Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt. Everest

2013•07•15 Pablo Figueroa Waseda University

The 60th anniversary of the first recorded climb to the top of Mt. Everest on 25 May 1953, and Yuichiro Miura’s recent success in summiting the world’s highest peak have once again brought mountain climbing into the public eye. In his third Everest expedition, Miura reached the top again at the age of 80, thus becoming the oldest person ever to reach this peak (although some dispute the validity of Miura’s record because, due to exhaustion, he did not descend the mountain but rather was retrieved by helicopter at 6,500 meters).

Miura’s helicopter ride is emblematic of how the popularity of this once rare adventure has perhaps changed the nature of what used to be an entirely physical feat. Indeed, there are a growing number of issues at the top of the world. This ecological wonder has become strewn with garbage and peppered with corpses. Despite the well-known dangers of the thin air and the costs associated with climbing Everest (usually $35,000 to $120,000, but in the case of Miura’s 2013 expedition, $1.5 million), 500 people made it to the top in the spring of 2012 and there have been over 600 summits this year.

In an article published this past June on National Geographic (“Maxed out on Everest. How to fix the mess at the top of the world”), writer Mark Jenkins describes how he had to step around the dead bodies of four climbers on his way up and down from the top of the world. All told, 10 people died on its slopes during the 2012 season, the third deadliest on record, and nine have lost their lives this year. This death pattern is not unusual for Everest and, although mortality rates have not gone up over the years, they have not decreased either.

While waiting for their turn to move up the fixed lines, climbers waste precious time and oxygen.

One cannot help but wonder how this is possible. If people can hire experienced guides, use sophisticated gear and technology, and access fairly accurate weather forecasts, why do they keep dying on the world’s most famous mountaineering route?

With ever-increasing numbers of paying clients who want a shot at Everest, the bottlenecks up the mountain are inevitable.

On a summit day (a day when weather conditions permit reaching the top of Everest) hundreds of climbers line up for over two hours to access the fixed ropes used to negotiate a section of the climb known as the Hillary Step, a 12-metre (39-foot) wall of rock and ice just below the top, at 8,763 metres (28,750 feet) — the last obstacle before reaching the summit. The Step is at an angle of 45 to 60 degrees, which for most climbers, “is a simple obstacle easily climbed using the ropes installed”.

However, while waiting for their turn to move up the fixed lines, climbers waste precious time and oxygen. Their body temperature drops along with their physical strength, and they become more vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia.

Everest Didrik Johnck CC

“Warming up at 28,000 feet”. Photo by Didrik Johnck.

A person’s mental judgment may be severely impaired as a consequence of acute mountain sickness. Making sensible life and death decisions, such as whether or not to abort the climb and turn around to descend safely into lower camps, may become difficult or impossible.

Individuals are driven by the ambition of success; economic profits and publicity put pressure on guides to place customers on the summit, as they were paid to do. In the death zone, however, bad choices are often paid for with human lives.

Ed Viesturs, one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers, recently wrote, “It’s the traffic jam that causes all the trouble. Climbers run out of bottled oxygen and collapse, or they push upward long after a sensible turnaround deadline and end up descending in the dark.”

To tackle this matter, a Nepali organization that regulates teams that climb Everest came up with the idea of installing a permanent ladder on the Hillary Step. According to the organization, this would help alleviate the traffic and speed up the summit push. But for Viesturs, a ladder bolted on the rock won’t solve the problem because given the narrowness of the passage it will still take two or three hours to ascend.

Deteriorating Ecological Environment

Traffic jams are not the only issue on the world’s most coveted mountain. The climb up Sagarmatha (as it is known in Nepali) is far from being an environmentally-friendly endeavour. Despite several clean-up efforts retrieving tons of garbage from the mountain, and forcing expeditions to take back their trash, empty oxygen bottles and other lost or abandoned gear remain scattered on the peak. Moreover, given the lack of an efficient solid waste management system, for decades expedition members emptied their bowels wherever they could when they had the urge. As a result, human feces have accumulated in the snow, and streams of excrement are periodically regurgitated by the glaciers up in the mountain.

Perhaps most disturbing is the view of corpses that could not be safely removed, a silent reminder of the perils involved in attempting to reach such extreme heights. Some of the bodies have been lying in the same spot for decades, becoming part of the route’s landscape.

In addition to the above-mentioned issues, mountain tourism also adds strain to Everest’s deteriorating ecological environment. Although in 1976 the Government of Nepal created Sagarmatha National Park to preserve the fauna, flora and culture of what was once a pristine area, the number of visitors has not stopped soaring. Besides mountain climbing expeditions, throngs of trekkers flock to the Himalayas every year. In 2010 alone, over 100,000 people walked in the Everest region including tourists, guides, and porters. The Everest Base Camp (EBC) hike has become a world-class trekking route: today’s busy tourists demand faster, more comfortable services from the mountain lodges.

