Environmentalism in Mountaineering: Climate Change and Littered Mountains

Mountaineering in the Greater Ranges, such as the Himalayas, became an increasingly popular sport through the twentieth century and continues to be enjoyable for many climbers today. Climbing high altitude mountains such as Mount Everest, the tallest in the world, has caught the attention of many, and created its own industry. However, as this industry has grown, we ask ourselves if this industry has become too popular.  Are we “loving our mountains to death?”(Rassler). Expeditions on high altitude mountains include waste products in the form of trash from mountaineer’s packs, human waste, oxygen canisters, and sometimes human corpses. When the altitude of decomposition is lower than that of the mountain, the waste left stays on the mountains, until someone can carry it back down in order to rid the waste properly. As the issue of littered mountains becomes increasingly concerning, the issue of climate change is beginning to take its toll on the largest glaciers in the world, and they are beginning to retreat faster than ever before and melting ice has become a long lasting product of global warming. The environmental issues of mountaineering are becoming more known, as researchers and climbers are beginning to see the effects of littering the mountain, and the effects of climate change in questioning whether there is a future of mountaineering in high altitudes. The impending consequences of climate change, especially on mountains are near, and we can see this through research and photographic evidence. Through careful examination of professional articles, books, and studies, the environmental concerns over climate change and polluted mountains are an important issue of the climbing world, and the results show cause for worry through many mountain ranges, and especially the Himalayas. The need for a solution is growing if climbers want to continue to spend their time in the mountain, and questions remains: “are we loving our mountains to death?”

Mark Bowen writes on the effects of a warming Earth in Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate Change in the World’s Highest Mountains. He goes into scientific depth on the effects of climate change, and especially their effects on high altitude glaciers and mountains. The prediction by him and his team concludes that every glacier in the tropical zone will most likely disappear within fifty years (Bowen, loc. 154). He fills his book with research backing his claim that: “With the perspective of time it would become clear that the sudden retreat of the Earth’s mountain glaciers, was one of the first signs that global warming, caused by humans, had begun” (Bowen, loc. 1384). He points to the effects of greenhouse gases as the leading cause in this climate change, explaining how the greenhouse gases absorb surface radiation, thus holding the heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet, and in turn, warming and melting the glaciers (Bowen, loc. 1400). While climate change can be seen in everyday life throughout the Earth, Bowen’s greatest argument brings light to the climate change being seen through glacial retreat and disappearance, and this retreat can be used in studying climate change in the most literal sense, the melting of glacial ice. Climate change in reference to higher altitudes has been increasingly studied throughout the last thirty years and National Geographic writer Stentor Danielson wrote on the signs of climate change in June of 2002. Using reference from Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s summit in 1953, a team from the United Nations Environment Programme discovered that a glacier that was close to Hillary and Norgay’s camp has retreated three miles over the span of about fifty years (Danielson). Glacial floods and melting contribute to the evidence of the threat of climate change in the mountains, and the locals, when interviewed, told the UN team of the problems they had experienced due to the warming glaciers (Danielson). Problems including flooding that wiped out bridges, and caused costs for the area, in order to avoid future problems from climate change (Danielson). Outside, an outdoor magazine also presented some work on the melting glaciers of Mount Everest in 2016, when writer Anna Callaghan wrote on the Khumbu Icefall and its effects from climate change in the Everest Base Camp. Callaghan writes about two Ph.D students studying the effects of a warming Earth in reference to the effects on Everest in explaining the shrinking Khumbu Glacier (Callaghan). The shrinking glacier means a harder climb for mountaineers, a possibility of needing to move base camp, and more avalanches that could pose deadly for the Sherpa community (Callaghan). The warming Earth will in turn uproot the glacial ice from the rock, posing instability and melt to be significant threats to the Khumbu icefall and causing pooling lakes to grow on the glacier then sending water and debris into the Khumbu Valley, and potentially causing harm to the residents of Everest Base Camp (Callaghan). Science can back up the melting glaciers, and show the world the problems arising on mountains for mountaineers, as well as communities that reside in mountain valleys, however David Breashears wanted to take a different approach in showing the world the effects of climate change on high altitudes.

