Cleaning Up Mount Everest

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Namgyal Sherpa climbs to the summit of Mount Everest

Headed by Namgyal Sherpa, a team of 20 climbers embarked on a cleanup expedition to the "death zone" of Mount Everest. Photo: Everest Peace Project

For the majority of people out there, climbing the tallest mountain on Earth is a once-in-a-lifetime feat that only the most courageous and physically skilled individuals can undertake.

For others who have already scaled its treacherous slopes, Mount Everest poses a whole new problem: garbage waste.

Last month, in an unforgettable celebration of Earth Day, 20 Nepali climbers embarked on a mission to clean up Mount Everest and bring back an estimated 4,400 pounds of trash.

Left behind by six decades’ worth of climbers, the waste includes discarded oxygen tanks, camp tents and even eating utensils.

This trash has made it difficult for both experienced and new climbers to make it to the top of the mountain, as the garbage may cause accidents or prove burdensome to maneuver around.

While many cleanup efforts have been attempted in the past, this is the first time the mission will go beyond 25,246 feet into the “death zone.” The veteran crew is headed by Namgyal Sherpa, who will lead the mission aptly titled Extreme Everest Expedition 2010.

Lance Trumbull, the producer and director of “Everest: A Climb for Peace” and the executive director of The Everest Peace Project, touched base with Namgyal a couple of weeks ago when the climber was in the process of putting everything together in preparation for the task ahead.

The actual expedition began April 25, which according to Trumbull is a late starting date for Westerners but for Sherpas – indigenous Himalayan people famous around the world for their skill as mountaineers – is an appropriate starting date since they do not need the extra time to adapt to their environment.

Given the start date, Trumbull says it is likely Namgyal and the rest of his team are currently on the mountain and in the middle of setting up camp.

“Right now, the weather is tough on Everest and so people may not be able to get high on the mountain to clean – bring down garbage and dead bodies – or make a summit attempt for several days or even weeks,” he says. “Sometimes summits can occur early in the season – like now – or very late in the season, like late May and even into early June.”

Trumbull explains that the alleged waste problem on Mount Everest is twofold. At lower elevations, which means anywhere below 23,000 feet, the garbage is not really a major issue.

Everest can be scaled from both the south side of Nepal and the north side of Tibet, and both countries have instituted a garbage security deposit of at least $4,000. Climbers are thus discouraged from leaving their waste behind or making a mess since they will not get their money back.

Higher up the mountain, however, the garbage problem takes on a whole new identity. In the “death zone,” which is the portion of Mount Everest above 8,000 meters, or 26,000 feet, climbers are forced to go into survival mode.

“At this elevation, it becomes extremely difficult just to function, let alone worry about picking up after yourself at these extreme conditions,” Trumbull explains. “There are indeed dead bodies on the north side of the mountain that in the past people needed to navigate around, and on the south side there are also several bodies. And there are used oxygen bottles, destroyed tents and all sorts of miscellaneous debris between 26,000 feet and the summit at 29,028 feet.”

The mission, as heroic and courageous as it may appear on the surface, is not without its share of controversy.

“There have been many cleanup expeditions of Mount Everest over the years and honestly, I do not believe that all of them or even most of them are made up of pure environmentalists looking to make the world a better place. In my opinion, many of these cleanup expeditions are created by people who want to get a free or inexpensive way of climbing Everest by finding sponsors willing to pay for it or by climbing companies trying to get more clients under the guise of a ‘cleanup’ or ‘eco expedition,’” Trumbull says.

He notes, however, that there are a few exceptions, and that Namgyal’s mission is most definitely one of them.

According to Trumbull, Namgyal, who was the sirdar, or head Sherpa, on the director’s Everest Climb for Peace Expedition, “is a very good man and one hell of a strong climber.” Trumbull believes that Namgyal’s intentions, unlike past cleanup efforts, are based in something he truly believes in.

Despite Namgyal’s admirable track record, Trumbull says that there are several environmentally minded people who do not believe in the cleanup expeditions being attempted on Mount Everest. Because so much money is spent on these alleged cleanup missions, usually in the sum of hundreds of thousands of dollars, many people believe that this money would be better served going to another cause instead of to a mountain where a number of intrepid climbers die each year.

“Sherpas have an incredible, innate ability to climb at high elevations. They are professional athletes, and so for a group of Sherpas to get together to accomplish something in their field of expertise that they believe is meaningful and important, to clean up a mountain that their cultures see as holy and spiritual, I think makes a lot of sense professionally and karmically,” Trumbull says.

“I wish them the best of luck and care,” he adds. “What I like about Namgyal’s expedition is that it is created and run by Sherpas. There is no real Western influence and no alternative or PR corporate agenda.”

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