Reality Check: Will there be a huge clear up of garbage on Everest this year?

In this era of fake news, the BBC has launched a Reality Check series to analyse popular news stories that sound plausible, and assess whether or not they’re bollocks.

I thought it might be fun to run one the BBC’s own stories through a reality check to see whether or not they measure up to the mark themselves.

BBC Reality Check: Brexit seems to provide a rich source of material for them
BBC Reality Check: Brexit seems to provide a rich source of material for them

So let’s pick a story at random such as … well, how about this one published last week about garbage on Mount Everest? Variants on the Everest trash story get published every year. Most are written with minimal research by journalists on a deadline who copy and paste a few paragraphs of text and get some soundbite quotes to stick in. In most cases they haven’t even bothered to read last year’s stories, and don’t realise they’re writing the same old crap again.

This particular article set alarm bells ringing because it uses the phrase world’s highest garbage dump. This phrase is often a good indicator that an article might be drivel. A recent study by the South Himalayan Institute of Technical Education (SHITE) revealed that 99.69% of people who use the phrase world’s highest garbage dump in an article or post about Everest have never actually been there. If they had they would have been struck by how little of the mountain is garbage. While there is garbage on Everest, there is no more of it than there is in, say, London – which for all its faults has never been described as Britain’s biggest garbage dump (that honour goes to Swindon).[*]

Anyway, I’m waffling again. From this point onwards I’m going to stop using sarcasm, or you’ll think that I’m bullshitting too. The format of the BBC’s Reality Check series is to start with a claim, then provide a verdict followed by a more detailed analysis. For the analysis I have provided headlines in bold italics. These are direct quotes taken from the BBC Newsbeat article. It should be noted that Newsbeat is aimed at a younger audience. This may help to explain why some of the statements are painfully facile, but it’s no excuse for it.

Tonnes of rubbish is being cleared from Mount Everest - or is it?
Tonnes of rubbish is being cleared from Mount Everest – or is it?

The claim

Tonnes of old equipment, rubbish and human waste litter the world’s highest mountain, but climbers are now being asked to remove it, and a huge clear up is taking place on Mount Everest this climbing season.

Reality Check verdict

It’s true that a lot of equipment has been left on Everest by previous expeditions, but much of this is historical, from a time when climbers did not have the same environmental considerations as they do now. Most modern expeditions pack all their rubbish out at the end of the expedition. This includes their human waste from base camp (though not from higher camps).

However, in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons, teams on the south side abandoned their expeditions early after major tragedies. This resulted in a lot of unused equipment being left at Camps 1 and 2 in the Western Cwm. Some of this will eventually be brought down, but some will no longer be recoverable. Two years of wind and snow has left Camp 2 in a worse state than usual, with shredded tents and abandoned equipment encased in ice.

Regarding a clear up this year, it has been reported that the Nepal Expedition Operators Association will be providing special bags for garbage to be airlifted by helicopter from Camp 2 this year. Whether this actually happens is another question. Nepalese authorities have a history of making announcements before every Everest season. Very few of these announcements are ever followed through.

Realistically, most teams will be concentrating on their summit attempts, and there will be no more clearing up than there is in any normal year.

Analysis

Canvas bags have been left around the various camps. Since 2014, climbers have been fined if they don’t bring enough rubbish back with them after scaling the peak.

The worst of the rubbish is found at Camp Two – 6,400m (21,000ft) above sea level. Helicopters are being used to bring down the trash, which includes oxygen tanks, tents, eating utensils and other camping materials.

The flurry of “huge trash bags” stories that appeared in the mainstream media last week can be traced back to this report by the Associated Press. We can deduce this from the fact that most of them didn’t even bother to change the adjective from huge to something else, like gigantic or enormous. The report states that the Expedition Operators Association has sent a cargo of 80kg trash bags to Everest Base Camp. The intention is for these (gargantuan) bags to be carried up to Camp 2 by climbers, so that trash or equipment can be gathered and airlifted back to Base Camp by helicopter.

It’s unclear whether these bags are intended for collecting trash or usable equipment left at Camp 2 in previous years. In 2014 all expeditions on the south side were abandoned midway through, following a Sherpa strike. All teams had transported a great deal of equipment up to Camps 1 and 2 in preparation for their summit assaults. This equipment was left there, though a team of Sherpas was sent up by helicopter to gather it together into a safe location.

In 2015 expeditions were again aborted halfway through, following a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Climbers had to be airlifted to safety from Camps 1 and 2, and in contrast to 2014, the camps were simply abandoned, with little opportunity to bring equipment back down again. By 2016, winter winds and snow had left Camp 2 in a bad state. Tents were shredded, litter had been blown around and much of it was encased in ice. Some of this equipment was brought down in 2016, but not all of it.

Another question is whether any of this will actually happen. The Nepalese authorities have a history of making announcements like this before every Everest season. Most are never followed through. There is also a question about whether it’s practical. Some of the equipment that has not been carried down already may have been lost or frozen in place, and may not be retrievable anyway. Finally, it seems unlikely many climbers will spend their time at Camp 2 litter picking, or that litter picking will (or can) be enforced.