GlacierWorks, started by David Breashears, is a non-profit organization that shows the world, through photographs, the changing Himalayan glaciers. GlacierWorks has had the opportunity to display their exhibit— “River of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya”—in Copenhagen, New York, London, Italy, and Massachusetts (glacierworks.org). The organization shows through photographs that “nearly 50,000 high-altitude glaciers are vital sources of water for the major rivers of Asia” and they are disappearing (glacierworks.org). One of the most astonishing images David Breashears photographs is the West Rongbuk Glacier from 1921 and the West Rongbuk Glacier form 2009. Pictured below are the two images, and the differences are significant and obvious. The retreating glacier through the valley and on the lower mountain tops clearly demonstrate the effects of climate change are transparent on this particular glacier, the evidence is seen through photographs and this GlacierWorks project by David Breashears.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 7.10.57 PM

Photography 1921: Major E.O. Wheeler, Royal Geographical Society

Photography 2009: David Breashears, GlacierWorks

Source: http://more.glacierworks.org/glacier/west-rongbuk-glacier/


The effects of climate change and in turn global warming is significant on glaciers in high altitudes, and pose serious threats to the climbing community, and the residents of the Himalayas. The melting glaciers can mean some serious issues for climbers, and could end in impassable glaciers. The prospect of growing lakes from the glaciers increases risk of flooding in the valleys, such as the Khumbu valley, and the retreating glaciers mean harder and less climbing terrain, thus making the environment of the mountains at risk. The writer for National Geographic article, Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change, Stentor Danielson recognizes another risk along with climate change to the mountains environment, in writing abut the risk of tourism in the Himalayas. He notes that there about 27,000 tourists a year around Mount Everest, which leads to over harvesting of the land’s resources such as Juniper and shrubs for fuel wood, which opens up the possibility of erosion and loss of wildlife (Danielson). Along with over harvesting, tourists bring with them ‘stuff.’ Littered mountains with oxygen canisters, human waste, human corpses, and other trash leave the mountain full of unnatural properties, thus disrupting the natural environment of the Himalayas (Danielson). Along with climate change, there is much research and studying of the tourism effect on the mountain to go along with the question ‘are we loving our mountains to death?’

