Each year, hundreds of adventurers crowd the slopes, hoping to make it to the summit of Mount Everest. Unfortunately, this popularity is causing ecological problems on the world’s highest peak, since not everything that goes up comes back down again.
Climbing season to ascend Mount Everest comes around each May when the weather window is favorable. Although this remote area should be a pristine wilderness, visitors leave reminders from the outside world that are threatening to overwhelm Mount Everest as a high-altitude garbage dump. The very conditions that make this mountain a bucket-list climbing challenge also make it an eco-challenge for tourism.
Trash in but Not Trash Out
For many years, only highly experienced climbers would consider heading to the peak, and only after major preparation; one in four would die on the mountain. Nowadays, trekking firms will take you there in relative safety for a fee. Each year has seen increasing numbers of clients heading to the top, bringing climbing gear, oxygen bottles, provisions and camping equipment. Harsh conditions mean harsh choices — survival or carry out your trash?
When every step in the low-oxygen atmosphere is an effort, waste removal is low priority; trash left on the mountain includes climbing gear, tents, packaging and human waste. There are no porta potties in the death zone. And neither is there decomposition. Conditions are too cold, too extreme for bugs and enzymes to break down waste materials. So, the trash, the feces and even the bodies stay there frozen in time.
Climber Clean Up
Last year, the Nepali government issued climbers with a refundable deposit alongside climbing permits that encouraged each person to bring back 8 kg of garbage from the mountain. In 2017, it is equipping climbing parties with giant canvas sacks to take with them. Holding more than 80 kg, the plan is to leave these at various points up the climbing route to accumulate trash. Once full, the helicopters that bring climbing ropes up to the slopes will return laden with trash. This climbing season also started well for trash removal, with Chinese teams removing more than four tons from the north side of Everest ahead of peak season.
However, these methods rely on willingness and ability. So far they’re unenforceable, and when safety is a concern, removing trash is the lowest priority.
Eco-Climbing to the Rescue
Some climbers deal with waste proactively, committing to eco-climbing. Asian Trekking, a firm that organizes annual trash removal expeditions on the mountain, minimizes waste by smart outfitting. By switching to solar power for cooking stoves, they reduce reliance on local firewood. Although studies have shown that deforestation and resulting soil erosion is not primarily from supporting climbers on Everest, they found that increasing tourist numbers put greater pressure on local forestry resources for building and fuel. In addition to mobile water filtration and trash bags, climbers keep it clean by carrying personal sanitation storage to carry human waste off the mountain.
Climate Change Reveals Urgency
There is urgency in cleaning up Mount Everest; climate change is affecting the world’s highest peaks, shrinking glaciers and reducing snow cover. As well as making climbing conditions more hazardous (the 2014 and 2015 avalanches are thought to be due to glacier and icefall instability), this exposes trash. Along with an opportunity for record-breaking high-altitude kayaking, the meltwater carries human pathogens from the vast amounts of human fecal waste into water systems below.
The Mount Everest Biogas Project (MEBP), however, is attempting to capitalize on all that by installing a local bioreactor. Normally, human fecal waste is carried away from base camp by Sherpas, using barrels to bring approximately 26,000 pounds of poo annually to the open pits at Gorak Shep. Here it sits, leaching into the local water system. MEBP engineers are proposing an ingenious system to digest the waste and create methane gas as fuel with fertilizer as a useful byproduct. Since the temperature hovers around freezing year round — not good for the digestive bacteria that the bioreactor relies on — the system will be warmed by a solar panel array.
As glaciers recede and snow cover diminishes, it uncovers more than trash.
Everest holds around 200 bodies, either visibly along the climbing routes as a stark reminder of the extreme conditions, or hidden in crevasses or inaccessible gullies. The dead do not decompose in the extreme cold and wind, but freeze into the landscape. Transporting a 75 kg cadaver at sea level may be easy, but above 8,000 meters in the death zone, rescuers must overcome low oxygen conditions while freeing what is now a 150 kg frozen block from the ice. Although some grieving families request repatriation, many acknowledge that climbers simply wish to remain on the mountain after death so teams remove them to less visible locations.
Despite proactivity, trash removal from the summit of Mount Everest will remain a hands-on venture until autonomous recovery vehicles are developed. It could, however, benefit from an eye in the sky. Although helicopter rotor blades cannot create lift at such extreme altitudes, unmanned aerial reconnaissance such as the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk is more than able to fly at that altitude. Equipped with multiple sensors, the Global Hawk has already taken part in post-disaster recovery missions. Capable of surveying debris, terrain and even bodies from high altitude, this sensor capability could prove valuable for directing human garbage removal efforts on the mountain.
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This article was originally published November 7, 2017.