Trash and #1 and #2 on Everest South Side

I bailed on walking to Gorak Shep for a second day in a row. All for the
better though as it has mostly sleeted and hailed all day. Below is
something I wrote a week or so ago, it never posted because the attached
image of a toilet tent was highly disliked by my satelite phone. I’m
giving it another try, downgrading the image to black and white and
throwing out some other pixels. Not sure if it is of interest to
anyone…but what the hell.

A subject that comes up about Everest a lot is trash. I don’t pretend to
know the whole history, or be an expert on current conditions/trends but
my sense is that Everest is a lot cleaner than it has been since
commercial climbing started. But there is still lots of room for
improvement, even with my team. Reading the book ‘High Crimes’ (sorry,
can’t look up the author) casts a pretty cynical look at
‘eco-expeditions’, some of which have used the environmental platform to
fund-raise for their climbs – yet have often left more garbage in their
wake. But, overall, it strikes me that there has probably been a
net-benefit and there are currently several teams here offering
‘trash-for-cash’ programs that encourage Sherpas to bring down trash and
then reimburse them by the kilo (roughly $2 USD per kilo). Kami, Damai,
and Pasang on my team tell me that some major efforts since 2007 have
really benefited the mountain. They also said that climbing Sherpas
rarely participate in the trash-for-cash programs because they are on
tighter time lines and have clients to take care of…if anyone
participates – it’s the load carrying Sherpas, but I don’t know what
percentage actually do.

The trails to base camp are similar to trails in much of the States. You
see the occasional candy wrapper and if you round a large rock, just off
the trail, you might find some TP and an unpleasant surprise. For the
most part though, the lodges along the way have in/out houses and are
fine with anyone using them. And there are occasional trash
barrels/baskets placed along the trail by the park service. It’s hard to
say weather the trash along the trails (again, there is not that much)
is coming from trekkers or porters/locals. In the Annapurna region – the
majority of trail litter seems to be gold covered chewing tobacco
wrappers. That said, behind the lodges are often huge piles of beer
bottles and empty plastic water bottles generated by trekkers. Not only
are these carried in on someone’s back…but the empties are simply left
as part of a growing pile of trash.

Like every other team, we also have a toilet tent. They dot the whole
base camp. These are usually placed on top of a three-sided rock
foundation that is recessed into the hillside. Inside this three sided
hole they have a 60 liter, blue plastic barrel. These same barrels often
used by porters to haul up other supplies. Well, hopefully not the same.
The open side in the foundation allows the barrel to be swapped out once
it becomes full. People are encouraged not to pee in the barrels as it
adds to the weight, but instead into the gaps between the barrel and the
rock or simply outside. The opposite side of the tent has a single long
zipper. Inside, there is usually a couple flat rocks on each side of the
barrel that you can balance on while squatting. I imagine some of the
fancier teams have western commodes but I confess to not having done a
proper survey. We have a cute air freshener (‘Jasmine Mist’) hanging
from the top of the tent. It is a little under-powered. It’s not the
most pleasant experience to use a toilet tent, but probably less
pleasant to carry the barrel down to Labouche where they are emptied.
The team pays a total of 5,000 rupees (roughly $70 USD) per barrel to
the National Park System. Porters who carry these down get a small cut
of this money but overall ‘enjoy’ a higher load fee from what they would
get carrying typical supplies up or down the valley. While the typical
fee for a load of supplies might be 800 rupees (a little under $12) for
a 30kg load over the course of a day, these guys carrying the drums from
the toilet tents might make 1200 rupees for their 30-40kg load which can
be carried to Labouche in half a day. Overall, a porter carrying these
loads from toilet tents can clear 150,000 rupees (roughly $2,142 USD) in
a climbing season. Very tough and dirty work, but not bad money compared
to the average annual salary in Nepal which I believe is around $350 USD.

A person who shall remain nameless recently told an ancedote in a dining
tent about how she accidentally dropped her only water bottle down the
barrel in a toilet tent. She said she retrieved it as it was only
‘smeared just a bit’ (please read that with an English accent). I
thought that was funny but then she told us about someone else who had
dropped a communications radio down a relatively full barrel. The guy
decided it was not worth retrieving. A little later in the evening a
Sherpa burst into her dining tent, declaring that the ‘toilet was
talking’ :)

