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The Mountain Environment, A Year in Garbage

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

The Mountain Environment

The year in garbage

by Brent Bishop and Chris Naumann

Each year, climbers push the limit of what previously was thought possible in the mountains. Eight thousand-meter peaks, once considered the domain of only a handful of elite mountaineers, now are visited by scores of expeditions each season. This natural progression represents the core of climbing. As human limits evolve, however, and the popularity of climbing increases, the pressure that climbers place on the environment increases as well. Unfortunately, this leaves the environment hanging in a delicate balance. Visit any popular destination point around the world, be it a local crag or the Himalayas, and witness the negative impact that climbers have had. Trash, erosion, graffiti, and human waste all are telltale signs that climbers have not treaded lightly in their playground.

Historically, expeditions have judged their success by two criteria: whether members reach the summit and whether anyone was injured or killed in the process. Today, with a growing awareness of the environment’s importance to climbing, it is imperative that we add a third component to the equation of a successful climb. Climbers now must include the environmental impact of a team as part of their criteria. In this day and age, an expedition can hardly consider itself successful if it contributes to the degradation of an area. At the very least, “minimum impact” must be the goal of any team. Adopting such an environmental approach should not prove too difficult, as part of the challenge of climbing is grounded in problem-solving. As responsible climbers, we need to be the vanguards of all the outdoor users on the environmental front and generate solutions for the dilemmas we face. We don’t have to sacrifice our climbing goals to achieve this aim. Instead, concerted effort and awareness will make a significant, visible difference. The result will no doubt be impressive.

The Mountain Environment section in The American Alpine Journal is a result of this new orientation. Environmental issues should not be scattered throughout the pages of the journal, but consolidated and treated as a component with the same importance as expedition and climbing news. Mountain Environment will focus on the problems we face as climbers and, more importantly, the solutions we bring forth.

Mt. Everest

On Mount Everest, for the fourth consecutive year, progress was made to reclaim the “world’s highest junkyard.” Since its inception, a unique incentive-based program has resulted in the removal of 17,500 pounds of garbage from the base and flanks of Mount Everest. This “cash for trash” plan was instituted by the 1994 Sagarmatha Environmental Expedition (SEE ‘94). Many teams and individuals have contributed to the reclamation efforts on Everest thus far, including: the late Scott Fischer and Mountain Madness; the late Rob Hall and Adventure Consultants; Todd Burleson and Alpine Ascents International; Wally Berg, Brent Bishop and Nike-ACG.

The incentive program involves paying the Sherpa staff in addition to their salaries to collect and transport garbage to base camp. Base camp staff collect tin, plastics, glass and batteries from the mountain’s lower reaches, while the high-altitude Sherpas focus on Everest’s upper camps. Having carried loads up the mountain to stock the logistical pyramid of camps, Sherpas fill their then-empty packs with trash and discarded oxygen bottles for the return trip to base camp. The incentive rates for base camp trash are 100Rs (approximately US$2) for every ten kilos. The payment for an oxygen bottle, for example, carried from Camp IV at the South Col to base camp would be 250Rs to 450Rs (US$5 to US$9) depending on weight (the antiquated bottles from the 1960s and 1970s can weigh as much as 12 pounds, while the modem Poisk kevlar-wrapped bottles weigh less than five pounds).

The incentive program on Everest exemplifies expeditions that accomplish climbing objectives while contributing to the reclamation of a mountain’s environmental health.

SUCCESS, 1994-97

1994: 5,050 lbs

1995: 3,600

1996: 5,650

1997: 3,200

Total: 17,500 lbs

Mt. Vinson, Antarctica

Despite its remoteness, Mt. Vinson receives more climbing traffic each year. The pristine arctic environment is impacted by climbers quite easily and takes decades to recover because of the extreme cold and exceptionally arid conditions that dominate the continent. Increased traffic, coupled with an extremely fragile environment, would most certainly show the strains of human impact.

