Every year, the new season for climbing Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, seems to bring a new round of horror stories about what we have done to this majestic mountain. This year is no different. The roof of the world, it seems, has been turned into a trashcan by the constant stream of attention-seeking westerners traversing their way up its once-dangerous slopes. The amounts of rubbish and discarded oxygen containers have gotten so bad that this year the Nepalese government is only issuing climbing permits if visitors promise to collect and bring down an extra 8kg of waste from the mountain – as well as bringing back all their own garbage, of course.
The fact that this has to be asked for is tragic enough. The fact that it will probably be ignored is even worse. Western mountain climbers who have paid a lot of money to make it to sagarmatha (the Nepalese name for Everest – the Tibetan is chomolungma) will find a way around the requirements, or will simply get their local sherpa guides to carry the trash for them. This comes on the back of last year’s big story in which a group of unassisted European climbers got into a heated argument with a group of sherpas who were trying to safely transport less experienced climbers up the mountain. The debate turned ugly, and the Europeans claim they had to flee in fear of their lives.
Despite being one of the most beautiful parts of our planet, the scene around Everest these days seems to be symptomatic of some of the uglier aspects of our planet. It shows that we live in a disposable culture, to the extent that we feel no qualms about storing our trash and waste on the world’s highest peak, with no concern for the local ecosystem and the damage we might be doing to it. But it also shows the problems we have with continued global inequality.
Everest is a mountain which is overrun by young, rich thrillseekers from Europe and America who feel like their wealth gives them an automatic pass to access the land of others and do whatever they want on it. Meanwhile, despite the large amounts of money that these mountain climbers bring to the region, the local people who rightfully belong on the land remain in poverty. They have reached a point where living their traditional lives will leave them poor and malnourished, while participating in the artificial economy of Everest tourism is the best way to make some quick money. The local sherpas thus end up as servants, cooks, and carriers for westerners who, in many cases, could never make it up the mountain alive without their help. This is not really a sustainable way of dealing with poverty in Nepal.
When the mess on Everest is cleaned up – and by the mess I mean not just the trash, but the whole disgraceful scene of cheap thrills and an even cheaper service industry – we will have a sign that we are beginning to enter a more dignified era. When the current obsession with reaching the top of the mountain just so you can say you did it is replaced with a true reverence for the beauty of nature and the uniqueness of the local people and culture, then we can truly say we are being respectful of the world. And when that time comes, we’ll find that we have also reached a more fair and equitable world, in which Nepalis and their land are not just seen as pack mules and photo backgrounds for the rich of the West.