“Alpinism is an art of survival,” wrote Marko Prezelj, of Slovenia. “When it comes down to the question of life and death, there are no more ethical barriers for most of us. ‘Leaving things’ on the mountain has a final limit in leaving your body there.”
Prezelj’s comments came in response to a query I sent to a number of American Alpine Journal contributors last winter. 1 wanted to know what leading climbers worldwide consider acceptable to leave behind on a mountain. At least in North America, the backpacking community long ago adopted “Leave No Trace” principles. Today you can hike for days on American and Canadian trails and never see a single scrap of garbage. This concept is not unique to North America. Harish Kapadia, the long-time Honorary Editor of the Himalayan Journal, responded, “All climbers should carry back what they have used on a climb or a mountain. This is a well established principle for many years now.”
So this is an accepted wilderness principle. But how often is it followed?
Kelly Cordes came home last summer from his first expedition to Pakistan shocked by what he witnessed. Cordes and Josh Wharton had carried their empty fuel canister for three dangerous days over the summit of Great Trango, only to find themselves picking up other people’s garbage on the descent and later on nearby Nameless Tower. There was garbage up and down the gully leading to Nameless, and garbage stuffed in cracks at belays. “It was infuriating,” Cordes wrote, “heaps of trash on the most beautiful rock tower in the world!”
Molly Loomis visited the remote Komorova Glacier in the Kokshaal-Too last summer, a place that only a handful of expeditions have visited, and she found piles of garbage, unburied toilet “pits” a meter from the stream, years-old food preserved in the cold stream, plastic and duct tape on the ground. Jon Otto, climbing in China last summer, says his team joked that “it was impossible to get lost since you just had to follow the line of garbage from base camp to camp one.”
Low-altitude garbage should not be an issue today. Yoshitomi Okura, the senior director of the Japanese Alpine Club, informed me that The Himalayan Trust of Japan published the guidelines “Take in-Take out” over a decade ago. Kin-ichi Yamamori, the president of the Himalayan Association of Japan, wrote that a climbing party “has to depart from the base camp after cleaning the site as they arrived at it. If there is time and energy, it would be advisable to clean the remainders of other parties in the vicinity.”
But my original query was not merely about base camps; I wanted to know if our supposed ethical principles apply to the climbing route itself. Is leaving a fixed rope somehow different than littering base camp because it’s more difficult to get down? Mostly I wanted to learn what people considered acceptable on new routes—AAJ territory.
Occasionally a climber admitted to appreciating old gear. When Dan Mazur climbed the West Ridge of K2 he found old ropes, a ladder, a tent: “It was almost as if we were shaking the hands of the great mountaineers who had laid them.” But that was truly old stuff, like Roman garbage becoming modern museum pieces. Kenton Cool, UK, didn’t feel that way on his 2003 climb of Annapurna III. He had traveled halfway around the world to climb a new route and found the experience “disappointing. The lower buttress was covered in old rope.… There was no attempt to cut it off the mountain. Why not??? No one had been hurt, and the weather was okay.” Grievous examples abound, even among our most influential climbers. On a recent well- publicized single-push climb on Denali, three noted American alpinists abandoned equipment they no longer needed upon reaching the upper Cassin Ridge. A few years earlier, two well-known Cascade climbers dumped their garbage, ropes, food, and fuel at the base of Cerro Torre’s west face after their ascent. Does climbing a technically difficult route somehow justify littering in a way that trashing base camp does not?
Perhaps it’s time to extend our debates about climbing style to something beyond the ascent. The condition of the mountain after we’re done with it reflects not just our style, but also our ethical foundation.
It seems that everyone agrees that taking down fixed gear is the right thing to do when it’s not dangerous. In the words of Sung-woo Kang, of Korea, “We should climb cleanly if we can, but when nature overwhelms us and leaves us no choice but to survive, we have no alternative but to leave gear behind.” Fair enough, but one of the basic principles of “Leave No Trace” is to be prepared. In the words of the Tyrol Declaration of 2002, Article 8—Style: “The quality of the experience and how we solve a problem is more important than whether we solve it. We strive to leave no trace.” The point being, if the climbers aren’t good enough to take their ropes down, should they be there in the first place? As Yamamori put it, “Tactics and practices for equipment recovery should be taken into consideration in the initial stage of expedition planning. Costs for the high altitude porters [if needed to recover gear] must be included in the budget.”
Perhaps the most publicly controversial climb of last year was the ascent of the north face of Jannu. The climb drew nearly universal admiration until it was learned that much of the equipment was left on the face. Then the talk started: “The Russians abandoned everything.” “Disgusting.”“This absolutely must be brought to the reader’s attention.”
But life on and off the wall is rarely simple. Though massive amounts of gear were abandoned, that doesn’t mean the climbers didn’t care. Nikolay Totmyanin wrote: “I went down last. We took down seven ropes above 7,400m, the portaledge of camp 7,400, two ropes above 7,000, the tent and equipment of camp 7,000, the portaledge of camp 6,700, some ropes between 5,600 and 7,000, and the tent and equipment of camp 5,600. There are a lot of old ropes and pitons from other expeditions up to 6,500, and the broken tent of an Uzbek expedition at 6,700. We have taken down the maximum possible at one time.” Still, on a face this large, even that effort did not come close to getting the job done. Alexander Ruchkin wrote, “To my regret, the majority of cords are left on the route. I think we left about 50 ropes on the most abrupt and dangerous sites. It is left because many members of the team were sick and [worn out] to the limit. Further cleaning of the route was not safe for the team.” And then he added, “The camp was left pure. I am for [leaving] valleys and mountains pure. And even routes, neither cords and hooks, nor iron cables and ladders, anything.”
It seems we all want the same things: a clean mountain to climb, the summit under our feet, and to get home alive. And we all believe that the mountain should be left as pure as possible for the climbers who follow us. The questions are whether a clean mountain for future climbers is more important than the summit for ourselves, and if we find it worth the effort or risk it takes to clean up our own messes. The ethical answer seems easy on paper. But being clean in the mountains takes real work. Increasingly, climbers are deciding it’s a necessity. As Urs Odermatt of Switzerland put it, “For me it’s out of the question to leave any garbage behind. If somebody does, he’s not a real alpinist. I have no respect, even if his ‘new route’ is something very hard.”
Dave Morris, from Scotland and the president of the UIAA Mountain Protection Commission, put it even more succinctly, “No storm, no epic, no excuse.”
The full text of letters from my correspondents will be placed at www.American AlpineClub.org/knowledge/aaj.asp.
John Harlin III