The BBC is incorrect to say that climbers have been fined since 2014 if they don’t bring enough rubbish with them. In 2014 Nepal’s government did announce that climbers would have to carry an additional 8kg of trash back down the mountain with them, but this was one of the false stories that didn’t happen. I listed several of these false announcements in a previous post.

In the past, around 16 tonnes of rubbish has been removed from the mountain but it’s not known how much is still up there.

Sherpas are actually paid $2 for each kilo of trash they pick up, but it’s all volunteer work for the tourist climbers.

This is a classic example of copy-and-paste journalism.

The figure of 16 tonnes a bit arbitrary. It’s likely the source for it is the annual Eco Everest Expedition that has been run by the Nepali operator Asian Trekking since 2008, with the aim of bringing down trash from the mountain. Sixteen tonnes is the approximate figure for the amount of garbage Asian Trekking’s expeditions have removed over the years.

Asian Trekking’s Eco Everest Expeditions are not the only ones that remove other people’s trash from the mountain. In addition, most modern expeditions pack all their own rubbish out at the end of the expedition. This includes their human waste (i.e. their shit) from base camp (though not from higher camps).

It has been reported that Russell Brice of Himex has offered his Sherpas $2 per kilo of trash they bring down from Camps 3 and 4 to Camp 2, but there is no formal system for other Sherpas who are not employed by Himex to be paid for removing trash.

A quick tangential note on the Beeb’s use of the phrase tourist climbers. This phrase is usually intended to be derogatory, implying that commercial Everest climbers are in some way not real climbers. As a commercial Everest climber myself I’d like to give my take. I don’t at all mind being called a tourist, and I’m certainly more of a trekker than a true climber (although I’d also argue that all climbers are tourists, and that tourist climbers is therefore a tautology).

My big problem with the phrase tourist climbers is that it is usually written by people who have no idea of the seriousness of the challenge of climbing Everest. While Everest is largely non-technical and respectable commercial operators do a great job of reducing the risk, it’s still extremely dangerous for a number of other reasons. Many people die climbing Everest every year. Most of these deaths are preventable, and some are people with little experience, who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. In some ways this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Outlets such as BBC Newsbeat imply that any fool can try to climb Everest, so more fools try.

You can read my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, for more information about what it really takes to climb Everest. The ebook costs less than a pint of beer, you will learn some new jokes, and it could save your life.

As well as the normal rubbish left behind by climbers, the situation was made worse by the deadly earthquakes in 2015 – which killed 9,000 people across Nepal – and left lots of abandoned camps on the mountain.

It’s a little contentious to classify earthquake debris as trash. For example, here is a photo of my recent trip to Langtang, which was one of the regions worst-affected by the 2015 earthquake. This used to be a teahouse (and somebody’s home) in a remote location at 3500m, beneath a high mountain pass. You could call this rubbish, but it’s a bit harsh on the owner (if they survived). To dispose of it they’d need to carry it stone-by-stone and plank-by-plank back to Kathmandu, 2 to 3 days’ walk away.

Teahouse destroyed in the 2015 Nepal earthquake
Teahouse destroyed in the 2015 Nepal earthquake

In its original version of the article the BBC went a stage further by including a photo of Everest Base Camp after it had been wiped out by a devastating avalanche in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 earthquake.

They didn’t say that the photo was of avalanche damage, and the context (including the sentence “Everest is sometimes described as the world’s highest garbage dump”, which appeared directly underneath it) suggested it was simply a typical example of trash left behind on Everest. I recognised the photo because it reminded me of one that Edita took after she survived the tragedy. The BBC later removed the offending photo, but in case they think it’s OK to grab it, post it and then sweep it under the carpet, here it is in a tweet I posted.

But some of the things that won’t be coming down the mountain are the dead climbers. At least 200 bodies are thought to still be on Mount Everest – a frozen reminder to the perils of tackling the summit.

It’s also contentious to classify dead bodies as rubbish. The issue of the dead being left to lie on Everest is emotive, and easily misunderstood if you don’t have experience of survival in extreme environments.

It deserves better than this facile, throwaway line by the BBC, which describes none of the nuances. Friends and family of those who died also deserve more consideration. I won’t go into the details here, but I wrote another post on this topic last year.

Anyway, I realise I’ve ended this post about rubbish – which was intended to be light-hearted – on a somewhat gloomy note. I’m sorry about that. Everest deserves more respect, from journalists, from climbers, and from anyone who reads about it.

[*] I’ve never been to Swindon.

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4 thoughts on “Reality Check: Will there be a huge clear up of garbage on Everest this year?

  • April 5, 2017 at 7:08 pm
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    Once again thanks for the enlightenment Mark.

  • April 6, 2017 at 5:29 pm
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    With all due respect, human waste collected at the Base Camp is not discharged to sewer lines and is not treated. As a claimer you know where the barrels are transported to and discharged. The trek to BC is increasingly polluted with human and industrial waste. It will be very difficult to address environmental issues there, starting in Lukla.

  • April 6, 2017 at 6:55 pm
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    I just love the way you write Mark, it makes the article funny and serious.

    Glad I do not live in Swindon too!

    Colin
    Mount Everest Facts

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