Current affairs

In May this year, images of over 300 climbers queueing precariously along a ridge as they waited to ascend Everest attracted global interest. Due to increasingly affordable expedition costs, a growing number of annual climbers have left their mark on the world’s highest peak, with one cleaning operation clearing eleven tons of rubbish from its various camps and routes earlier this year. Factor in the effects of climate change, rapidly receding glaciers that release previously entombed rubbish as they melt, and the need for action is urgent.

Having run his own clean-up operation for over a decade, this spring, leader of Eco Everest Expeditions – Dawa Steven Sherpa – teamed up with Swiss brand Bally on Peak Outlook, a sponsored cleaning program that extends to the mountain’s perilous death zone, above 8000m. Thanks to a team of native Sherpas working with Dawa and Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of the legendary Tenzing Norgay who accompanied Sir Edmund Hilary on the first successful Everest ascent in 1953) the journey toward restoring Everest’s pristine peaks has taken a major step forward.

Finn Blythe: How did Peak Outlook begin and why?
Dawa Steven Sherpa: For a number of years I’d been involved in cleaning and conservation work in Nepal as a travelling guide. Earlier in the year Bally reached out to work on the mountain because they wanted to reconnect with their mountain heritage, especially considering Jamling’s father was one of the first people to reach the summit of Everest wearing Bally boots. The conversation escalated into the brand wanting to give back to Mount Everest and we ended up organising a really successful clean-up campaign.

FB: So there was already a clean-up programme but Bally’s involvement just stepped it up?
DSS: I had been doing this clean-up for about thirteen years but it was really quite small and privately funded by myself. I could manage to clean the lower parts because it’s less technical and you don’t need specialised equipment like oxygen. That’s when Bally came in and said, “How can we work together so you can do the job better?” And I said, “I’ve never been able to clean in the death zone because of the sheer cost involved.” So they said, “Let’s work together,” and that’s how it changed this year.

FB: What sort of things are being left behind?
DSS: The type of thing we generally see are damaged tents and what’s been left inside. So a lot of kitchen waste, plastic wrappers, empty fuel canisters, which we see a lot of, and then random things like books or maps.

FB: Are there other initiatives to prevent this build-up of waste?
DSS: One of the schemes we also employ with Peak Outlook is a ‘cash for trash’ scheme that basically invites any mountaineer to bring garbage back to Base Camp. Every day at 4pm we have what we call the weigh and pay, so for each kilo of garbage, depending on whether it came from Camp II, from Base Camp or higher up, we pay a set rate.

“I told my father I wanted to climb Everest when I was eighteen and he said that he climbed so that we wouldn’t have to.”

FB: Tell me a bit about your backgrounds and the communities you’re from.
Jamling Tenzing Noragay: Well as you know I’m from a climbing community, my father being Tenzing Norgay. I was born and raised in Darjeeling which is another hill station in India that borders Nepal. We grew up a normal life, my parents wanted to give us the best education. I told my father I wanted to climb Everest when I was eighteen and he said that he climbed so that we wouldn’t have to. But somehow when I was a young boy I followed my father on one of his many journeys into the Himalayas and I fell in love with the environment, the outdoors and ultimately, with climbing. I aspired to climb Everest and follow in his footsteps and learn to be the person that he was.

FB: And Dawa, what can you tell me about your upbringing and relationship with the Himalayas?
DSS: In many ways my upbringing was similar to that of Jamling. I was born and raised in Kathmandu and we would go up to Everest, at least when we were younger, once a year, and later on when I got more involved in mountaineering and trekking, a couple of times a year. The thing that Jamling touched on there, how his father said I climbed so you don’t have to, that remains among a lot of the older climbers. Many of the Sherpas have moved down to Kathmandu or further afield, there’s a big Sherpa community in New York, even as far as Colorado. That’s so their children can have a better life. But what we’re now seeing is the children of these Sherpas wanting to come back and reconnect.

FB: How would you characterise the relationship between Sherpas and the mountains?
JTN: Mountains are sacred places where the gods live, we’ve always prayed to the mountains. Everest is known to Sherpas as Chomolungma, meaning Mother of the World. In Khumbu, just above Namche and Khumjung, there’s a mountain known as Khumbila, which is the goddess of Khumbu and protector of the Sherpas. We worship at the mountain every year and at Everest and a lot of other different mountains. We also believe a lot of deities reside within some of the rocks. So we have inscriptions and prayers written on them, paintings and carvings of gods and goddesses. Sherpas have never actually been climbers before the 19th century. Until the early 1900s when the British came over and wanted people to climb and support them carrying supplies, Sherpas always thought, why are these white people coming here and climbing these mountains? They must be crazy. But it was a job and an opportunity to earn extra money and besides, they were good at it.

FB: How are changes in climate and increased footfall impacting the Himalayas?
JTN: Climate change is affecting everywhere but we can see it very clearly in the Himalayas. The Base Camp of Mount Everest is 50ft lower than when my father and Hilary were with the Swiss expedition in 1952 because the glacier has melted and dropped down. Today the glacier is receding more and more. What happens then is glacial lakes overflow and ultimately burst. The moment that happens, water will flow down to the rivers and wipe out a lot of villages and lives, so all these environmental changes have a chain reaction for people that live all the way down at sea level.

FB: And what about the impact of the rising number of people seeking an adventure to the Himalayas?
DSS: We’re actually quite lucky because by-and-large most people that come to the Everest region are hikers or climbers, meaning they already have some sense of being environmentally conscious. Last year we had the largest number of visitors ever to the region which was 47,000 people, so it’s still a manageable number. Compare that to Chamonix or Yosemite, which see people in the hundreds of thousands if not millions, we are still relatively safe.

