Trashing Everest

Mount Everest is perhaps one of the most iconic sites in the world, with good reason. It’s a big and very impressive mountain, after all, and it’s occupied the minds of pretty much everyone who  has ever directly interacted with it. Mount Everest is the stuff and stock of legends, perhaps in part because humans in general tend to be awed by things which are very large, and Mount Everest is Very Large.

And one of the most interesting things about Everest is the way in which it is framed. Think back on pictures of Everest you’ve seen. What do you recall about most of them?

A photograph of Mount Everest, viewed from the distance so that other mountains can be seen for size comparison. A dusting of snow is sprinkled across the landscape and mist swirls around the mountain.

(Image by Flickr user thomaswanhoff.)

Pristine. Untouched. Inscrutable. Unconquerable. Most imagery of Everest isolates the mountain, making it look like it appears in a vacuum. No people, no human settlements. This is wild, untamed nature. That’s what fits with the Mount Everest mythos. While the world may be crowded with people, many of us like to imagine that there are places where there are no people, that there is still a wilderness somewhere, although usually that “wilderness” is something idealized which probably never really existed in any form at all.

Of course, lots of people live around and even on Everest. And a fair number of people climb the mountain, at least part of the way, every year. While Mount Everest was once reserved for foolhardy and very determined explorers, today almost anyone can make arrangements to climb the mountain, it seems like. Thanks to the facilitation of trekking organisations, people with very few mountaineering qualifications can usually climb Everest, with Sherpas to handle their luggage and deal with the details of the trip.

And what are those people leaving behind?

Garbage.

A lot of it. Over 10 tons of it. Including some pretty big items, like the remains of a crashed helicopter. That’s because trekking the garbage back down again would be quite expensive and labor-intensive, so it’s just left there. The garbage includes scads of oxygen bottles abandoned in place by climbers working their way up to the summit; most climbers use supplemental oxygen for the climb.

The garbage issue is being increasingly recognized and addressed, and some people are even taking steps to deal with it. The government is getting more aggressive, volunteer efforts are working on cleanups, and people are generally saying that perhaps having a bunch of garbage on Mount Everest is not a good idea, and that we should maybe do something about it.

This isn’t a pressing environmental issue in the way that some of the things I talk about are. Future generations will not be suffering, directly, beyond the sense of experiencing aesthetic distaste because it’s not really very enjoyable to look at a mountain which is covered in garbage. There are, in the grand scheme of things, way more important things to worry about.

Another view of Mount Everest, this time on a clear day. The mountain stands out starkly against the bright blue sky. Parks of the slope are covered in snow, and others show exposed black rock.

(Photo by Flickr user twiga269 ? FREE TIBET)

But, you know, Mount Everest is a pretty sweet mountain, all things considered. And there is something very sad about the fact that we feel this driving need to conquer it, that summiting is more important than anything else. It’s more important than human lives. It’s more important than not covering it in garbage. It’s more important than thinking about how future generations will feel when they see that our only response to something as epic as Mount Everest was to turn it into a tourist attraction/dump.

There’s been a lot of criticism in a lot of places about trekking and the treatment of Mount Everest, as well as the treatment of the native people who live around the mountain. Some of that criticism has even addressed the garbage issue and the attitudes behind the buildup of garbage on Mount Everest. Like a lot of criticism, it comes from many different perspectives, and some of those are rooted in pretty elitist attitudes (like the idea that the fact that the garbage is aesthetically offensive to climbers is more of a problem than trashing the natural environment and potentially hurting native communities). But it is good to see people start to talk about it, and to see the cleanup efforts briefly discussed above.

Wherever humans go, we seem to leave a trail of our junk behind us. It orbits around the Earth, it’s deep in the Antarctic ice, it litters the deepest areas of the ocean floor and the highest points on Earth. We are, for better or for worse, garbage generators, and with the improvement of technology, the amount of garbage we generate seems to grow. Things which were once unattainable are now within reach, and sometimes that involves making some garbage along the way.

The garbage is viewed as a fair exchange for turning the extraordinary into the mundane. But is it?

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