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Mount Everest and the hikers who attempt to reach its summit are contributing to a litter problem in ways never expected. Only 1,500 people have reached the summit of this, the tallest mountain in the world, however, thousands more have tried In their wake, they have left a trail of fecal matter and urine on Everest which is causing pollution with the potential to spread disease in the area and beyond.
It starts out small. Approximately 700 hikers and Sherpa guides camp at the base of Everest for up to two months until conditions are right to ascend the mountain. They also use this time to acclimate to the conditions; the air is thin at 17,380 feet. Everest turns out to be a home away from home for hikers with sleeping and eating tents, and rudimentary portable bathrooms which hikers use and dump once filled. They also dig holes in the ground and cover up the refuse. Over the years, the waste has been building up. Hikers have been climbing Everest for 62 years; the first pair being Britain’s Sir Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgay. The year preceding that history-making ascension, Norgay had reached 28,199 feet with a group of Swiss hikers.
The Sherpas act as guides to outsiders who want to summit Everest. Natives of the area, they are used to breathing its thin air and know the terrain. It is a good, if not dangerous, living, as evidenced by the death of 16 Sherpas in 2014. Since Tibetans live here year-round, they have taken charge of the cleanup of Everest, originally called Chomolungma.
Ang Tshering, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, sounded the alarm about the problem this week. He announced that decades of waste on Everest is polluting the air, which is potentially spreading disease. Although there are rudimentary bathroom facilities at a base camp located at 17,380 feet, hikers are left to their own devices as they continue to the mountain’s peak. When Mother Nature calls, they are left with no choice but to “straddle small crevasses to relieve themselves.” The overflow of human waste leaks over to the mountain, seeps back to the base camp, which makes the snow water unsafe to boil and use for consumption. Responsible hikers bag up their excrement and Sherpas dutifully deposit it into a nearby pit used for that purpose.
After the hikers are gone, Tibetans are left to deal with the 26,500 pounds of human excrement left. It has polluted their main water supply, and yaks sometime fall into the poop pits located along the trail to the base camp. Due to extreme temperatures, the human waste does not disintegrate as it normally should. On average, the temperature at Everest is 20 degrees below zero, with the warmest-recorded temperature being 16 degrees below zero.
Hikers are making a concerted effort to help Everest’s human waste problem. However, there are also tons of trash left on Everest. A group of Nepali artists has collected more than a ton of trash, turning it into 74 distinctive pieces of art. Hikers are encouraged to bring at least 18 pounds of trash back with them so as not to compound the problem. If not, they face forfeiture of their $4,000 security deposit.
By Danielle Branch