Like other teams, we have put down a $4,000 garbage deposit with the
National Park System. We’ve careful to collect all litter and will pay a
heavy price to have it hauled down to Namche at the end of the
expedition where it will be inspected, sorted, recycled, and some of it
incinerated. If all goes well, we will receive our deposit back. But it
is not an exact science. The inspectors at the National Park Office in
Namche can only eyeball our trash, the number on our team, and decide if
the pile of trash reflects everything we brought up. In talking this
over with Damai, Kami and Pasang – they feel that almost 100% of the
trash generated at most base camps is brought down. But it is a
different story the higher up the mountain you go. It sounds like a lot
of trash at Camp II and higher is left or dropped into crevasses and
that there is a steady trail of empty oxygen bottles between Camp IV at
the South Col and the Summit. I don’t want to be an apologist, but while
no one expects to leave trash on the mountain – a lot is the result of
extreme fatigue and potential life/death scenarios. If you are coming
down from the summit on your last legs, the first thing you may do is
jettison every ounce of excess weight. When I started the Appalachian
Trail in May of ’92, I began after most other thru-hikers and was amazed
at the amount of gear people abandoned along the trail. You could
completely outfit yourself. That wasn’t life or death either, just
comfort! After helping clients down the mountain and back to base camp,
a lot of the Sherpas are still tasked with returning to the high camps
to retrieve tents and other supplies. It’s a lot easier to leave trash,
and non-essentials like unopened food than it is to carry it down. Even
the empty O2 bottles that can fetch $50 in Kathmandu may be left in the
interests of getting safely off the mountain. Damai, Kami and Pasang
said that damaged tents are usually brought down by Sherpas, otherwise
their employers may not believe that the tents were damaged and hold
them responsible for the replacement cost. I’m not saying everyone
leaves trash at high camps – but it sounds pretty widespread. Hence the
clean-up campaigns that are not focused on summit success. Thanks for ‘em.

The route through the ice fall was very clean. But given the movement of
the ice fall, any trash probably becomes buried pretty quickly. The most
common trash I saw were cough drop wrappers. Within deep crevasses
sometimes you would also see old fixed lines buried several feet down.
In my previous post I mentioned seeing a tent, probably blown down from
Camp I, sandwiched in an ice pillar.

It’s not really feasible to have a toilet tent at Camp I because you are
right on the snow and the wind would likely rip down the tall structures
sooner rather than later. Most people don’t spend much time at Camp I
and probably hope that they don’t need to pop a squat because the area
is so exposed to the elements and other climbers. Many people use ‘pee
bottles’ in their tents at night and during storms. These are often
1-1.5 liter Nalgene bottles and the idea is to dump it out in the
morning or when the storm subsides. I think the most important thing
about these bottles is to label them properly and not mix them up with
your drinking bottle! The Sherpas on my team have evidenced some
distaste for the concept and say, if need be, they will get out of the
tent at night to pee – even at the South Col. Medical staff at Everest
ER told me a Nepalese climber got frost-bite on his penis at Camp I last
year. They might have been pulling my leg (I tend to be a little
gullible) but I chalk it down as all the more reason to use a pee
bottle. There are some contraptions for women to use pee bottles (eg.
the ‘Lady J’) but I can not attest to how well they work.

At the leaders meeting a couple of the larger teams said they were using
‘wag’ bags this year (“At a cost of about $5 per shit”). Called ‘Blue
Bags’ in the Pacific Northwest, these are often double plastic bags
where there is maybe a piece of fold out paper with a ‘target’ and along
with some kitty litter. The idea is basically to pack out your waste.
The bags should be tied to the outside of the pack, people who have
tried the modest approach of storing them inside their packs have met
with unfortunate findings when opening their pack. Particularly if they
like compression straps. I wish I had asked/insisted on these (the bags,
not the compression straps) for our team before everything started. We
have a large boulder to balance against above a crevasse in plain view
of 20 tents at Camp II. Not something I am super happy about, but what
seems to be the norm.

Hopefully there will be no need for waste disposal above Camp II – the
time spent at Camp III and above is very short. That said, Camp III is a
tiny ‘Eagle’s Nest’ laboriously chiseled into the snow on the side of
the Lhotse Face and people are supposed to be roped up at all times. A
year or so a ago someone slipped and fell to their death going to the
bathroom outside their tent because he didn’t tie in to a safety rope.

Ok – not sure how to end this on a upbeat note, ‘specially after that
last anecdote. I’m still in my sleeping bag at base-camp. Letting the
sun warm things up. Overall – I think this is a beautiful mountain and
for the amount of people here at base-camp, the area is super clean.
There may be some problems higher up on the mountain but I don’t think
it is out of scale for what you find on many other mountains and things
seem to be getting better all the time thanks to some incredible
efforts. Damai, Kami and Pasang think that within 5 years everyone will
be using ‘Wag Bags’. Here’s a picture of a classic toilet tent from the
‘backside’. I decided to spare you a picture of what one looks like from
the inside :-)

Feedback welcome