Conquering Mt. Everest—and Trash

The Path Too Well-Traveled
As the highest mountain on Earth, Mt. Everest represents the ultimate challenge for mountain climbers. But a different challenge faces the Inventa Everest 2000 Environmental Expedition, a team currently on the mountain. The participants have no interest in reaching the 29,035-foot summit. Instead, these climbers aim to clean Mt. Everest.

Mt. Everest is becoming known as the world's highest junkyard. Why is this mountaineering mecca in Nepal so polluted?

Thanks in part to Mt. Everest, tourism to Nepal (located between China and India) has exploded over the past few decades. Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, were the first to conquer Mt. Everest in 1953. Now as many as 400 people each spring and fall attempt to climb Mt. Everest, or Sagarmatha, as the people of Nepal call it.

Not surprisingly, the increase of adventurers has led to an increase in litter, especially along the most popular route to the summit—the Southeast Ridge. The trail consists of a base camp at 17,600 feet and four additional camps closer to the summit. Since the first successful expedition, at least 50 tons of trash have accumulated.

At least 10 tons of garbage litters the 26,300-foot South Col, also called Camp IV. Most mountaineers make their final assault on the summit from here.

What Is a Sherpa?

Although the word Sherpa has come to mean anyone hired to help with a mountaineering expedition, the name comes from the Sherpa people of Nepal. In the Tibetan language, Sher means "east," and pa means "people," and the word is pronounced "Shar wa." While many Sherpas do indeed work as mountaineering guides and cooks, their Buddhist culture is based on animal herding and subsistence agriculture.

Living on Oxygen
ClimbersOnce they reach altitudes above 26,000 feet, hikers must contend with the Death Zone. The atmosphere provides them with only two-thirds of the oxygen they would be inhaling at sea level. The longer a climber stays at this altitude, the more likely sickness and death will occur. Oxygen deprivation—called hypoxia—is common. Without enough oxygen, people lose their ability to think clearly and may even hallucinate. Most climbers need the help of oxygen to climb and sleep in the Death Zone.

  • Listen to experts talk about how high altitudes affect people.

  • Read about Nova's tests of four people's mental abilities as they ascend to higher and higher altitudes. You can even take some of the same tests!

  • The Biology Explorer activity Acclimatization examines how the body acclimates to decreased pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Carrying personal litter off Mt. Everest becomes unimportant when one is struggling to stay alive. Climbers often abandon extra gear when they are descending the mountain. The refuse at Camp IV includes everything from 1,000 empty oxygen bottles to the remains of a helicopter that crashed there in 1973.

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Environmental Ethics
Despite all the obstacles and the equipment to overcome them, many people believe that expeditions to Mt. Everest can be carried out in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Growing Pains

Because of plate tectonics, the 8,848-meter Mt. Everest grows about 5 mm taller each year.

  • If the mountain continues to grow at its current rate, how tall will it be in 100 years? 1,000 years? 1 million years?
  • Learn more about this phenomenon.
  • Discover how the Himalaya Mountain Range will shift over time.

The Inventa Everest 2000 Environmental Expedition is devoting two months this spring to collecting trash from Everest's higher camps. The team, which includes about two-dozen Sherpas, will use extra-large backpacks to transport the trash to the base of Mt. Everest. Once sorted, burnable and biodegradable trash will either be incinerated or composted. Other trash such as recyclables, will be flown to Kathmandu and then shipped to the United States. The oxygen bottles will be used to raise money in future fundraisers.

The team will also be addressing the problem of human waste at Mt. Everest's base camp. The lack of waste management facilities there has led to the contamination of the local water supplies. The team plans on treating the waste by breaking it down with a mixture of enzymes and bacteria, sterilizing it, and then burying it further down the valley where it can decompose.

American Robert Hoffman, who led similar expeditions in 1995 and in 1998, is leading the Team 2000. The goal is to restore the mountain to as close to its original condition as possible in time for the 50th anniversary of the first ascent.

The government of Nepal has taken steps toward protecting Mt. Everest. Thanks to a 1992 law, if climbers leave any nonbiodegradable trash such as plastic containers on the mountain, they lose a $4,000 pre-expedition deposit. A Sherpa incentive program, instituted in 1994, pays Sherpas for every discarded oxygen bottle they retrieve from the mountain. Glass bottles were banned on Everest in 1998.

  • You can learn more about the expedition by listening to a recent NPR interview. (Requires RealPlayer.)

  • Everest Extreme is a documentary film company that will follow the clean-up effort. You can read about the film crew and even contact them.

  • What product would you invent to help reduce the amount of pollution on Mt. Everest? What rules might you devise to help protect the mountain?

Examine the following chart showing the trash collected in past cleanups:

Year Oxygen Bottles Used Batteries Empty Fuel Canisters
1995 140 200 100
1998 157 520 216
  • By what percentage did the garbage collection in each category (oxygen bottles, used batteries, empty fuel canisters) improve from 1995 to 1998?

  • If this year's collection attempts improve by the same percentages, how many of the 1,000 remaining oxygen bottles in Camp IV might be collected?

Related Resources
Many excellent books have dealt with Mt. Everest.

  • You might want to read Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, by Broughton Coburn. This is a record of the 1996 IMAX filmmaking expedition in which eight members — including the two leaders — died during the descent. In addition, the author covers everything from Sherpa culture to the causes of altitude sickness.

Other choices include:


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