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Expedition Sustainability for the Mountaineer

by: Casey Patten

The mountains are wonderfully aesthetic. The landscape delivers towering peaks, rocky faces, unique striations, and a wave of unique formations. It’s difficult not to be drawn to them and their wondrous articulations. They provide a playground for mountain biking, skiing, rock climbing and trail running. With all this said, they are also essential to the Earth’s water cycle. With the greater societal concerns on climate change, it’s essential to preserve these spectacular landscapes. As an outdoor enthusiast, it’s a priority to consider a sustainable lifestyle on any expedition. I will discuss how mountaineers can spend days in the backcountry with the intention of eliminating human waste.

Living with sustainable intentions is not always easy. There might be other distracting concerns, such as energy intake and expenditure or other means of survival. However, climbers have a responsibility to care for the fragile mountain environments and this should be a part of your training. Human waste might include broken gear, feces, dead bodies, plastic and really anything climbers leave behind. It’s important to pack out what you pack in. According to Grinnell College, “26,500 pounds of human excrement”[1] is left on Everest. This was in 2014. I understand that it’s not attractive or ideal to carry around a couple pounds of feces off your pack, but it should be a vital implementation. According to the economist, “dumping sites are filling up quickly, and the run-off is infiltrating the region’s water channels, some of which feed into wells that supply drinking water,”[2] and can lead to high E. coli health concerns. This can affect the health of the local people immensely.

Human waste is a big deal! There are concerns with the impact of human waste on local communities surrounding Everest or Denali. According to Daniel Kelley with the Environmental Monitor, “at the bottom of Mount Everest, there are Sherpa communities too poor to afford water treatment plants and their members often drink untreated water straight off the mountain”[3]. We are affecting the their water sheds and their health. It’s become an imputable desire to contribute to this, especially as a mountaineer. Yet, we are drawn to the challenge that is bestowed in front of us. It is a great feat. Mountaineering is a powerful recreational sport to partake in. Here you are, trying to summit this almost unattainable peak with a once and a lifetime opportunity. Mountaineering can allow us to grow into better leaders and have new wisdom or insight. As a mountaineer, climbing peaks might be a transformative period for you. During an expedition, you might reach new physical and mental heights. It’s quite possible you might become a superhuman at the end or maybe this is your place to finally dispose of the noise you face in your daily life. We might want to become a better self and take care of our spiritual, mental and physical health… or maybe it’s just a noteworthy accomplishment to put on your resume. I get it. I really do.

There are new sustainable innovations taking place to help limit waste on the mountain, yet allow us to still ascend to the top of the steeple. Currently, scientists and engineers are working on converting waste into energy and could change the way we look at human waste! Exciting, right? There are also new carbon projects taking place. RMI expeditions is a guiding service trying to be more carbon neutral. As an individual, taking care of your waste and educating yourself on the impact of human waste on mountain environments should be a part of your expedition plans. Choose cleaner ways of carrying your food with biodegradable bags or eliminate plastic. You can pick up waste from other climbers if you can or choose a guiding service that is trying to provide more sustainable ways of climbing.

It’s important to be aware of the environmental cost with mountaineering today. Everest has become over populated and is affecting the local communities. If you like mountaineering, it’s more than likely that the accomplishment of climbing a death defying peak is luring. With climbing such a peak, we can become better decision makers, leaders and badass human beings. With climate change affecting our landscapes greatly today, we can do our part, as a mountaineer and create less human waste with intentions to preserve our fragile environments, as well as educate other climbers.

[1] Converting Waste on Mount Everest. (2014, July 16). Retrieved January 7, 2020. Grinnell College.

[2] How to dispose of human waste on Mount Everest. (2018, October 27). Retrieved January 7, 2020. Economist.

[3] Kelly, D. (2015, April 2). Thousands of Mount Everest hikers add to area's groundwater contamination. Environmental Monitor.

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