Mount Everest Environmental and Spiritual Clean Up

Sherpa Cleaning Mount Everest
Mount Everest: A Sherpa cleans up garbage in a 2008 effort to deal with the garbage. NBC – Getty Images.

Mount Everest’s environment is literally trashed.

Its pathways to the peak are strewn with oxygen canisters, tents, personal items, food containers, and the bodies of the dead. In an effort to address the problem, Nepal’s tourism authority announced in March 2014 that each climber must bring back 18 pounds of garbage. This is the first time the government has placed such an order, but it has to happen. It’s estimated that 50 tons of trash has been left on Mount Everest over the last 80 years.

Since the first British Expedition to Mount Everest in 1922, there has been garbage. In his book Into the Silence, Wade Davis details the first attempts to climb Everest, but inadvertently describes the debris left by these first climbers. Oxygen canisters abandoned, tents and gear lost, and tins not ‘packed out’ by Mallory and his team.

After all these years of debris, the environmental damage has been great. One study published in Soil Survey Horizons revealed that the snow on the mountain had high levels of arsenic and cadmium, and all the soil samples had high levels of arsenic. Another report states that the water in the region is polluted by “. . . solid waste generation from high tourism flow, open defecation, chemical fertilizers and construction of garbage pits close to water courses.”

With all of this environmental damage, there’s a spiritual cost to the Sherpa people. The area around Mount Everest (Jomolangma)  along the border between Nepal and Tibet is called Khumbu. According to Sherpa Buddhist clerics, there are many hidden valleys in the Himalaya, called beyül, that are set aside for the followers of Guru Rinpoche, also known as the Second Buddha, as places of refuge. Khumbu is one such beyül.

They also believe that Mount Everest is a mountain protector, called a yül lha. There are taboos related to the hunting and killing of living things, including humans, animals, and plants — basic Buddhist principles towards nature. The waste on Everest is a direct violation of these beliefs. It affects all living things in the area and the Sherpa people believe that by dishonoring the mountain, bad things will befall the local people.

How is this sacred mountain being ‘cleaned up’? One effort is preservation. The Khumbu area is now part of a national park. Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone (SNPBZ), was created in 1976 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

However, not much clean up was done until the Sherpa people took matters into their own hands. The first Sherpa-led clean up was in 1995, and in 2000, Apa Sherpa raised money to take 7,055 lbs of garbage down from the mountain. In 2008, his team carried 30,800 lbs garbage down the mountain. A government and UNESCO funded effort in 2011, called Saving Mount Everest,  got the local people and international climbers to bring down eight tons of garbage.

Another effort relies on the power of art. Beginning in 2012 , a group of Nepali artists began the Mount Everest 8848 Art Project, which uses trash collected from climbers to create amazing pieces of art. They donate some of the profits from their art sales to the Everest Summiteers Association, which helps clean up the mountain.

Everest, Garbage Art
Visitors look at art made by Nepali Artist from Mount Everest garbage. PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

What will the future hold? Continued awareness will lead to more clean up crews and more of the garbage being carried down. Many have called for limited tourism as an answer, but limiting access or having fewer climbers will not be popular. Ironically, it’s due to the Sherpas beliefs. The goddess Jomo Moyo Lang Sangma resides on Everest, and she gives wealth including the tourism and mountaineering dollars. She is very welcomed.

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About the Author

Tereasa Maillie is a writer and researcher. She also has a very un-secret life as a producer and playwright. Her work has appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Her previous work includes the history of oil and gas in Alberta, Chinese medicine, First Nations and Métis history. You can find her on Twitter+, Google +, and her blog HistoryMinion.