Everest has always been a trophy, but now that almost 4,000 people have reached its summit, some more than once, the feat means less than it did a half century ago. Today roughly 90 percent of the climbers on Everest are guided clients, many without basic climbing skills. Having paid $30,000 to $120,000 to be on the mountain, too many callowly expect to reach the summit. A significant number do, but under appalling conditions. The two standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously crowded but also disgustingly polluted, with garbage leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement befouling the high camps. And then there are the deaths…

Mark Jenkins, Maxed Out on Everest

Mount Everest
Tourism, and in particular adventure tourism, has become a booming industry in many developing nations today. Though Nepal has experienced only a few decades of tourism development, having been closed to most foreign visitors until 1950, tourism is today the largest industry there, and the largest source of foreign exchange and revenue. It can bring with it multiple benefits to communities, including new job opportunities, new educational opportunities and skill training, and increased income. It also, however, often raises sustainability issues and questions, with no easy answers.

Everest’s tourism industry earns Nepal $3.3 million a year in climbing fees. On top of that, it supports tens of thousands of trekking guides and hotel owners who depend on climbers and tourists for their livelihoods.

Taking Control of Everest Climbers’ Environmental Impact

The United Nations Environment Programme offers a nice summary of some of the environmental issues that can arise from tourism. These include:

  • Putting stress on local resources such as freshwater, energy, and food, and generating a greater volume of waste and pollution.
  • Land degradation, overbuilding, and destruction or loss of wildlife habitats due to increased infrastructure development to accommodate visiting tourists.
  • Putting stress on wildlife, causing alterations in behaviors or disruption of their natural life cycles.
  • Deforestation caused by fuel wood collection and land clearing. For example, one trekking tourist in Nepal – already suffering the effects of deforestation – can use four to five kilograms of wood a day.
Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary are recognized as the first to summit Mount Everest, in 1953.

For more than a century, Western climbers have hired Nepal’s Sherpas to do the most dangerous work on Mount Everest. It’s a lucrative way of life in a poor region, but no service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients…. The dead are often forgotten, and their families left with nothing but ghosts.

The Disposable Man

The high mountains, in particular Mount Everest, have for centuries lured foreigners to Nepal in quest of adventure. The case of tourism on Mount Everest is perhaps a prime example of what can happen when tourism gets out of control. The number of foreign climbers attempting to summit this great mountain has increased dramatically since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay completed the first confirmed ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. The number of visitors to Sagarmatha National Park, where Everest lies, has roughly tripled in just the past 20 years alone.

An ice climber using ice axes and crampons.
As equipment and technology have improved and guides willing and capable of leading the way have increased, so have the adventurers, including many inexperienced climbers who put not only themselves but their guides, Sherpas, and fellow climbers at risk. The increased traffic on the mountain has also led to a serious garbage and human waste problem, along with traffic jams that leave climbers waiting for hours to make the final push to the summit, threatening lives in the dangerous cold and thin air atop the mountain. Attempts by the Nepali government to curb the negative strain that increasing traffic on the mountain is causing can be difficult to enforce. For example, climbers are now required to haul their own garbage off the mountain with them.

Nepalese authorities say that the number of visitors to Sagarmatha National Park, where Everest lies, has roughly tripled in the past 20 years. With the increasing number of tourists comes a growing amount of rubbish left behind on mountains: food wrappers, climbing gear, oxygen cylinders, and even the bodies of climbers who died along the way. The frigid temperatures mean trash does not biodegrade….

Now Nepal’s tourism ministry has acted, deciding that from this April [2014] forward, every climber going beyond the base camp will be required to bring back at least eight kilograms (17.6 pounds) of their personal waste and hand it over to officials stationed there. That’s the amount the government estimates an exhausted climber discards along the way. The aim is to make sure that no new trash will be left on Everest….

Taking Control of Everest Climbers’ Environmental Impact

There are no easy answers to the question “Is tourism sustainable?” Education, of tourists themselves and the local communities impacted by tourism, may both stimulate needed discussion around the topic and lead to efforts and innovations to curb the growing strain that tourism is causing in locations like Mount Everest. The Earthducation team looks forward to hearing the perspectives of individuals and communities we visit in Nepal on this important topic and sharing them with you here in our field updates.

For those interested in reading more about the history and sustainability of mountain tourism in Nepal, a slightly dated (2002) but interesting perspective is found in the article “Tourism as a key to sustainable mountain development: The Nepalese Himalayas in retrospect” by Sanjay K. Nepal.