Viewed from a distance, Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) is a pristine pinnacle of rock and ice, but the illusion breaks down when you get up close. Generations of trekkers and mountaineers have left a massive litter problem on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain, with each mountaineering season adding to the mounds of discarded oxygen cylinders, food tins, trekking equipment and beer bottles clogging up the route to the summit.
Since 2014, climbers in Nepal have faced fines if they fail to personally carry at least 8kg of garbage down from the mountain at the end of their trip, and more than 16 tonnes of junk has already been removed from the peak, but each spring, new expeditions arrive, replenishing the rubbish mountains at Everest Base Camp and the string of smaller mountaineering camps marking the route to the summit.
This year, the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee has launched its biggest ever spring clean on the mountain, removing over a tonne of rubbish just on the first day. Targetting primarily recyclable waste, Sherpa collectors have been bagging up abandoned tins, bottles and trekking equipment and trekking the rubbish downhill to Lukla, where Yeti Airlines planes are waiting to fly it back to recycling centres in Kathmandu.
Even with help from tourist volunteers, however, the collectors can only hope to deal with a fraction of the rubbish that has been left behind on what has been described as the world’s biggest rubbish dump. According to the UN Environment Programme, more than 140 tonnes of garbage has been dumped on Mount Everest since the first mountaineering expeditions arrived in the 1950s, and recyclable waste is only part of the problem.
As well as equipment from expeditions, trekkers and climbers have left a vast volume of human waste on the mountain, with some reports claiming that the poop mountain is growing by 13 tonnes every season. Then there is the problem of human bodies, left behind from 65 years of mountaineering disasters. More than 200 unrecovered human bodies lie on the upper slopes of the mountain, preserved in permanent refrigeration but left perpetually in state because of the logistical difficulties of bringing them out of the so-called Death Zone and down to lower elevations.