The grueling hike up Mount Everest isn’t as pristine as you might imagine. Step out of your tent at Camp II and take a few steps in any direction. Grand views of the Himalayas as far as the eye can see. Now look down at your feet. More than likely, you are standing in a pile of dried-up crap. It may have been left by the person who pitched tent the night before; it may have been sitting there for seven or eight years.
Human waste is littered across the rocky moraine and lurking in the snow all along the route up the world’s largest peak, making the four sleeping areas on the route up Everest’s south side akin to minefields of human excrement. In the 62-year history of climbing on the mountain, climbers above Base Camp have most commonly either buried their excrement in hole toilets they dug by hand in the snow, chucked it into crevasses, or simply defecated wherever it’s convenient, often within feet of their tents.
Many climbers believe that harsh weather, the monsoon snows, or disposal in a crevasse will keep the mountain clean—that the crap they leave will somehow harmlessly dissolve into the mountain. This may have been true during the first four decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay achieved the first summit, in 1953, when only a handful of climbers attempted the summit each year. But traffic has dramatically increased with the emergence of commercial guided trips in the past 20 years, and so has the amount of human waste we’ve left on the mountain. Decades worth of shit is just sitting up there.
As 700 climbers and Sherpas gear up to attempt the mountain over the next six weeks of the climbing season, now is an appropriate time to ask: How much longer can we ignore Everest’s waste problem?
“The only good part about the human waste situation above Base Camp is that shit freezes fast at 8,000 meters,” says Adrian Ballinger, veteran Everest guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions. “Beyond that, it’s an inexcusable embarrassment. If you walk from one tent to another in Camp II or IV, you will step in shit. If you melt snow from the camp areas, you are drinking shit.”
Waste particles leak into the glacier, contaminate the snow and runoff, and become airborne, putting climbers at risk of both lower-intestinal and upper-respiratory infections, which are among the most common ailments in climbers on the mountain.
Everest is widely considered the ne plus ultra of the mountaineering experience. On a more spiritual level, Sherpas believe the mountain to be the Mother Goddess of the world. So why is it that such a self-selecting group of Sherpas and Western climbers is complacent in allowing raw sewage to be strewn about a mountain they supposedly venerate and respect?
There are several reasons. First, an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality has prevailed for the past 60 years. Climbers are preoccupied with safely getting up the mountain and surviving at high altitude. Where and how you go to the bathroom is an afterthought for most. Second, creating and maintaining a waste removal system would take time and money, and most Western guides, Sherpas, local outfitters, and government officials simply aren’t interested in taking responsibility for the hundreds of climbers who ascend and descend every year. Lastly, no effective management or regulation is in place for waste disposal above Base Camp.
It’s a perfect mix of inconveniences, but at its heart, the problem belongs to everyone who sets foot on the mountain, says Garrett Madison, founder and president of Madison Mountaineering. “People have been lazy, and something has to change,” he says. “There are no more excuses for this behavior, period.”
The past two decades have seen numerous efforts to remove trash from Everest. Literal tons of spent oxygen canisters have been hauled down. Last year, the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism issued a mandate that every climber bring 18 pounds of trash off the mountain to ensure that expeditions clean up after themselves. Most climbers consider themselves to be environmentally conscious, and they’re generally pretty good about packing out everything that they pack in, but human waste on Everest seems to be exempt from this ethos.
Currently, the only place where climbers can defecate without worrying about contaminating the mountain is Base Camp, and installing a waste management system there took years. Situated at approximately 18,000 feet, Base Camp sees the most activity of all camps on Everest because climbers acclimate and rest there. In the late 1990s, expeditions began using toilets that they fashioned from blue plastic 50-gallon barrels that are fitted with a toilet seat and enclosed—exactly like outhouses. Every week, a porter transports the contents of each barrel to a disposal area a few hours’ walk away, near the village of Gorak Shep. (The waste pileup in the Gorak Shep landfill has become its own issue that needs to be addressed.)
Expedition leaders set up the blue barrel system. At first, only a portion of climbers used it. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, after the system had proved to be a success, that the government stepped in and mandated that everyone at Base Camp abide by it. The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), a local nonprofit, now monitors this waste removal from Base Camp. The barrels work because there is a system in place, manpower is readily available, and there is a mechanism for monitoring and enforcement.
There is no such oversight at the higher camps. Feces and used toilet paper are strewn about, there are open latrines, and disused hole toilets are melting out, exposing once-buried waste. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and it’s appalling. On my first expedition, in 1994, very little human waste was evident, but only three small teams were climbing that year. Eight years later, close to 300 people were on Everest, and it was clear that, waste-wise, the mountain was worse for wear. Some expeditions have taken to defecating in plastic bags and emptying them in crevasses along the route, but even this practice is done infrequently. I remember thinking at the time that that the mountain could not get any worse, but when I returned in 2012, it was.
“Every year, it is getting worse with poop,” says Lakpa Rita, a 23-year veteran sirdar and 17-time summiter. “People just dig holes at Camps I and II, and it melts out and smells terrible. When it melts out, it gets into the water, and people are getting sick at every camp.”
