Tidying up the top of the world

For the Sherpa people, Everest is a sacred place deserving of respect, but its popularity has polluted it. Thankfully, the mountain community and other organizations are restoring it to its former glory.

Since the 1990s Everest’s popularity has left it polluted. While many attempt the famous climb, others seek to clean and protect the sacred mountain.
Photograh by Samir Jung Thapa for Bally

Piercing the sky at 29,035 feet (8,850m), for many, Mount Everest holds a significance as mysterious and unpredictable as the weather that shrouds its illustrious peak. For the Sherpas, the tight-knit community whose name has become so deeply synonymous with Himalayan climbing, the mountain is deified—known as Chomolungma in the language of Tibet, the goddess mother of the world. It was she, it is said, who allowed Nepali Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary to reach the summit over six decades ago, and no subsequent mountaineer shall succeed for themselves without her blessing.

But ever since Norgay and Hillary performed the impossible, that same achievement is sought by so many that an increasing amount of litter is finding its way up the world’s highest mountain. Every year thousands of visitors make the trek through Sagarmatha National Park to the mountainside, with over 600 of them going on to attempt the summit. Around 90 percent of these visitors are guided clients, many of them novices who lack basic climbing skills, although responsible expedition organizations ensure that. Any client who lacks ability is either turned away or sent back down to safety should they begin to struggle. Thanks to this expert guidance, many do reach the summit, but the paths they tread aren’t as pristine as they once were.

The two most common routes to the top, the North Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are flecked with discarded items dropped during more than 9,000 successful summit climbs, as well as countless other attempts. Most visiting climbers have at least one local expedition staffer assigned to them who cooks, assists, and carries life-sustaining equipment. These guides are usually Sherpa, the ethnic group who have been essential to successfully scaling the Himalayas. Originating in eastern Tibet, Sherpa people began migrating to Nepal in the 15th century, and since then climbers have relied on their knowledge of the Himalayan region to ascend Everest safely. The entire expedition takes around two months; the majority of that time is spent acclimatizing to the altitude in a series of ascending camps—all the while each individual produces around 18 pounds of trash.

Exactly how much detritus litters Everest’s once-pristine slopes isn’t known, but it’s likely many tons. Part of the problem is that, particularly higher up, climbers face conditions so harsh and air so thin that they need to focus on staying cognizant, gasping into a mask in an effort to reinfuse their oxygen-depleted blood rather than check nothing is left behind. Instead, their spent O2 canisters slip through numbed fingers and roll off to join abandoned tents, food containers, and discarded equipment sometimes left behind during emergency evacuations.

What’s more, climate change is causing snow and ice to recede, causing buried garbage from climbs long past to reemerge. This is particularly bad for those who live around the mountain as pollutants are washed into rivers by rainfall and snowmelt, contaminating the water supplied to local populations by the Everest watershed. Water contaminated by fecal matter poses serious health risks from the potential outbreak of waterborne diseases like cholera. Even local villages at the base of the mountain are overflowing with waste brought on by the year-after-year increase of tourism and a lack of sanitation facilities, resulting in trash being poured into pits sunk just outside the community perimeters.

As polluted as the world’s highest peak is in danger of becoming though, it isn’t beyond saving. Both governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private businesses are working to bring what went up back down again. Some guiding operations are also working harder to minimize their footprint on the mountain by taking their litter back down with them. Last year the Nepali government cleared 11 tons of trash off of Everest; in addition to a deposit initiative launched in 2014, which refunds a climbers’ required $4,000 deposit when they return with their 18 pounds of generated garbage.

These are recent efforts though, and for years, the largely Buddhist Sherpa people have been fighting to keep the “mother of the world” from becoming overpolluted. Having embraced mountaineering as a way of life, Sherpas retain a deep respect for the mountains and work to prevent polluting activities. Through the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), they tirelessly manage waste in the area surrounding Mount Everest—making sure people have legal permission to climb and educating climbers and other visitors on how to take care of the area. Although, as effective as these efforts have been at Everest’s base, they are less so higher up the mountain, particularly in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet where overexertion becomes dangerous and expensive.

Thankfully, cleanup projects at higher altitudes have been supported by special sponsorship from the very footwear experts who soled Tenzing Norgay’s feet on the original Everest expedition with custom reindeer boots: Swiss luxury brand Bally. With their own legacy deeply associated with mountaineering and Everest itself, the brand has worked with Tenzing’s son, Jamling Norgay, to advise on its Bally Peak Outlook initiative, which has facilitated an ambitious cleanup effort from base to summit. “Thousands of people visit the Himalayas every year and a very few of them actually help to give back to the communities that live in these majestic environments.” Says Norgay. “The Bally Peak Outlook Foundation is special because the cleaning efforts go beyond the base camps of the mountains, where most cleaning campaigns have been focused.”

Headed by leader of Eco Everest Expeditions, Dawa Steven Sherpa, a team of expert mountaineers—including Karma Tshering Lama, Dafuri Sherpa, Dawa Jangbu Sherpa, and Guru Jen Jen Bhote—hauled two tons of garbage from the frozen slopes—at least half of that from inside the “death zone.”

Since Bally’s founding in 1851, the brand has instilled a strong sense of social responsibility to preserve the stunning mountain environments into which its own identity is woven. Last year’s Everest mission marked the first of many cleanup efforts to be organized through the Bally Peak Outlook Foundation, underpinning Bally’s globe-spanning program to clean up the more extreme mountain areas that, despite their difficulty to access, are seeing an increased number of expeditions, and the waste that comes with them.

Bally Peak Outlook already works with The Tenzing Norgay Sherpa Foundation to provide local conservation programs in the Himalayas. And, with plans to support other alpine communities around the world to restore their mountains back to pristine condition, Norgay is optimistic that their work will inspire others. “Hopefully Bally’s initiative will bring greater awareness to the situation in Nepal and compel others to take part in preserving our natural environment, no matter how high or extreme it may be.”

After all, as the beauty of Everest becomes increasingly accessible to all, reaching the top of the world must become about more than chasing glory. As Bally’s work helps to demonstrate, organization or individual, it’s up to us to protect the mountain together if we’re to remain blessed enough to return to her slopes.

Read This Next

Battle to control America’s ‘most destructive’ species: feral pigs

How coffee can help forests grow faster

The forgotten fossil hunter who transformed Britain’s Jurassic Coast