If you’ve ever wondered where mountain climbers ‘go’ on an expedition, well, the backup of human waste on Mount Everest should give you the answer you need.
Every parent has had to say, “You should have gone before we left.” There’s no place to go, and there your kid is, dancing away in desperation. But what do you do when there really is no place to go — like near the summit of Mount Everest? There aren’t even any bushes to go behind because you’re so high up.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, President of Nepal Mountaineering Association, told The Associated Press, “Climbers usually dig holes in the snow for their toilet use and leave the human waste there.” And when the only two guys who had gone up the mountain were Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, that was a minor matter.
However, about 700 climbers and Sherpa guides pass through there during the two-month-long climbing season these days. Since Ed and Tenz reached the top, another 4,000 climbers have tried the trip. That’s a lot of human waste, and it doesn’t dispose of itself. Sherpa told reporters recently, “Discarded in ice pits, the human waste remains under the snow. When washed down by glaciers [when the snow melts], it comes out in the open.”
Repeat after me, “Ewwwww!”
The problem doesn’t arise until you leave the base camp at 5,300 meters (17,380 feet). At the base camp, there are toilet tents with large drums, not unlike oil drums, that store the waste. Once filled, the drums are carried down the mountain for disposal.
When you leave the base camp and strike out for the summit 8,850-meters up (29,035 feet), that’s when you dig a hole and hope you don’t hit the leavings of the 1974 French expedition. Some attacking the summit have started bringing disposable toilet travel bags, which have to be disposed of themselves.
One more time, “Ewwwww!”
The Nepalese government doesn’t have a comprehensive plan for dealing with the problem as yet, but starting this climbing season, every expedition has to deposit $4,000 which would be forfeited if the rules were broken. One of the rules was each climber had to bring down 8 kilograms (about 17 pounds) of garbage and human waste — the equivalent of what the average climber leaves. If everyone sticks to the rules, the problem won’t get worse.
To deal with what’s already up there, Dawa Steven Sherpa leads the annual Eco Everest clean-up expedition. Since 2008, he and his crew have brought down 15,000 kilos of rubbish.
Part of the problem, though, is that the mind works a little differently on Everest. I have no doubt that every climber wants to keep the mountain pristine, and I am confident that if they were physically less exhausted they would do more. At the same time, though, there are 200 dead bodies up there — people who didn’t make it down safely. Not only is there minimal effort to retrieve the deceased, some of them are actually used as landmarks (an Indian climber known as “Green Boots,” for instance). When you are using corpses as landmarks, maybe hauling your waste down hill is not much of a priority.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.