Just over two weeks ago I was standing on the roof of the world, both figuratively and literally. I was 8,848 metres up on the summit of Mount Everest. It was the culmination of many years’ hard work, and the realisation of a childhood dream.
I have been overwhelmed by the tide of goodwill and support but one thing has become increasingly apparent. In many people’s minds, Everest has lost her crown. She has become a mountain synonymous with death, exploitation and pollution.
The most common question I get asked is: “Is it covered in rubbish?” As United Nations patron of the wilderness, one of my roles is to report back from the Earth’s remaining wildernesses and to act as a voice for the wild. One reason I wanted to climb Everest was to see for myself if it is indeed, as is often reported, “the world’s highest garbage dump”.
I also wanted to ensure I undertook an ethical climb in which I minimised my environmental footprint while maximising the ethics of working with the Sherpas. I had heard tales of a mountain of litter, discarded bottles, human excrement. I prepared myself for the worst.
The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee estimates that 100,000 people, mainly trekkers, visit the region each year making the route to base camp one of the busiest and most popular trails in the world. Add to this the thousand people who descend on to Everest base camp for their summit attempts each year and you can see how it might get its reputation, but here’s the thing: I hardly saw any litter, from the airport at Lukla to the summit.
The Nepalese have taken on some huge clean-up campaigns in recent years, perhaps to improve their reputation, but also in response to some tragic natural disasters. The 2015 earthquake wiped out the Nepalese base camp, not only with a terrible loss of life but also an environmental disaster after all the equipment from rescued climbers was abandoned.
The government implemented a number of requirements including that each climber removes an additional 8kg of litter (not including their own) and incentives for Sherpas of $2 per kilo of rubbish removed. They imposed “litter fines” at base camp and tried to address the problem of human faeces by encouraging people to take bags with them to carry their own poo off the mountain (the same applies in Antarctica).
The results have been stunning. The country lanes of Great Britain have more rubbish than the trail to Everest base camp; despite the 100,000 footfall I saw one of the cleanest, tidiest wilderness trials I have encountered.
One of the most common questions is whether the mountain is littered with oxygen bottles. While I’m sure this has been a problem in the past, it certainly isn’t today. Each bottle is worth up to $500, and in a country where that is approximately the average annual income, no bottle is ever discarded. I saw Sherpas climb the entire mountain to collect a used bottle. I did pass plenty of bottles during my climb but these had been cached by expeditions for their climb and are all removed from the mountain.
Base camp, too, was litter-free with all waste being carefully sorted and carried down the mountain by yak. Camp 2 has been the focus of much attention but even here, above the Khumbu icefall, I saw teams of people carefully gathering rubbish before descending back through the notorious danger spot. Once past Camp 2, I only saw a pristine mountain.
Climbers were largely respectful, and even carried their own poo off the mountain. The biggest problem is Camp 4, or the South Col. A wretched place, it is littered with stripped tents and poles that have been trashed by the 100mph winds that regularly beat the world’s highest camp ground. The ground is strewn with abandoned expedition gear that has become frozen into the snow and ice. It would be almost impossible to remove it.
It’s not ideal, but in some ways Camp 4 is a frozen time capsule of mankind’s relationship with Everest. Thousands have climbed her slopes in the pursuit of their own dreams and aspirations. It is like a slightly rougher version of Scott or Shackleton’s huts in Antarctica; a reminder, however unsightly, of our relationship with the wilderness.
I have spent time in many of the world’s popular wilderness locations and I would say Nepal should be proud. It is an example of man repairing the damage he has done. As our focus turns to the oceans and the seemingly impossible task of repairing our marine habitat, we could look at Everest as a fine example of turning back the clock.
- Ben Fogle is UN Environment patron of the wilderness. The film on his Everest climb will be on CNN on 30 June.
Source: The Guardian