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Everest tourism is causing a mountain of problems

Going where thousands have gone before. EPA/Kenji Kondo

Everest climbing season is underway. For a few weeks each spring, the weather improves just enough to give climbers a chance of scaling the world’s tallest mountain. As increasing numbers flock to Everest, the Nepalese government has passed new laws to regulate the hundreds who come to take on the challenge.

But the new policies show that officials in Kathmandu don’t really grasp what’s going on up in the Himalayan peaks and more must be done to make the mountainside sustainable. The first new rule – that climbers must bring at least 8kgs of rubbish back with them when descending Everest – is puzzling. And is contradicted by the second policy, which is reducing mountaineering permit fees this year to attract even more climbers.

This reveals how the Nepalese government only knows how to pass policies, but not implement them. No concrete efforts have been made to ensure that they are enforced or monitored.

Most of the government representatives who travel to the Everest region as appointed liaison officers never even make it to the Base Camp. Ill-equipped and unable to adapt to the harsh environment, they have very little clue whether or not their policies are practised. This raises the question: how will the government know that the 8kgs of rubbish that each climber must bring back from Everest were indeed collected?

Mountaineering in Nepal is now a commercialised operation that primarily consists of two main goals: profit for the government and an ego-boost for the participants. The true spirit of mountaineering adventure has long disappeared. This is why the government has lowered the climbing permit fee, to encourage more climbers who can buy into the Everest franchise.

Climbing is now done in a very crowded setting. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of climbers in recent years – nearly 2,000 people have climbed the mountain since 2009. Last year we saw a long line of climbers (just above the Everest base camp) waiting for their turn to go up the mountain and this creates a hazardous situation for all parties involved.

This surge in numbers is a result of the now well-established routes up the mountain, lined with fixed ropes, accuracy in weather forecasting, better climbing gear and an increase in the number of guides.

Dumping grounds

Rubbish management needs to be thought out carefully if we want to ensure climber’s safety and a high quality environment. We can’t treat the mountains as dumping grounds. It is estimated that some 50 tonnes of mountaineering rubbish has accumulated beyond the Everest Base Camp.

This rubbish mostly consists of spent oxygen cylinders, food cans, torn tents and ropes, human waste and even dead bodies. The amount of rubbish is not going to reduce anytime soon, even with periodic clean ups, mostly because more people are climbing Everest than ever before.

Everest base camp looks like a tent city. It has been reported that the majority of climbers today do not have the same level of mountaineering skills than those who went up the mountains a decade ago. Record crowds, year after year, on the summit makes it seem like anyone with money and time can scale the mountain. But, increasing the permit fee for climbers is one way to limit numbers.

Tent city at 5,000m. Nikki McLeod, CC BY-NC-ND

Also, the environment liaison officer needs to be someone appointed from the local community. They need to be familiar with the high mountain environment and motivated to bring the community together for periodic environmental clean ups both higher up and below the base camp. A portion of the permit fees needs to be exclusively dedicated for that periodic clean up, which would boost seasonal local employment too.

The Sherpa people need to be involved too in protecting the environment. One environmental NGO, the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee is based in Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the high Himalayas, and has been active in environmental management practices related to trekking and mountaineering tourism. But they are limited by a lack of resources.

A stronger team is needed to monitor environmental practices high up the mountain. It should include trained western and local guides and can be supported by the profits from local tourism. The Nepalese government earns US$3.3 million annually in Everest-related climbing royalty. Even if less than 5% of that money is dedicated exclusively for the purpose of removing garbage from the camps, and in combination with the new regulation requiring every climber to bring back 8 kgs of rubbish (not including oxygen cylinders), that could make a big difference in the long run.

Bring down the bodies

It might sound morbid, but if a climber dies, the guide or expedition team must be made legally responsible to bring back their body. In case the expedition team decides to forfeit the deposit made against such incidents, there should be a financial incentive for professionally trained, local search and rescue teams that could complete the job. The Nepalese government must immediately stop the practice of sending liaison officer from Kathmandu and instead recruit local Sherpas (former guides, for example) to do this job.

There is not a single solution to the complex problem of making tourism to Everest sustainable. Increases in permit fees, fewer climbers on each team, establishing a local search and rescue team, recruiting local (Sherpa) environmental liaison officers, investing more in environmental clean ups that include international and local expedition teams are suggested. Those who do not follow established rules and adopt higher environmental standards could also be denied permits for a few years.

One thing is certain: the government is not truly committed to making sure that its mountaineering peaks are not polluted. Government officials sitting in Kathmandu (the majority of whom have no clue what goes on in these remote places) are far removed from the actions on the ground. I am not very optimistic about their actions on these issues.

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