A Note on Mount Everest's Trash Problem

Tracy Wilson

This picture, taken on May 23, 2010, shows a Nepalese Sherpa collecting garbage left by climbers at an altitude of 8,000 meters during an Everest clean-up expedition. NAMGYAL SHERPA/AFP/Getty Images

We talked a lot about how much trash currently litters Mount Everest in this week's podcast episodes. We recorded them on Feb. 18, as we built up a buffer to cover some planned vacation time. A couple of weeks later (but before the episodes came out) news broke that Nepal will start enforcing rules for garbage removal beginning with this spring's climbing season. Nepali officials will require climbers to bring about 18 pounds (8 kilograms) of trash back to base camp. People who don't will forfeit a $4,000 deposit. Additional penalties may include fines and possible banning from future expeditions.

This won't really do much to reduce the amount of trash already on Everest: That 18-pound figure is an estimate of how much trash the typical climber generates during the trip. It's meant to help ensure that no new trash is left behind.

When we posted NPR's blog post on the rule to our Facebook page, listeners called Everest litterers "narcissistic jerks," "disgusting" and "selfish a-holes." People also noted the backpacking rule of "leave only footprints."

I think we can all agree that 10 tons of garbage on a once-pristine mountain that several cultures revere as holy is a problem, especially when you consider that Eco Everest Expedition has already removed more than 13 tons of it. But it's a little more complicated than that.

I haven't been able to confirm whether the very first Everest expeditions left trash behind, but it's safe to say that it was reasonably clean when Hillary and Norgay got to the top in 1953. Even then, though, there were already dead human bodies on the mountain. About 240 more people have died on Everest since that first successful ascent. Their bodies are mostly still on the mountain, too, because it's too treacherous to bring them down. That's how dangerous Everest is: People die trying to climb it, and survivors would probably lose their lives as well if they tried to bring their friends' and colleagues' bodies down.

Water bottles, food wrappers, broken gear and human waste all seem small in comparison to an entire human body. But 18 pounds are 18 pounds. Everest climbers, many of them inexperienced, have counted on being able to gradually lighten their load as they climbed for years. The mountain is also a lot busier than it used to be, with virtually all climbers following the same two routes and large guided expeditions creating bottlenecks along the way. The closer people get to the summit, the more physically spent they are and the less oxygen their bodies have - even if they're carrying supplemental oxygen along with them.

So, yes, littering is bad, but I don't think the root problem is disgusting laziness. It's the powerful allure of Everest, the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the trip for many climbers, and a permitting and planning system that allows more people to climb than the mountain can really hold.

I have a bone to pick with whoever set the precedent that it was OK to abandon garbage on Everest, but I can empathize with exhausted, half-frozen climbers who feel like their choice is between dropping that oxygen canister and watching the rest of their party walk away while they die.