Time can erode even the greatest of achievements, as they’re repeated or surpassed: think Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, Chuck Yeager’s smashing of the sound barrier, Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space. Perhaps that has happened to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who 60 years ago today became the first people to reach the peak of Mount Everest. It was a mountain that had defeated or killed all who had tried before, and Hillary and Norgay were only able to remain on the peak for 15 minutes before they had to begin descending, low on oxygen. They truly went where no man had gone before.
Today, though, Everest’s peak is a decidedly less lonely place. More than 3,500 people have successfully climbed the 29,029 ft. (8,848 m) mountain — and more than a tenth of that number scaled the peak just over the past year. On one day alone in 2012, 234 climbers reached the peak. As more and more people try to test themselves against Everest — often paying over $100,000 for a “guided climb” — this desolate mountain is becoming as crowded as a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. Climbers have complained about waiting for hours in bottlenecks on the way to the summit, a situation that isn’t just uncomfortable — it’s cold and windy up there — but downright dangerous. If bad weather strikes during one of those bottlenecks, climbers can and do die, as happened in the sudden 1996 blizzard that took the lives of eight climbers near the summit, a disaster that later became the Jon Krakauer book Into Thin Air.
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But the tiresome, dangerous crowds aren’t the only problems on Everest. All those climbers need to bring a lot of gear — and much of that gear ends up being left on the mountain, sometimes even the summit itself. Mount Everest — once the most remote and forbidding spot on the planet — is becoming the world’s tallest trash heap.
Here’s mountaineer Mark Jenkins writing in National Geographic about the state of Everest:
The two standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously crowded but also disgustingly polluted, with garbage leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement befouling the high camps. And then there are the deaths. Besides the four climbers who perished on the Southeast Ridge, six others lost their lives in 2012, including three Sherpas.
Expedition teams have left empty oxygen canisters, torn tents and other leftover equipment along the paths that lead from base camp to the summit. And because Everest is so cold and icy, the waste that’s left there, stays there, preserved for all time.
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You can’t necessarily blame the climbers, especially inexperienced ones, for their littering habit. Even under the best conditions, climbing the tallest mountain in the world is exhausting, dangerous work. Dropping used supplies on the mountain rather than carrying them can save vital energy and weight. It’s not exactly equivalent to tossing a beer can in a city park, but the accumulated trash is still steadily ruining a unique place on earth. “You are surrounded by filth,” mountaineer Paul Thelen told Germany’s Die Welt recently.
But the good news is that some mountaineers are taking it upon themselves to clean up Everest. Thelen and his friend Eberhard Schaaf are part of the annual Eco Everest Expedition, which has been cleaning up trash from base camp to the summit since 2008. So far they’ve collected over 13 tons of garbage, as well as a whole lot of frozen excrement and the occasional frozen corpse. (Nothing ever goes away on Everest.) And just recently a joint India-Nepal military team collected over 2 tons of garbage on the slopes of the mountain.
Some of that trash is even being used for a higher purpose — in the spiritual sense, if not the altitude one. As part of the Mount Everest 8848 Art Project, a group of 15 artists from Nepal collected 1.5 tons of garbage brought down the mountain by climbers. They’ve transformed the cans and oxygen cylinders — and in one case, part of the remains of a helicopter — into 74 pieces of art that have already gone on exhibition in Nepal’s capital. Part of the proceeds from sales will go to the Everest Summiteers Association, which has helped collect tons of debris off the mountain. This is high-end recycling.
The association estimates that there might still be 10 tons of trash left on the mountain, and if the number of climbers on Everest keeps increasing, that figure will only grow. There’s no beating Hillary and Norgay, who pulled off a feat 60 years ago that many thought was physically impossible. But at least the thousands of climbers who have followed in their footsteps can take better care of this magnificent mountain.