The environmental integrity of Mt. Vinson is not, however, currently threatened. This is in large part due to the efforts of Adventure Network International (ANI). ANI provides flight service to the Antarctic continent and Mt. Vinson, and staffs the base camp with a full time manager. Dave Hahn managed base camp for the winter 1997-98 season and was responsible for overseeing climbers on the mountain. A primary service provided by the base camp manager is to ensure that climbers have no lasting impact on the mountain. Teams on the mountain are required to haul all trash and fecal material back to base camp, where it is flown off the Antarctic continent for disposal. The consensus is that expeditions to Vinson are following these guidelines set forth by ANI, rather than adhering to the old practice of discarding trash and fecal material in crevasses.

The accepted environmental practice on Vinson illustrates that behavior can change with a little education and effort. Despite the extreme conditions that dominate the mountain, climbers now are removing all traces of their endeavors.

Orizaba, Ecuador

Although much work has been concentrated in Nepal, and particularly on Mount Everest, the other mountainous regions of the world are in need of environmental attention as well. Similar problems due to increasing adventure travel persist throughout the popular climbing areas of Mexico and South America.

Environmental Mountaineering International organized a ten-day expedition to Orizaba in March, 1997. The group included the three founders of EMI (Erik Mueller, Matthew Shupe, and Matthew Walker) and three other team members (Aaron Beitler, Matthew MacKinnon, and Matthew Novak). The expedition involved cleaning the main climbing routes and camps at 14,000 and 16,000 feet.

The area around Piedra Grande, Orizaba’s 14,000-foot base camp, was in dire need of attention. At base camp, on the route above and along the road below, the group collected about 300 pounds of trash in large durable bags. The garbage was transported down the mountain in conjunction with the Reyes family, which runs a climber’s support business out of the mountain village of Tlachichuca. Along with the cleaning, multi-lingual literature was posted at camp Piedra Grande and the Reyes’ hostel. The literature reminds people to stay mindful of their actions and their impact on the surrounding environment. This work on Orizaba was a significant improvement, but continued work is needed to maintain and further improve the mountain’s environment.

The Baltoro, Pakistan

At the center of the Karakoram, more than sixty peaks above 7000 meters form the apex of India, China and Pakistan. This 100-mile radius area contains the greatest consolidation of high peaks on the planet. The pinnacle of the Karakoram range is K2 (28,611'), the world’s second-highest mountain. For more than a century, the Baltoro has attracted explorers, mountaineers and, more recently, adventure trekkers. Since the opening of the Karakoram Highway, the influx of alpine enthusiasts has altered the socioeconomic and environmental stability of the entire region dramatically.

In 1993, Greg Mortenson traveled to the Karakoram on an expedition to climb K2. For Mortenson, the local Balti people proved more inspiring than the mountains. Mortenson returned the following year and built a school in the village of Korphe to combat the 5 percent literacy rate—the first of many projects he would coordinate in the upper reaches of the Karakoram.

To organize and complete his projects better, Mortenson founded the Central Asia Institute (CAI) in 1996, the mission statement of which reads: “supporting mountain villagers of the Central Asia region through locally initiated education projects, and promoting literacy, women’s vocational skills and increased awareness of public health and environmental issues.” In contrast to the hundreds of foreign organizations working in Nepal, Tibet and India, Mortenson’s CAI is the only foreign entity working in Baltistan on a full-time basis.

In 1997, Mortenson teamed up with Brent Bishop and Nike-ACG to begin working with the Baltis on a porter training program and several clean-up initiatives. The program emphasized issues related to working with trekkers and expeditions, general mountain travel, and environmental topics. Specific sessions included: reviewing government regulations pertaining to expeditions and their porters; conducting clinics in first aid, high-altitude sickness and crevasse rescue; and discussing sanitation, hygiene, water-supply issues and the handling of expedition garbage. Bishop and Mortenson stressed how all of this information could be assimilated in the local villages, and how it also would benefit entire communities in public health and resource management.

In addition to these training sessions, the Balti porters participated in the clean-up of several camp locations en route to K2 base camp. In all, the group collected more than 2,400 pounds of garbage, including 1,770 pounds of tin, 60 pounds of batteries and 660 pounds of paper and plastic.

