Cleaning up the Himalayas—a gigantic challenge

Suresh Paudel

Suresh Paudel

Cleaning up the Himalayas—a gigantic challenge

Thanks to human desire to ‘conquer’, the mountains that challenge humans have been facing challenges themselves

For some people, success has to be of Himalayan proportions, whereas for many success of any ‘size’ calls for celebration. These select people have established a different definition of success for themselves than that of wealth, happiness, and glory. For them, success or achievement means reaching many of the planet’s highest points.

Although many people dream of scaling the dizzying heights, only a few dare to achieve them. Alfred Wills, who in 1865 scaled the 3692-meter Wetterhorn peak in Switzerland,  is credited with turning mountain climbing into an adventure sport.

After the discovery that ‘Peak 15’ (later Everest/Sagarmatha) located in the Himalayan region of Nepal was the highest point in the world, efforts to reach the peak started in 1921 from Tibet (China). After it was confirmed that eight of the 14 peaks above 8000 meters are located in Nepal, these peaks naturally became a subject of attraction for the mountaineers.

A notable fact is that until the first reconnaissance ascent of Everest in 1921, any western mountaineer was outside the 40-mile (64.37376 km) perimeter of the mountain range, with only experiences of reaching an altitude below 5,000 meters. None of them had any knowledge about climbing the higher terrain, so many questions arose, like: Were preparations for climbing the additional 3,500 meters enough? Was it possible to survive without oxygen at an altitude exceeding 8,000 meters? If not, what kind of arrangement should be made for supplementary oxygen? What kind of food to take at high altitudes? How many days should it take to reach the top? How much does it cost to bring other necessary tools and equipment?

Amidst this high-altitude confusion, French mountaineers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lacin successfully ascended the Annapurna-1 peak in Nepal for the first time, in 1950. Following this historic event, in 1953, Tenzing Norgey and Edmund Hillary scaled the highest peak, Sagarmatha, and since then, the number of people climbing mountains above 8,000 meters in Nepal has been ever growing, with expeditions happening every year barring occasional halts due to some special circumstances or events. Mountaineers from all over the world wait for the clear weather to reach the highest peak in the hopes of setting new records or breaking the old ones every year at the beginning of the spring season.

According to statistics, more than 700 of those who come to the Himalayan region of Nepal reach the Everest base camp, and more than 600 of them try to scale the peak. Success or failure depends on their hard work, the weather, and sheer luck. Every climbing season, an individual mountaineer has to spend weeks at the base camp and various camps waiting for the right time to reach the peak. To acclimatize themselves, people climb from the base camp to various higher camps, and it has been 102 years since such activities began in the region.

Now, the principal issue comes here.

After years of effort, mankind has succeeded in scaling the Himalayas. With this success, mountaineering developed as a sport, and the people’s desire to ‘conquer’ the mountains only increased. With this increased desire, these mountains that challenge humans have been facing challenges themselves.

What is the challenge?

The challenge is that Nepal’s mountainous region above 8000 meters, which is open for mountaineering and includes Mt Everest, is becoming more and more polluted every year. Yes, garbage and human waste have been piling up on the mountains for over 100 years.

This is because nothing ever rots, melts or deteriorates in the Himalayas. Whatever the mountaineers leave behind, such as feces, oxygen cylinders, food containers and the equipment used while climbing, remain as they are.

Naturally, hardly any individual will have the strength to return to the base camp from the mountains with loads of useless materials and equipment. It takes about two months to complete the entire expedition to the Everest, during which an individual mountaineer produces up to nine kilograms of waste. One can imagine the number of mountaineers who went climbing the mountains for the past 102 years and how much garbage they left behind. Not only that, the bodies of the climbers, who died during their expeditions, also remained in the same condition for a long time. With the ice melting due to global warming, the bodies have begun surfacing.

It is not possible to calculate exactly how much garbage has piled up on Mt Everest and the Himalayas. But we cannot rule out the possibility of tons of garbage up there. Waste buried under the snow for decades is resurfacing with the ice melting due to global warming. This situation is particularly dangerous for communities living downstream with people having to rely on contaminated water, which poses health risks.

Until the year 1990, there was no significant amount of mountaineering traffic in the Himalayas. Issues related to cleanliness and sanitation in these areas were confined to the local level. With the increase in tourist arrivals, things have changed and these issues have assumed national and global proportions. In recent years, local communities have also become more aware of the need to protect the Himalayan region from pollution. In particular, efforts are afoot to make the visitors aware of the roles they can play to keep the Himalayas clean, given that not many clean-up activities are conducted at higher altitudes. This calls for special initiatives.

The Nepali Army is one among the very few entities involved in high-altitude clean-up campaigns. Ever since the national army started climbing Mount Everest together with the British Army in 1976, the former has been involved in various cleanup initiatives. In the year 2019, the army, in collaboration with the Ministry of Forests and Environment, conducted a 45-day mountain clean-up campaign (Safa Himal Abhiyan), removing about 10 tons of garbage and retrieving four bodies in course.

With the success of the first campaign, the mountain clean-up drive was expanded to include Everest as well as Lhotse, Pumari, Ama Dablam, Dhavalagiri, and Makalu in 2021, through which about 28 tons of garbage was collected and removed from the mentioned mountains. The 2022 edition of the campaign managed to collect and remove 38 tons of garbage from the mountains.

In three years, this campaign has removed about 76 tons of garbage from the Himalayas. Giving continuity to the campaign with support from various stakeholders, the army aims to remove 35 tons of high-altitude garbage this year.

One can expect enthusiastic mountaineers to bring back 2-4 kg of waste each from the mountains, but removing tons of waste requires concerted efforts.

Let’s hope that the NA’s mountain clean-up campaign and other such initiatives prove some mountaineers’ unsavory remarks describing the Himalayas as the ‘highest garbage dump in the world’ wrong.


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