Over three decades ago the noted British climber, Chris Bonnington, had lamented the waning of some of the challenge of climbing Mount Everest ~ identifying a route, opening it etc. “Now you can sniff your way up there, just follow the garbage trail.” Some alarm bills did ring, but not loud enough to avert that celebrated mountain (8,848 metres, 29,020 feet) from recently being condemned as the world’s highest rubbish heap. The greatest of all predators ~ man ~ has had a field day and the mountainside is now scarred with tons of litter ~ human waste, discarded gear etc that takes much too long to “degrade”.
Climate change is also taking a toll, melting snows reveal what was junked many years ago ~ including the bodies of climbers who were lost long back but could not be recovered by their mates. Leading contemporary mountaineers, among them the celebrated Pemba Dorjee, have bemoaned the sustained assault on the environment, but appear helpless to counter the money-spinning “Everest industry” that has seen 600 summiteers this season, and of course their allied support squads. Though on paper fairly stringent regulations exist, they are little followed and corrupt officials seldom enforce the rules. The situation is fast deteriorating into one of near disaster. A rescue act has to be performed soon if the world’s tallest mountain is to retain what remains of its allure.
Ideally the mountain should be closed for about a decade ~ only clean-up expeditions permitted. Alas, the fragile economy of the region would be drastically affected, and such extreme action is hardly likely to be taken. A possible way out would be for leading international climbers to club themselves and promote a self-regulation mission. Encouraging climbers to opt for other challenging Himalayan peaks would spread the economic spin-off, perhaps more sherpas and porters could move to those areas. The Everest complex could be reserved for only experienced climbers, capable of undertaking alpine style essays, the climber carrying most off his own gear. Inexperienced climbers engage a large number of porters, and they are often too exhausted to bring back ropes, oxygen cylinders etc.
The Indian Mountaineering Foundation could take a lead by drastically regulating the expeditions it sponsors, and the armed services/paramilitary must be drilled into making their mountaineering missions more eco-friendly. A skewed sense of competition and pride has made some “defence” expeditions resemble set-piece military assaults on the mountains. The training institutes at Darjeeling, Manali and Uttarkashi (and elsewhere) must reorient their progammes towards green climbing. True that the ultimate responsibility is Nepal’s, but since the mountain range makes a mockery of political boundaries India must not fight shy of setting a good example. Maybe even involve Pakistan and China in a multilateral endeavour at Himalayan conservation. It is more than a matter of Everest alone.