Many places on the planet are in desperate need of sanitation infrastructure. One place, in particular, is visited by some of the wealthiest people on earth, often for only a couple months a year.
Clean water at this location is far from the biggest problem facing the world, but it presents an interesting set of challenges involving the plumbing and energy communities.
The water quality is very poor on the trail to the summit of Mount Everest, in large part because climbers go to the bathroom anywhere they please. How should this mess be mitigated?
If you want a drink of water while you are attempting to climb Mount Everest, you have a few choices. You could drag a sled with a 60-day-supply of frozen, bottled water for yourself. However, weight is generally the enemy when you are hiking to the 17,000-foot base camp of Everest. There is an abundance of snow to melt in camping stoves along the route to the top. Unfortunately, the snow is not as clean as it once was.
The highest peak in the world doesn’t have a sewer system. Logistically, it wouldn’t be easy to run a clean water line from a nearby city. Mostly because one of the nearest cities is about a week’s walk away and it is so brutally cold that the lines would freeze immediately.
‘Minefields of human excrement’
The amount of fecal matter affects the clean drinking water problem along the way. Climbers typically grab nearby chunks of snow to boil for drinking and cooking on camping stoves. According to a 2015 Outside magazine article, about 700 climbers and Sherpas were scheduled to attempt the summit over six weeks. It takes about 60 days to climb Mount Everest, including time acclimating to the altitude.
“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,” the Outside article continues. “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.”
Why isn’t more attention paid to cleaning up the camps and trail? It is expensive, dangerous and time-consuming to remove anything from areas where the conditions are as extreme as Everest. Many of the people who have died trying to climb to the top are still there, frozen bodies preserved where they collapsed. It could take an entire expedition team to bring a single body down from the mountain.
For most of the last century, everything left on the mountain was frozen. To make things worse, climate change could cause the mountain to slowly reach warmer temperatures, further accelerating the environmental disaster as everything thaws.
Groups and policies are in place to make Everest expeditions less impactful. A Fodor’s article notes, “In 2017, climbers on the Nepal side removed 25 tons of trash and 15 tons of human feces.” On the Tibet side, a team of 200 people began cleaning up the camps in 2015.
Additionally, climbers were required to pay a $4,000 deposit to be refunded when they brought down at least 18 pounds of trash, even though the average climber is estimated to produce about 50 pounds of human waste while on their expedition.
According to Adventurealternative.com, it costs around $45,000 to climb Mount Everest. The price could creep up to nearly $90,000, depending on the route and the guide company. If you could pay $90,000 and take 60 days off work, would you be motivated to carry trash down or would you just forfeit your deposit? It depends on the climber, but it doesn’t seem as if the trash deposit is commensurate for the fragility of the location.
You can’t quite get a port-a-potty in and out of an Everest camp. Most of the mountain trail is too high for helicopters, and it is too expensive and remote for the casual volunteer to take a handful of garbage or waste back down. It is also too cold for the average composting toilet. However, there is hope in a new biogas project that would clean up the base camp and also provide a little power.
The Mount Everest Biogas Project aims to use a readily available resource.
“What is unique about the Mount Everest Biogas Project is twofold,” the project’s website reports, “First, it is a creative adaptation of existing biogas digester technology, re-engineered with customized modifications for operation in the harsh environment of high-altitude, extremely cold conditions. Second, it uses only human waste as the input fuel, a waste type that produces less methane gas than produced using typical animal waste or kitchen waste products.”
The ability to use waste as fuel solves a few problems on Everest. Outside of the cleaner campsites, fewer one-use cooking fuel sources would be needed, which reduces another flow of garbage. Most importantly, the tons of human waste could be useful instead of toxic for the people in the area, and further down the valley, when the snow melts.
In 2018, a Tibetan national cleanup campaign targeted to haul 200,000 pounds of trash off the Everest trail. Using volunteers, clothe sacks and yaks, they grabbed empty beer bottles, old tents, oxygen bottles and other debris. They also have installed better trashcans along the route to keep garbage from blowing around as much. It will be a slow process to load everything onto a turboprop plane and haul it to Kathmandu, but it is a step in the right direction.
The most effective way to destroy something beautiful is to literally cover it in waste. In many ways, climbing Mount Everest is one of the ultimate ways for humans to conquer nature. Using modern technology for waste repurposing could make the procedure of climbing the highest peak on earth a little more respectable. At a minimum, future climbers will be more aware of the messes made in the past.
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