The situation is not much better higher on the mountain. Camp III sits precariously on a shelf of ice on the Lhotse Face at 23,000 feet, and Camp IV lies at 26,000 feet at the windswept South Col. The lack of oxygen and location make these camps a harsh experience. Climbers there are typically wearing down suits and using supplemental oxygen the whole time. As you can imagine, going to the bathroom is not the easiest thing to do above 23,000 feet in an oxygen mask and cumbersome attire. So when nature calls, people typically wander just a few feet from their tent and go wherever they can.
Part of the problem is that the Khumbu Glacier moves at such a high rate of speed. The crap that climbers drop in crevasses between Camps I and II slides through the glacier and exits the icefall, draining into Base Camp. Some expeditions have started bringing in rolls of carpet to throw down as a base layer for their tents because, at this point, the muddy slush on the ground is as much feces as it is dirt.
Scientists have found that waste deposited at Camp I could make its way to Base Camp in as little as five years, given that the Khumbu Icefall can slide as much as four feet per day, according to the American Alpine Club. Dr. Michael Loso, an associate professor of earth sciences at Alaska Pacific University, has found that the fecal material deposited in a crevasse becomes encased in ice and remains intact until it is uncovered—it doesn’t dissolve or decompose, as some climbers believe.
“The peak has become a fecal time bomb,” Outside senior editor Grayson Schaffer wrote in 2012, “and the mess is gradually sliding back toward Base Camp.”
Other popular 20,000-plus-foot mountains around the world have been successful in handling the inevitable poop problem. People there have gotten creative.
Take Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. Rangers there developed the Clean Mountain Can in 2002 as a solution to the waste problem at the mountain’s higher camps. It’s a basketball-sized plastic container that serves as both a toilet and a container that can be transported back to base camp. Another option is the Wag Bag, basically a smaller and lighter version of the can in the form of a disposable plastic bag. Every climber on Denali is required to use one or the other and to dispose of their waste properly—and the system works. To make it take hold among climbers, the solution had to be simple, convenient, and enforced, says Denali ranger Roger Robinson.
“Humans are generally lazy, and unless there are rules and enforcement, behavior will not change,” says Robinson, the primary architect behind the Clean Mountain Can. “Because there is a system in place on Denali, waste is being removed. The 17,200-foot camp on Denali’s West Buttress was once covered with human waste, but now every team is bringing it down.”
Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak, enforces the use of Wag Bags above base camp, and rangers there make sure the roughly 7,000 climbers a year follow the rules. Climbers check out the bags with a ranger at Plaza De Mulla (base camp) and must return them for disposal or risk being fined. The bags are cheap—they cost about $1 each to make—and can be carried easily.
Nepalese officials should take note. Peak fees on other mountains of the world go directly to pay climbing rangers to enforce regulations, handle trash and waste issues, and provide rescue services when needed. In Nepal, where each Everest climber pays the government $11,000 for a permit, it’s unclear how much of the cumulative millions of dollars in fee revenue is used for managing the mountain because there’s no way to track how that money is spent once it enters the Ministry of Tourism coffers.
Practical solutions for managing waste on Everest that are proposed to the government suffer the same fate, says Ballinger—they disappear into the bureaucratic labyrinth. “The lack of effective management from the Nepali government … is largely causing the problems on Everest,” he says. “The level of corruption in Nepal means that even when intelligent regulations are created, they are never implemented.”
The lack of government regulation is compounded by outfitters who choose not to address the issue. An increase in climbing demand has given way to a slew of newer “budget” outfitters that provide cut-rate trips. As outfitters compete on price, spending money on something like waste removal is pretty low on the priority list. The older, established outfitters, such as Asian Trekking, Shangri-La Nepal Trek, Himalayan Guides, and Mountain Experience, have emphasized environmental stewardship and removal of trash and waste, but most newer outfitters do not.
The key to solving the poop problem on Everest is changing behavior among climbers, which means establishing protocols and sticking to them. It worked with the blue barrel toilets at Base Camp, and it can work with cans and Wag Bags higher up the mountain.
Expeditions already pay their Sherpas to back-clean their valuable equipment off the mountain, so there is no reason waste containers can’t be carried off in an efficient manner. While there is a stigma among the Sherpas about carrying human waste, the right amount of compensation will solve the problem. Regulation would also help, and the SPCC—already in charge of waste removal at Base Camp—is in the perfect position to oversee waste removal from higher on the mountain, but the group will need funding and authority from the government before it can make a dent in the poop problem at the high camps.
In the meantime, individual outfitters must pioneer new approaches in the absence of government action. Thankfully, some already are. Madison Mountaineering and Alpenglow Expeditions have committed to using Wag Bags and a portable toilet called the luggable loo above Base Camp this season, despite the added cost, which is minimal.
Until everybody is willing to do a bit more than the minimum—spend a little more money, stop making excuses for behavior—both Everest and the experience of being on the mountain will suffer.
“Some of the high-end outfitters will make an example of how things should be done this year,” says Garret Madison. “But who will make the others follow?”