Arriving in Katmandu for your first time I had an overwhelming feeling of being on the cusp of big adventure. Smog blankets the city and hides the magical views of the great range that I had spent the last 6 months dreaming of. Tyler Botzon and I hoped our stay in the smog of the ancient city would be kept to a short, two-night maximum. Seven days later, we found ourselves in the Katmandu airport—with what turned out to be slightly-counterfeit plane tickets—and wham, our trip to the Himalayas was underway.
The plane touched down in Lukla and we were in the Himalayas. Everest still wasn’t visible and it would be a few days before Ama Dablam. Even from the start of the trail it was obvious that the culture in the Nepali Himalaya is different from what I’m used too. Having spent the last six years of my life in, and become very used to the Sierras, the amount of garbage deposited on the trail was astounding. Everything from plastic bottles, gold tobacco wrappers, old used underwear, and blown-out shoes lay in the trail, off to the side and up and down the hillsides that the trail cuts through as it makes its slow progress to its final destination: Everest Base Camp (E.B.C.).
Our final destination was Pangboche, a village two or three days’ walk from E.B.C. Less than two hours from Pangboche across the river lay Ama Dablam B.C., our home for the next four weeks and the mountain which had overwhelmed my mind for the previous six months. I had been inspired to remove fixed tat and trash off the southwest ridge of Ama Dablam, after an experience of cleaning the Harding Route on Mount Conness. However, upon reaching B.C. and seeing many large, poorly-organized commercial expeditions, I realized that I was no longer in the Sierra and quickly had to revise my plans for the clean up.
What I found was a basin and river littered with far more climbing debris than anything found in the Sierra. The southwest ridge turned out to be more of a political situation than an actual rock climb, and removing any fixed ropes would only have been prudent if we were hoping to start minor armed conflict. The highly trained Sherpa guides which I had expected to encounter were all busy fixing ropes on Everest. The second-rate guides on Ama Dablam quickly approached us for help with fixing the season’s ropes on the peak. They threatened to charge us 10000 rupees apiece if we refused to help them move 5,000 feet of nylon boat rope up the ridge. We moved a single 200 m rope to C.1 to keep the scene from escalating.
With bad weather blowing through everyday, we woke early, established Camp 1, spent two nights in a snowstorm at 5,900 m, and then came back to B.C. to rest. During the next two weeks, the weather only worsened and I used this opportunity to begin cleaning the trash from B.C. that had been left by countless commercial expeditions. It seems that the norm for disposing of trash for these expeditions either entails burning or stashing trash under boulders—where it wouldn't blow away. The trash that wasn’t burned or buried found its way into the river, which snakes down from the glacier on the south face. Tyler and I spent days wandering the basin below the south face, cleaning the river and finding stashes of trash from the past two or three decades.
As weeks passed and the weather continued to deteriorate, it became apparent that summitting was not possible for the season. We began to make plans to clean our gear from C.1. A half-dozen expedition had already bailed from C.1 and when we went to retrieve our gear, we found that common practice for these expeditions was to take down tents—then leave their waste and spent fuels cans on the ridge to slowly rust. We cleaned our gear and filled our packs with as much trash and old rope as we could and headed back to B.C. a bit depressed. At B.C., I organized porters to take our collected trash to the dump in Namche, sorted personal gear, and started to hike out of the Khumbu. Two days later I had successfully moved more than 60 kilos of trash to Namche and was relaxing at 12,000 feet, drinking tea and eating prepared meals again.
While we found the river and B.C. basin had large amounts of trash accumulated in them, three outhouses have been built in the B.C. area to cut down on the human waste. These outhouses seem to be doing a good job of keeping human waste at B.C. to a minimum and all the commercial groups that I saw while in B.C. respected them and used them instead of the normal hole in the ground—which has historically been the norm. I believe that in order to preserve these remote mountains it is very important to take our Western values and conservation norms to the Himalayas. There will be no other way to keep theses places preserved unless we lead by example and show the local Sherpa guides and paid participants that it is in everyone’s economic and aesthetic interest to keep the mountains clean and free of trash.
Allen Higgenbotham received a Scott Fisher Conservation Grant from the AAC for this trip. Learn more here: http://www.americanalpineclub.org/grants/g/11/Scott-Fischer-Memorial-Conservation-Fund