Photo by ilkerender – Flickr
A unique Mount Everest expedition is using the trek to the top to raise awareness about climate change – and clean up the world’s highest peak.
“Why do you want to climb Mt Everest?” asked a New York Times journalist of English mountaineer George Mallory in March 1923.
“Because it is there,” Mallory is famously said to have replied. The quote has been a source of inspiration and motivation to thrill seekers ever since.
However, modern-day mountain climbers also have other aims in mind when they seek to ascend the highest point on earth—Mt Everest, known as Sagarmatha by the Nepalese and as Chomolungma by the Tibetans.
For the Eco Everest expeditioners, the purpose of the climb, as well as achieving personal goals, is to raise awareness about climate change and to test new methods of climbing that are more environmentally sound.
As the popularity of mountain climbing has increased in recent decades since that first ascent up Everest, there has been a corresponding growth in tourism in the Himalayan region. While creating livelihoods for many local people, this growth also brings problems, not least of which is the enormous amount of waste generated by mountain climbers. The Eco Everest expeditions are working towards creating a more sustainable method of mountaineering that will address this issue.
Raising awareness about climate change
2012 marks the fifth successive year of Eco Everest expeditions, organized through Asian Trekking and led by Dawa Steven Sherpa, the Managing Director of the company.
“Eco Everest Expedition is a program organised in 2008 as a platform to attract maximum global attention,” he says on the company’s blog.
“The main objective of this expedition is to raise awareness about the impact of climate change and glacier melting in the mountain leading to high risk of GLOF affecting the lives of the local people.” [GLOF is an acronym for ‘glacial lake outburst floods’, which are highly destructive to both people and infrastructure and capable of causing extensive and widespread damage.]
“The expedition organised by Asian Trekking focuses on climbing in an eco-sensitive manner and field testing different eco-sensitive methods to be adopted while climbing in the Himalayas.
“We will once again be using our highly successful alternative energy solutions like the parabolic solar cookers and the SteriPENS for water purification.”
This year, as in previous years, the expedition members will bring down old rubbish from the mountain, as well as all of the garbage they generate on their trek. All human waste produced by the expedition team will also be brought down to base camp for disposal.
How is this achieved? One of last year’s expedition members reported the method via the blog:
Dawa Steven goes over the ground rules for the climb…“Right. Toilets,” he says. “At base camp we will have two barrels. One is for women… Please respect the toilets. Poo in the barrel, pee outside the barrel. Do not pee in the barrel. Our porters have to carry the barrels out…Our goal is to sponsor legislation to require compliance in the Sagarmatha National Park, but for now it is voluntary–except for our team. Carry your waste and garbage out.”
Since the first Eco Everest Expedition in 2008, over 13,500 kilograms of garbage and over 450 kilograms of human waste have been brought down from the mountain. The expeditions have also recovered five human bodies that were retrieved so they could be properly buried.
The Asian Trekking 2011 Autumn Expedition found extensive rubbish between Everest Base Camp, at 5350 metres elevation, and Camp 3, at 7500 metres. The recovery of this rubbish was possible because of the rapid melting of ice and glaciers on the mountains during the summer and autumn seasons. It was collected and stored for the 2012 Eco Expeditioners to bring down from the mountain.
A changing landscape
This rapid melting is just one of the consequences of climate change affecting mountain communities, who rely on subsistence farming. Earlier this year, Dawa Steven Sherpa commented on the changes he has witnessed in the landscape of the Himalayas over his own lifetime.
“The soil fertility has gone down, the rains arrive late and this is affecting the farmers.”
A further threat to the region arises from the impact of tourism on the UNESCO World Heritage site around Everest, which was once pristine and barely touched by humanity, but which now is under pressure by increasing visitor numbers as well as by the changing climate.
The concerns expressed by Dawa Steven Sherpa are backed up by research. In 2002, a team sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that the landscape around Everest had significantly changed since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first reached the summit of Mt Everest in 1953.
In 2010, a report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) assessed the threat facing the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region by the rapid formation of meltwater lakes. The authors concluded that “there is no doubt that the driving force is the current climate warming…The potential for acceleration of extensive downstream damage and loss of life is high.”
Eco Everest 2012
With these issues in mind, the 2012 Eco Everest Expedition commenced on 11 April with an expected duration of 58 days. The group includes climbers from the US, India, Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Canada and Georgia. There is also a team of 20 sherpas, led by Sirdar Naga Dorje, to support the 15 climbers.
They will be hoping to emulate the success of the 2011 Eco Everest team, which gained worldwide attention when they unfurled a banner on the summit of Mt Everest with the words “Stop Climate Change” writ large to reinforce the message that climate change is destroying the Himalayan environment and threatening the lives of people in the mountain communities.
This is a message with particular resonance for Apa Sherpa, the Deputy Leader of the 2012 expedition, who has reached the summit of Mt Everest a record-breaking 21 times. As he said earlier this year on the Asian Trekking blog:
“I have a message for my fellow Nepalis. My message is rooted in my own story. Climate Change destroyed most of my property back in the 1985 Dig Tsho Glacial Lake outburst. I succeeded climbing Mt Everest for the first time in 1990 and have since climbed it 21 times in 21 years. Tourism gave me my life back.”
As Mt Everest Day nears on 29 May, the 59th anniversary of the first successful ascent, attention will be on the Eco Everest team members who are following in the footsteps of Hillary and Norgay on the south side of the mountain.
During his lifetime, Sir Edmund Hillary became concerned about damage being done to the environment around Mt Everest. The Himalayan Trust he established, already well known for building schools and medical clinics, later expanded its focus to fund reforestation. One can’t help but think he would thoroughly approve of the Eco Everest Expeditions and their commitment to preserving the ecological integrity of the Himalayas, while drawing attention to the global cause of climate change.