Having said that, there’s a road being built not far from the airport that all the climbers fly to. Once that road connects with the airport we can expect twelve months of tourism and people driving in on the cheap. Currently there’s a certain economic filter which is a $368 flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. It’s a 25-minute flight, but it costs more than flying from Kathmandu to Bangkok or Singapore. Once the road is finished people can just buy an $8 bus ticket to the Everest region. That will bring in hundreds of thousands and the community is aware of this potential catastrophe which is just over the horizon. Already there are plans being made and discussions on how we mitigate the problems.

“Back in 1972, an Australian climber with Sir Chris Bonington’s expedition disappeared in the Khumbu Icefall, somewhere near Camp I. He wasn’t seen or heard from for 40 years until one year when we were cleaning, we found human remains.”

FB: Earlier this year, images circulated of these unbelievable queues on Everest with people waiting days to make a pass that only allowed one person at a time. Were those scenes a surprise to either of you?
JTN: They weren’t because we already knew the amount of people getting a permit issued by the government this year. We had similar problems twenty years ago when I was on Everest in 1996, but that time we had about 60, 70 people on one line which we thought was long, today it’s almost 300 people. You will never find me on a mountain with 300 people on the same line, because it’s totally unsafe. But when the government issues so many permits, this is bound to happen.

Nowadays there’s so much undercutting taking place among expedition companies in Nepal, it’s getting cheaper and cheaper and people are shopping like they’re at the fish market. When you pay less, you will not get proper guides, proper equipment or proper food. So when you start the climb and you’ve cut back on expenses you’re going to get in trouble.

FB: When you’re dealing with an area the size of Everest how do you select an area to clean and how do you approach the climb differently to a normal ascent?
DSS: Thankfully people more or less use the same climbing route that was identified back in 1953, so we know ten metres either side of the route is where most of the garbage is. In most cases it’s not on the route itself but at the camps, which are normally located at the same spots, so that makes my life easier. Over seven decades of mountaineering there are, of course, anomalies.

Sometimes teams set up camp in a different location and every once in a while, especially when it’s hot and the glacier melts, the garbage comes out in a different place because the glacier is constantly moving. Back in 1972, an Australian climber with Sir Chris Bonington’s expedition disappeared in the Khumbu Icefall, somewhere near Camp I. He wasn’t seen or heard from for 40 years until one year when we were cleaning, we found human remains.

Thankfully the Base Camp manager on the expedition was my uncle, Pertemba Sherpa, who was the main Sherpa on that 1972 expedition. By looking at the gear and harness the gentleman was wearing, he said, “That’s Tony.” Tony [Tighe] had moved about a kilometer from where he was originally believed to have disappeared and was found very close to Base Camp. Similarly, in the 70s an Italian army helicopter crashed carrying oxygen to Camp II, no fatalities thankfully, but it was swallowed up by the glacier and disappeared. Today, parts of that helicopter are still coming out at Base Camp.
JTN: That’s the same helicopter I saw just below Camp I, it was sandwiched in- between the ice twenty years ago and now it’s reached Base Camp.

FB: So when you’re above 8000m, what’s the difference in terms of your kit and approach?
DSS: When we’re up around 8000m the primary concern is the safety of the climbers. So first of all make sure everyone is wearing the right gear, from down suits to mittens. The most important equipment of course is the oxygen – and we need a hell of a lot of oxygen. Normally, if you’re at Camp IV, you use one litre of oxygen per minute when sleeping. When we’re at Camp IV cleaning – and cleaning doesn’t just mean picking up litter – we’re literally using ice axes to break the ice so we can prise the garbage out of the mountain, we’re using at least two to three litres a minute.

FB: What are the biggest dangers when you’re on the mountain?
DSS: The biggest fear I have is one of my Sherpas falling through a crevasse. As they go off the trail, even say five metres away from the rope, they’re going to have to clip out and sometimes if you have fresh snow you have no idea where crevasses are. Some of the most famous climbers, the strongest Sherpas, have just by a small error fallen into a crevasse and lost their lives.

“This year I nearly had frostbite on my left index finger because I was getting goggles from my rucksack but didn’t realise the water had leaked onto the cover of the goggles, so when I grabbed it with my fleece glove, the water seeped into the fleece and instantly froze. I was in agonising pain for about fifteen minutes.”

The second thing is the altitude, when we run out of oxygen we have to send one guy down. The third thing is the weather. If the weather turns and we get a storm, we get out of there as quickly as possible. A lot of the waste we clear is metallic: gas canisters, tent poles and so these are very dangerous if you touch them without well-insulated gloves. Bare-handed, they will stick to your hand and you’ll get frostbite immediately, so you never take your gloves off.

This year I nearly had frostbite on my left index finger because I was getting goggles from my rucksack but didn’t realise the water had leaked onto the cover of the goggles, so when I grabbed it with my fleece glove, the water seeped into the fleece and instantly froze. I was in agonising pain for about fifteen minutes.

FB: What’s the first thing you do when that happens?
DSS: You pull the wet glove off, stick your hand immediately into a mitten, put it under your armpit and make sure it’s nice and dry. When the initial pain has gone, a throbbing pain will start which is when you swing your arms really violently to force the blood into the tissue and into the fingertips.

FB: What are your ambitions for the programme?
DSS: In terms of regulation and education, our clean-up efforts have really promoted awareness, especially when we do the cash for trash. Although we are paying climbers to clean up the mountain, I’ve literally seen people scold other climbers for dropping a wrapper on the mountain. That for me is the most encouraging sign.

This interview was originally published in The 2019 HERO Winter Annual.