Nepal Enlists Mt. Everest Climbers to Clean Trash-Strewn Slopes

A Nepalese sherpa collecting garbage on Mount Everest.

A Nepalese sherpa collecting garbage, left by climbers, at an altitude of 8,000 meters during the Everest clean-up expedition at Mount Everest on May 23, 2010. A group of 20 Nepalese climbers, including some top summiteers collected 1,800 kilograms of garbage in a high-risk expedition to clean up the world's highest peak. Led by seven-time summiteer Namgyal Sherpa, the team braved thin air and below freezing temperatures to clear around two tonnes of rubbish left behind by mountaineers, that included empty oxygen cylinders and corpses. Since 1953, there have been some 300 deaths on Everest. Many bodies have been brought down, but those above 8,000 metres have generally been left to the elements -- their bodies preserved by the freezing temperatures. The priority of the sherpas had been to clear rubbish just below the summit area, but coordinator Karki said large quantities of refuse was collected from 8,000 meters and below. NAMGYAL SHERPA / AFP - Getty Images file

The world’s most iconic mountain is also a notorious trash heap.

On Mount Everest, tents, sleeping bags, oxygen cylinders and even the corpses of climbers who never made it down remain, left by the thousands who have taken on the world’s highest peak. In a new move to fix their garbage problem, Nepalese tourism authorities said Monday that climbers must bring down 18 pounds of trash when they return.

“From now on, a climber is required to bring down eight kilograms of waste, and that excludes their own empty oxygen bottles and human dung,” Madhusudhan Burlakoti, joint secretary of Nepal’s tourism ministry, told the New York Times.

"Now, we at least want the climbers to compulsorily bring back their human waste,” Mohan Krishna Sapkota, spokesman for country's tourism ministry, told the Wall Street Journal. “We can even consider barring the climbers who fail to do that.”

“I’ve seen this garbage,” Frits Vrijlandt, president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), who summited the 29,029-foot peak in 2000, told NBC News. “Gas canisters, oxygen bottles, broken tent remains, sleeping bag parts, equipment that people use for carrying them.”

"From now on, a climber is required to bring down eight kilograms of waste, and that excludes their own empty oxygen bottles and human dung."

Tourist traffic to the mountain has increased in recent years, and teams with little climbing experience who are shepherded along by international expedition companies may be partly to blame for the waste disposal problem.

"It's not a trip to Disneyland," Vrijlandt said.

He said he has heard of an assortment of odd objects being taken up the slopes by rookie climbers, including coffee makers and gear to watch movies inside tents. “I think this new rule is a big step forward, and UIAA really supports preserving and supporting the mountains,” Vrijlandt said.

Chinese environmental activists dump garbage bags at a garbage processing centre in Lhasa, Tibet.
Chinese environmental activists with 400 bags of garbage collected from Mount Everest. REUTERS, file

The move is the latest in a string of attempts over the past few years to clean up the slopes of Everest, and some have been more successful than others. For example, the number of oxygen tanks littering the slopes is said to be dwindling.

Sherpas get a cash reward for oxygen tanks that they bring down the mountain, which has encouraged the local guides to bring them down off the slopes, even if visitors do not.

Local sherpa groups have also organized cleanup trips up the mountain in the past. In 2010, a group of 31 sherpas organized an expedition to the “dead zone” above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) — so called because oxygen levels drop at that height — and collected more than 4,000 pounds of garbage.

The problem varies as one ascends from base camp all the way up to South Col, from which many climbers make their final push to the top.

“Gas canisters, oxygen bottles, broken tent remains, sleeping bag parts, equipment that people use for carrying them.”

“Everest BC [basecamp] is extremely clean, C2 (Camp 2) has a problem with human waste and South Col has become littered in the past two years after some big efforts to clean it up over the last 10 years,” Russell Brice, an experienced mountaineer and owner of Himalayan Experience, said in an email.

Trash is also a target for local tour companies, which have marketed eco-friendly tours. For example, Asian Trekking, one of the hundreds of companies in Nepal that take tourists up the mountain, is organizing an “eco-expedition” this year. It will involve “bringing old garbage, in addition to our own, and all human waste produced on the mountain down to base camp for proper disposal,” the company explains in its program guide.

Mount Everest Fights Growing Trash Problem 0:34

While locations at Everest base camp have a latrine policy, teams above that level break makeshift pits in the glacier ice to dispose of waste. “We had a tent over a hole,” Jon Kedrowski, a mountaineering guide who climbed the mountain in 2012, told NBC News.

During his climb, Kedrowski studied how human waste affected water supply to base camp villages. Sampling water at two locations, Gorakshep and Lobuche, he found bacterial levels that were “100 times the EPA’s legal limit for E. coli in those areas.”

Kedrowski says that the human waste is likely the more serious problem. “That’s probably more important than the trash, to be honest with you,” he told NBC News. “It’s more of a human health hazard."