Catering to the needs of the crowds translates into an increase in rubbish, further deforestation due to lodges’ construction and heating, and erosion of mountain paths.


Photo by Pablo Figueroa.

Water scarcity, the result of receding glaciers due to global warming, as well as water pollution induced by contamination of freshwater with human and animal waste, have led many environmentalists to raise the alarm.

An example is “Saving Mount Everest 2011–2012”, a project aimed at “restoring dignity to the mountain”. The lack of waste management and recycling facilities along with rapid changes in social structure (e.g., the transition from a local economy to a services-oriented economy) threatens the sustainability of the region. If not dealt with, these issues may inflict irreversible damage to one of the world’s most unique ecosystems.

Fortunately, there seems to be a growing awareness, but the implementation of coordinated, long-term sustainability policies may collide with the private interests of expeditions, tour operators, and individual trekkers.

Can this market-driven, ecologically unsustainable situation at Everest be repaired? Some have suggested that fewer permits, smaller teams, certified outfitters and leaving no trace would improve the conditions at Everest.

Even if proper conservation frameworks are put in place, enforcing mountain tourism regulations could be difficult given the current political circumstances.

But these ideas might be difficult to implement. For one thing, although the Nepal government’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation has recently given support to projects dealing with the conservation of the Himalayan environment, the central government may not be willing to implement a too-tight regulation of the number of groups ascending the higher peaks. Government officials think this would imply a reduction in the flow of cash pouring into the tourism sector, and Nepal is highly dependent on this income. A sharp decrease in the number of visitors trekking the Everest region would strike a huge blow to the local economies.

What is more, is that the troubled Nepali government is characterized by corruption, inefficiency and has a history of Maoist violence that continues to this day. Even if proper conservation frameworks are put in place, enforcing mountain tourism regulations could be difficult given the current political circumstances.

What Value Has Shallow Victory?

In essence, the mess at the top of the world is socially caused, and it has to do with the naturalization, promotion and exaltation of a culture of ambition and self-glory. Ninety percent of contemporary Everest climbers are clients who want to “bag” the top of Everest for selfish purposes. Rather than a noble pursuit, Everest is thought of as something that needs to be done at all costs, another item to check off in a long list of egotistic accomplishments. And the high-altitude guiding business capitalizes on such dreams of “triumph” among a relatively inexperienced but wealthy clientele.

The true value of such “victories”, however, is debatable. Despite the blanket of heroism the summiters wrap themselves with, the reality of a guided climb is that porters and guides do most of the heavy and specialized work such as fixing ropes and ladders, setting up routes, melting snow, preparing food, and making all critical decisions such as when to push on and when to retreat.

Not to mention the fact that these client climbers breathe bottled oxygen for most of the climb. Experts point out that, without artificial means, many Everesters would not stand a chance of making it to the summit. Using bottled oxygen, purists affirm, equals to lowering the height of the mountain.


Photo by Pablo Figueroa.

Of course, that is not to say that climbers and guides are malicious individuals. And they are not the only ones responsible for inflating the significance of getting to the top of Everest. Families, friends, and society at large contribute to the vanity through a fixation on results instead of process. When I visited Everest Base Camp in 2008, an English client attempting Everest for the second time told me, “When I went back to my country after my first failed Everest expedition, the only thing people wanted to know was if I had made it to the top. That’s all they cared about — the summit.”

To help prevent further deaths and slow down the environmental degradation of mountain ecosystems, clients, operators, the climbing community and society at large should rethink and reframe what a guided climb really means. Regarding the top of Everest as one of the most amazing human accomplishments reveals the shallowness of our contemporary culture.

In the article mentioned above, Viesturs points out that, “In recent years, Everest has been degraded by its sheer popularity. Let’s not degrade it further.”

Perhaps the best way to help protect Everest would be to stop overstating the importance of its summit and the alleged glory that comes out of this enterprise. Instead we have something to learn from the native Himalayan populations who respectfully regarded Sagarmatha as “Goddess Mother of the Universe”.

Creative Commons License
Vanity, pollution and death on Mt. Everest by Pablo Figueroa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Pablo Figueroa

Waseda University

Pablo Figueroa is an Assistant Professor at the Center for International Education at Waseda University, in Tokyo, Japan. He is interested in contemporary issues of Japanese society and culture, including governance, natural and man-made disasters, and risk. Pablo’s research currently focuses on risk communication and health governance of the Fukushima nuclear accident.