Mount Everest is busier than ever. The tallest mountain on earth was once a place that no human dared — or was even capable of daring — to go. But mountaineering and the commercialization of climbing has everyone from Silicon Valley CEOs to schoolteachers climbing the iconic peak each year. But the more people on the mountain, the more of a human mark gets left on the mountain. Between oxygen tanks, gear, and food and water supplies, the waste and litter on Everest has become a problem. “One of the most common questions we get is, ‘Isn’t it just a trash heap up there?’ ” says photographer and mountaineer Cory Richards, who is also one of the faces behind the social media campaign #EverstNoFilter, along with big mountain athlete Adrian Ballinger. “So I think showing where it is a problem and talking about that and looking more and doing more… will add a lot to the conversation.”
And “doing more” is exactly what is happening on the mountain. This year’s annual nine-day trash cleanup began on May 6, and a record measure of waste has already been brought down off of Everest. A reported amount of more than four tons of trash was carried down by a team of 100 people on the Chinese side of the mountain. And this year, workers reached new heights for the cleanup — trekking up to 21,300 feet in elevation to bring down waste. The total area covered by this year’s team spanned between base camp at 17,000 feet and the Qianjin base camp at 21,300 feet.
The cleanup was conducted by the Chinese Mountaineering Association and the Sports Bureau of Tibet — but more often than not, individual teams are responsible for waste management, not the government. Climbers are required to bring down their own waste from the mountain with a “leave no trace” mentality, or must hire a Sherpa team to haul their trash. But until more stringent regulations can be policed, Everest will continue to see issues of waste and litter, and more frequent official cleanups may become necessary.
In hopes to find a more sustainable solution, the local government of the Tibet region is planning to set up stations to sort, recycle, and break down garbage, including cans, plastic bags, stove equipment, tents, oxygen tanks, and other mountain climbing paraphernalia, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Meanwhile on the Nepalese side of the mountain, expedition leaders and companies are sending trash bags with climbers up the mountain that can be secured to helicopters once they are filled and brought back to base camp for proper disposal.