With a cloud-piercing 8,848m summit, Everest is seen as the ultimate mountaineering expedition for adventurous climbers around the world.
Reaching the top of the world’s highest mountain is a huge achievement—one that many have died attempting due to avalanches, crevice falls, hurricanes, frostbite, pneumonia or sheer exhaustion. When people do reach the summit, getting back down safely is understandably their number one priority.
This means a few bulky possessions inevitably end up getting left behind as climbers make their way back down Everest. Empty oxygen tanks, wind-battered tents and other useless items are left on the mountain. With around 800 people attempting to climb the mountain annually, the litter problem quickly builds up. Some now see Everest as the world’s tallest rubbish heap.
Luckily, environmentalists refuse to let humans ruin one of Earth’s most magnificent monuments. After hearing about the volume of rubbish left on the mountain in 1987, mountaineer Paul Deegan helped to arrange the world’s first large-scale clean-up of Everest.
‘In the late 1980s, the environmental movement as we know it today was not a mainstream topic of conversation so this idea was somewhat radical,’ admits Paul.
‘At the outset, we had no idea how many people would join the project. Fortunately, the media coverage we received when the expedition was announced brought in a great number of applicants, all of whom were willing to pay their own way to join the enterprise; 45 members of the public, most of whom hailed from Britain, signed up for the expedition. We were assisted by a terrific team of Nepalis, without whom we would not have reached Base Camp.’
Nothing could prepare the team for what they found upon arrival. ‘When we arrived at Base Camp in the autumn of 1988, we found all sorts of rubbish ranging from empty tins of caviar to used medical equipment,’ says Paul. ‘Nothing could be repurposed because anything of value or practical use had been taken away by enterprising Sherpas.’
‘There were no easy solutions regarding what to do with the rubbish. Should we remove it, burn it, compact it or simply use the crevasses in the Khumbu Glacier as giant slow motion crushing devices? In the end we employed various makeshift solutions, none of which would be acceptable by today’s environmental standards. Back then there were no answers, only ideas.’
Although Deegan freely admits that this first expedition was far from perfect, the biggest impact he has had is inspiring other people around the world to undertake similar clean-ups.
‘Since our clean-up there have been a variety of environmental initiatives in the Everest region, some of which have been proposed by foreigners, and others that have been started by the Nepalese people.’
‘Several of these projects have markedly improved the situation. For instance, tonnes of trash have been brought down from the higher camps on the mountain. And Nepalese organisations such as the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee have been doing great work for the past two decades. As a result, the trails to Everest are impressively clean, especially when you bear in mind the amount of foot traffic that the area receives.’
‘It’s an ongoing situation, of course, and there is no room for complacency. The Nepalese government is keen for more rubbish to be brought down from the upper ramparts of the mountain but once again you are faced with the secondary challenge of what to do with the trash once it arrives at Base Camp.’
Litter on Everest is evidently an issue that requires constant attention. However, with so many other challenges to be tackled in Nepal, environmental issues on the mountain aren’t always at the top of the country’s agenda. Tragic events like the 2015 earthquake in Nepal that killed over 8,000 people easily overshadow a pile of empty oxygen canisters rusting away out of sight.
To remind people of Everest’s ongoing litter problem, one creative American has undertaken a lifelong artistic project using the items left behind by mountaineers. Jeff Clapp’s Bells From Everest project involves turning empty oxygen cylinders into beautiful upcycled artefacts including bowls, bells and sculptures.
‘I learned at an early age to love the outdoors and respect the land,’ says Jeff. ‘You don’t litter, you close gates behind yourself and leave things as you find them or a little better. When I saw all the trash left on top of the world, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t understand how people could leave behind so much stuff.’
‘Days later I was telling everyone about my crazy idea to go to Nepal and recover trash from Mount Everest. I realised I really could make a difference and it would be a win-win for everyone.’
‘I would pay the Sherpa to pick up the oxygen cylinders. The mountain would be cleaner, the Sherpa could make a little extra money and I would have unique historic material for a new art project and a fantastic story to tell.’
Each bowl or bell crafted by Jeff is unique. ‘I try and leave as much of the original cylinder as possible, so people can still recognise where it came from but also see it has been transformed into something beautiful and intriguing. Each piece comes with documentation of where it came from and how it was created. It is really all about an interesting piece of art with an amazing story.’
Jeff believes that art has the potential to spread a universal message, allowing him to communicate his environmental message to a large number of people. ‘Art can reach everyone,’ he says. ‘It is easy to say in the press that there is a terrible mess and this needs to be done, but I saw a problem and came up with an inventive way to help solve it.’
Both Paul and Jeff recognise that the litter problems they’ve helped tackle aren’t exclusive to Everest—other mountains around the world face similar issues. However, by taking on the world’s largest mountain, they hope that others will be motivated to take a similar approach in other areas.
‘Tall mountains in every country experience the same problems to some extent,’ explains Jeff. ‘Tourists are not alway the best stewards of the environment, but they support local economies and are attracted to these locations.’
Paul believes that everyone has a responsibility to help. ‘Looking at the wider issue of people visiting mountain regions around the world, I feel that—at a minimum—we should leave the places we visit cleaner than when we arrive. I’m no angel in this regard. On one expedition I felt I had no choice but to leave some rubbish behind. I regret that decision to this day.’
‘Perhaps because of that poor decision, I have for many years made it part of my daily routine to pick up at least one piece of someone else’s rubbish, regardless of whether I am on a city sidewalk or a mountain trail. And I make sure the trash I collect goes all the way out with me to a place where I can be fairly confident that it will be disposed of correctly.’
‘Environmental standards in mountain regions are so much more advanced than they were three decades ago. When I look back on the 1988 Everest clean-up, I am proud of the idea, and glad that it was the start—rather than the end—of the conversation.’
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