Poo in the Everest region: is it such a big problem?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a satirical piece about a fictional washroom being erected at Everest Base Camp. The post was a reaction to sensationalised media reporting of an inexplicable announcement by the Nepalese government about human faeces on Everest, the jewel in its tourist crown.

The subject was fair game for parody because the Nepalese government were once again adopting the Gerald Ratner approach to PR, and the ensuing media reports were absurdly disproportionate, clearly written by people with no conception of the subject they were asked to write about.

This campsite at Advanced Base Camp on Everest's north side has a toilet tent where waste is packed out, but at higher camps it's a case of burying it under a rock
This campsite at Advanced Base Camp on Everest’s north side has a toilet tent where waste is packed out, but at higher camps it’s a case of burying it under a rock

There was, however, a grain of truth, and it’s this grain I intend to fertilise in this post. Some of you doubtless think I talk shit most of the time, so for those who do today I’m going to humour you.

Human waste on Everest is in the news once again, and while it’s nothing like the problem the media presents, it’s an issue climbers and operators are slowly coming round to realising they need to do something about. For years now most operators on the big expedition peaks have been packing their trash off the mountain. Whether from base camp or the higher camps, it all comes down. At base camp climbers usually crap into drums, and this also gets disposed of properly. This is normal procedure, and while there are still inconsiderate people who leave waste behind, they are in a minority.

On many popular peaks around the world the same applies to relieving ones bowels higher up the mountain. On Aconcagua climbers are issued with poo bags they are expected to bring down with them. On Denali, expedition teams are issued with a CMC or Clean Mountain Can, a green plastic bucket they are expected to carry around with them and use when it’s time to drop a sewer pickle. This is also normal procedure and nobody complains, because we’re decent human beings who love the mountains and are more than happy to obey the rules for those who come after us.

The same is not true on busy Himalayan peaks. There are no rules about packing out human waste in the higher camps, and very few operators and climbers encourage each other to adopt any of their own. On a snow peak, somebody often digs a toilet pit that is used by everybody in camp, but the waste is not brought down. If the snow is seasonal then the deposit may come back later in the year. More commonly the toilet is on a glacier, so it ends up in a crevasse, where it remains out of sight and gets ground down, though it may emerge in powder form at the glacier snout decades later. In rocky campsites, people simply find a quiet place and bury their deposit under a rock.

It's not just climbers who contribute to the dung problem on Everest - other visitors are less inclined to use the toilet tent (Photo: Mark Dickson)
It’s not just climbers who contribute to the dung problem on Everest – other visitors are less inclined to use the toilet tent (Photo: Mark Dickson)

I have no direct experience of toilet facilities in the high camps on the south side of Everest, the route most people use, for I climbed Everest from the north, and on Lhotse last year I climbed no higher than base camp. During my six-day summit push in 2012 I ate very little and only needed to make one bowel movement. This took place at Camp 2 on the North Ridge, a sprawling area of rocky platforms stretching for nearly 300 vertical metres. Our site was right at the very top where there was plenty of privacy. The fierce Tibetan winds strip this part of the ridge bare of snow, so the campsite is among rock. I simply left my deposit under a stone, and the area is so vast I believe people are no more likely to find it in future years as they are to move a rock and find Sandy Irvine’s body, which in all likelihood has been lying somewhere on the North Face for 91 years. On the south side I understand most campsites are on snow, with the exception of the South Col, which is also stripped of snow by the strong winds.

This may sound revolting to some of you, and those of stronger principles than me might agree. But I do not believe there is too much wrong with laying dumplings in a quiet place in the wilderness where other people are unlikely to stumble across them. We all have to go, and flushing toilets are difficult to fit into a backpack. In warm and moist terrain, turds even have a beneficial effect by fertilising the soil and promoting growth.

The mountaineers’ bible, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, has a substantial section on pooing in the wilderness, including a diagram. Aside from carrying a poo bag, best practice is to dig a hole to crap into, with burying it under a rock an alternative if the ground is very hard or you don’t happen to be carrying a trowel. Your home-made chocolate cake will eventually decompose, though how quickly depends on temperature, rainwater and nutrients. Toilet paper also dissolves in rain, and on the HikeThru website for the Pacific Coast Trail, there are even some graphs demonstrating just how quickly toilet paper disappears when buried, hidden under a rock or left exposed to the elements.

The mountaineers' bible, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, has a substantial section on cleaning up behind you, including a useful diagram
The mountaineers’ bible, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, has a substantial section on cleaning up behind you, including a useful diagram

At higher altitudes, colon cannonballs become more of an issue because they take much longer to biodegrade, and on more popular mountains, they’re a serious problem because in crowded campsites there are no longer any convenient rocks which aren’t already concealing somebody else’s morning surprise. At high camp on Mera Peak, at an airy altitude of 5800m, there is a famous ledge known as Poo Corner, as a tribute to A.A. Milne.

These peaks are crying out for regulation, but sadly the Nepalese authorities have shown time and again they are singularly incapable of organising a crap in a bucket. But no matter, because this is one area each and every one of us can make a difference, rules or no rules. Gradually climbers and operators are coming round to the realisation popular peaks in the Himalayas are in need of self-imposed toilet regulation.

In the wake of the media outcry early this month one operator, Tim Mosedale, reissued a proposal for use of poo bags on Ama Dablam, one of the most popular mountains in the Everest region, where some of the campsites are on rock rather than snow. Tim’s proposal is to pack it up in biodegradable bags and throw it down the west face to disperse it, though he acknowledges it’s a compromise solution that will improve the situation while falling short of the ideal one of packing it out. This suggests that attitudes are a bigger problem than overcrowding, and if this is true then operators who bring many clients really need to take the lead and set an example to others (Incidentally, you may be wondering why Tim’s proposal has been published on a website called Keswick Bed & Breakfast. It’s because when he’s not a mountain guide and expedition leader he runs a B&B in Britain’s Lake District. Conversely, if you stumbled across the web page looking for accommodation in Cumbria and are puzzled by its meaning, I should point out on Tim’s behalf that guests at his B&B are not expected to use poo bags.)

It’s not just operators who are starting to do something about it, but commercial climbers as well. Everest blogger Alan Arnette announced that he will be using a Wag Bag Toilet in a Bag when he climbs Lhotse this spring. This is not a fashion accessory carried by the wives of Premier League footballers, but a functional item that can make a real difference to the environment on Everest, and hopefully other climbers will follow his example (hats off to Alan, by the way; many bloggers would shy away from making an announcement about their bowel movements).

While the Wag Bag is a more expensive option, a roll of biodegradable plastic bin liners is very cheap, and for anyone worried about punctures and leakage a Tupperware container is light and robust. Everest is certainly not the running sewer the media likes to think it is, but the reality is large numbers of people will continue to climb it, and all of them need to shed ballast at some stage in their climb. With little chance of any meaningful regulation on the part of the Nepalese authorities, it’s time for more clients and operators to start adopting their own voluntary poo disposal rules up high.

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One thought on “Poo in the Everest region: is it such a big problem?

  • February 15, 2016 at 8:51 pm
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    Just an idea that may or may not make sense. Why doesn’t somebody design a dry combustible chemical that could be sprinkled over the human waste pile and then ignited. I realize the air is thinner but at most altitudes it could burn enough to deal with the problem and provide some much needed warmth for the person at the same time. The dry chemical would be light and not take up much space. Seems like a win win to me.
    Peter

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