbers to 300.
The cold and the elevation keep the feces from degrading in a timely fashion.
In 2014, Nepal started requiring climbers pay a $4,000 garbage disposal deposit that’s refunded when climbers return with at least 18 pounds of trash, which you could easily accomplish with human waste alone. (According to Kim Barret, a professor of medicine at University of California San Diego, the average adult produces an average of 14 to 17 ounces of feces a day. So if it takes around two months to climb Everest that’s roughly 50 pounds of waste.)
But it’s not just the unsightly nature of human waste. A 2012 survey of water sources near Gorak Shep, the lakebed where the waste from Everest’s base camp is deposited, found that one of them failed to meet drinking water standards. The cold and the elevation keep the feces from degrading in a timely fashion and so it ends up getting barreled up and deposited in the lakebed. One potential answer was devised by Gary Porter, a retired engineer and climbing enthusiast, is working to make biogas digesters that will convert the feces into methane gas. But because the digesters are difficult to operate at high altitudes even this solution comes with its own puzzle.
But such measures requiring visitors to carry out their own excrement aren’t new. Climbers that take on climbs at Mt. Rainier in Washington State and El Capitan in Yosemite, for example, are required to defecate into bags which they then remove after their descent.