This successful porter training program and clean-up was conducted in each of the major valleys around K2, including the Hushe, the Braldu, the Shegar and the Skardu valleys. A total of 251 porters attended the training seminars. As with all of their projects in Nepal and Pakistan, Mortenson and Bishop focused on incorporating the local people of the region. Noted Mortenson: “In the long run, it is their input and initiative that will be paramount to long-term conservation of this pristine region.”

The work of Mortenson and the CAI includes construction of five schools in remote villages and a high-altitude water transportation and filter model in Korphe, establishment of two women’s vocational training programs, and work with Everest summiter Geoff Tabin, M.D., to develop a comprehensive eye-care program for northern Pakistan. When asked about his motivation, Mortenson replied, “The Baltis inspire me. Despite the adversity in their daily, life their spirits soar. Working with them to help preserve their mountain home and centuries- old traditions is much more satisfying than standing on the summit of a Himalayan peak.”

In 1998, Bishop and Mortenson plan to train 500 porters in the training institute. CAI also is working in conjunction with the Environmental Mountaineering Network (EMN) to develop a porter training manual. The manual will outline and detail the curriculum of the porter training courses. It is being prepared in English and Urdu and, in consideration of a literacy rate in the area of less than 5 percent, for use by illiterate porters.

Island Peak, Nepal

In the fall of 1996, Frank Gibney led an Explorer’s Network (TEN) expedition to Island Peak in Nepal. This was the 18th TEN expedition to various mountainous regions throughout the world. TEN usually concentrates on various medical aspects of human physiology and high altitudes. The Island Peak trip had three main objectives: 1) Climb Island Peak; 2) conduct medical research on P.R.K. (cataract) surgery patients at altitude; and 3) undertake a clean-up project of Island Peak base camp and Lobuche.

The clean-up efforts were organized by Greg Glade in conjunction with EMN. The group collected more than 75 pounds of glass, tin and bumables. The garbage was transported down valley via yaks to the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) headquarters in Namche Bazar. In all, the clean-up project cost less than US$50. This effort exemplifies a small, motivated group conducting a successful clean-up project in conjunction with other objectives.

Huascaran, Peru

The Mountain Institute (TMI), headquartered in West Virginia, recently opened an office in Huaraz, focusing on natural-resource management, community-based conservation, eco-tourism planning and management in and around Huascaran National Park. A year ago, Bob McConnell met with TMI representative Miriam Torres, and volunteers Adam Kolff and Dr. Kees Kolff, to begin planning the collaborative effort to document a traverse of then Cordillera Blanca in Huascaran National Park, Peru, from Olleros to Chavin. McConnell, Ann Rockhold and Carlos Buhler were joined by an impressive group of participants including: the Technical Designer of Huascaran National Park; representatives of The Mountain Institute; an archaeologist from the National Institute of Culture; the Director of Tourism and Culture for the City of Huaraz; two councilmen from Olleros; and two photojournalists.

The group spent four days testing and filming minimum impact techniques discussed in Gentle Expeditions: A Guide to Ethical Mountain Adventure, recently published by the AAC. McConnell and Buhler presented a slide show the night before the group departed, combining McConnell’s experience with minimum-impact techniques in the Himalaya and Buhler’s extensive guiding experience in the Huascaran National Park area. The traverse coincided with the 14th Annual Celebration of Mountain Activities hosted by the Region of Chavin.

A “Traveler’s Code of Ethics,” developed by TMI in conjunction with and endorsed by many local and regional organizations, also was endorsed by the AAC Conservation Committee. The Code is an attempt to get people, be they tourists, guides, park or city officials, to think about how to minimize the adverse impact of tourism that has become so important to the economic development of this area.

Blessed with beautiful weather, good companionship, and the rugged beauty of the Cordillera Blanca, the trip was an outstanding success. Several hours of film footage, funded by a grant to TMI from the American Alpine Club, were taken during the expedition. This will be condensed into a half-hour documentary. The documentary might be made available to tour operators, guides, and cultural groups in the Huascaran area. Perhaps more importantly, it may be made available to the tour-bus operators who transport about 90 percent of the tourists who come to Huascaran National Park. Rockhold, McConnell, and Buhler were able to participate in this project, thanks to generous grants from the American Alpine Club, the Everest Environmental Project, and Cascade Designs.

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