The Alpinist, a climbing magazine, reported on the 2014 Sustainable Summits Conference which discussed the social, environmental, and economic contexts of the alpine realm (Rassler). Brad Rassler, writer of Experts Ask: Are We Loving Our Mountains to Death?, gives insight on the conference and the discussion centered around the issue of leaving waste on mountains that are frequently climbed. He reports that “climbers dump nearly two metric tons of stuff into the crevasses of the Kahiltna every climbing season” (Rassler). The Kahiltna glacier, on Mount Denali, still contains the two metric tons of stuff being left every season. Brad Rassler writes that “Like death and taxes, there’s no avoiding it; on Denali, or on any other frequently visited mountain, shit happens” (Rassler). This begs the question of whether there is even a solution to the problem of leaving stuff on the mountains we tend to travel, and enjoy spending time on. The conference consisted of nearly 100 scientists, climbers, business experts, social entrepreneurs, recreation consultants, land managers, and guides form 13 different countries (Rassler). With a diverse group of attendees, the conference questioned solutions to the issue, and discussed the consequences of not changing the habits of climbers. Discussions centered around many different issues, and solutions including: land management practices, national culture, local populations, user safety, quality of experience, limits on mountains, public outreach, minimum critical requirements, protecting resources, addressing a climbers every interaction with the land, education and advocacy, safety and rescue skills for Sherpas, human waste and dumping stations, and the garbage littered trails (Rassler). Clearly, a wide array of topics were covered in addressing the human impact on frequently travelled mountains, and solutions were thrown around, as part of research, and also just discussion on what could possibly work best, with the help of a many voices from many different mountain ranges. The discussion alone is a great step in the right direction and the awareness of many can be useful in changing the habits of climbers in the disposal of waste, and the stuff they carry along with them on expeditions. Along with conferences that discuss the impacts of waste left on mountains, Elizabeth Mazzolini writes Food, Waste, and Judgement on Mount Everest, giving insight into the problem of climbers leaving behind waste products and human corpses on the tallest mountain in the world (Mazzolini). She  begins her writing looking back on the earlier expeditions as a time where mountaineers had more honor and respect for the mountain, whereas, today mountaineers are seen to act more selfishly and disrespectful (Mazzolini, pg. 1). She writes on the reports that claim that each visitor of the Sagarmatha National Park leaves behind about 6.5 pounds of waste each year, which totals up to about 154 tons total (Mazzolini, pg. 1). Along with the waste left on the mountain, includes human corpses, over two hundred remaining on Everest, leaving the mountain littered with trash and dead bodies (Mazzolini). Mazzolini credits the critics who claim the waste left can be a byproduct of ‘rampant commercialization’ and also inexperienced climbers (Mazzolini, pg. 2). Mazzolini writes about the energy expenditure and conservation relationship while climbing in examining and giving detailed accounts of Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share. This environmentalist approach to energy expenditure and conservation outlines the basic human need to expend energy, and the basic human need to inevitably expend excess energy (Mazzolini, pg. 4). Bataille argues that with a restricted economy, conservation of resources is natural, and a general economy plays on the assumption that resources are not scarce, so expenditure is not restricted (Mazzolini, pg. 4). In relation to mountaineering, Mazzolini writes about Colonel Younghusband’s motives behind climbing Everest, in that they were “for the sake of play, aesthetic pleasure, and sheer energetic expenditure, rather than for practical ends” (Mazzolini, pg. 6). Since these reasons are for enjoyment and expending energy, these motives can easily be seen to fall under the notion of human’s ‘loving our mountains to death.’ For the purpose of our pleasure and enjoyment, we expend energy, waste, and in the end change the natural environment of a mountain, and in turn feel our own satisfaction. The waste left on Mount Everest is a subject of Mazzolini’s discussion as well, in identifying the changing output of waste, with the larger crowds to frequent the mountain, compared to the 1920s and 1930s (Mazzolini, pg. 13). She hides no truth in writing “Yesterday’s food, equipment, and heroism have become today’s shit, garbage, and needless deaths— easy to produce, easy to abandon, easy to judge” (Mazzolini, pg. 14). Elizabeth Mazzolini tells it like it is on Everest and points out the problems the mountain is facing in the littering from waste and bodies, and the criticism that comes with the littered mountain. The expeditions of today seem to be for selfish pleasure, for self satisfaction, and for self driven purposes, rather than out of respect for the highest mountain in the world. The environmental approach is not seen to be important for many climbers, as the importance lies in summiting the mountain and descending in one piece, leaving traces wherever needed in order to fulfill one’s life goals and expend the energy needed to feel at peace while living in day to day life. The damage to the mountain lies in the deforestation, glacial retreat, and the rubbish left, due to what Mazzolini describes as “people tramping through” (Mazzolini, pg. 14). The more humans find their way to Everest in attempts to climb, or just tour Nepal, the more litter is to be left behind, and the more resources need to be used for the tourists stay. Mazzolini explains the waste left on Everest as “bad” waste, due to the pristine environment being disturbed for the pursuit of self-interest, and writes that the corpses, waste, and oxygen canisters are “reminders of ongoing human exploitation of the earth” (Mazzolini, pg. 17). Mazzolini boils down the issues of Everest today to a relationship between consumerism and the client-climber mentality, to the environmental cost of Everest being a purchasable commodity that it has become today (Mazzolini, pg. 22). Mazzolini’s discussion hits on many factors that contribute to the environmental issues that surround Everest today, but the points that can be taken to help the understanding of the relationship of climbing over the years, and the damage to Mount Everest are seen through the useless energy expenditure on the mountain, the consumerism that drives this expenditure, and the disrespect that climbers seem to show for the mountain, in the littering and leaving behind of waste and corpses. The criticism for the climbers has sped up in the climbing world, and the judgement Mazzolini writes about, stems from the economical standpoint of climbing the mountain for self-driven purposes, and satisfaction.

Going hand in hand with Mazzolini’s discussion on food, waste, and judgement on Mount Everest, Stanley F. Stevens writes about Tourism, Change, and Continuity in the Mount Everest Region, Nepal. Stevens explores the relationship between the growing tourist population in Nepal and the Khumbu village area, and land-use, especially in the area of deforestation for fuel-wood (Stevens, pg. 420). He identifies this as being the main environmental threat to the parks in Nepal. While he notes that there have been changes to help this threat, such as having tourism groups and expeditions use kerosene stoves for cooking instead of wood, the use of wood is still increasingly used by the lodges (Stevens, pg. 421). He addresses another issue of the tourism in Nepal, being the addressed issue of garbage and waste. With regulations on how the tourist groups and expeditions should handle their waste and garbage, as a pack-in-pack-out method, the compliance rate is pathetic, thus leaving the land littered and the environment an eyesore for many (Stevens, pg. 423). With increased awareness to the issues of leaving behind waste, more organizations such as the Sherpa Pollution Control Committee have been established in an attempt to curb the rate of waste being left behind, but the real change needs to happen within the tourism groups and expeditions (Stevens, pg. 424). An essay written by a Sherpa himself, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, discusses Mountains as an Existential Resource, Expression in Religion, Environment and Culture. To understand the effect of environmental damage on Everest, the religious aspect and importance to the Sherpa people should be taken into account. Norgay describes Everest as “Mother Goddess of the World” that was seen as the residence of one of the five sister deities, being Miyo Lang Sangma, who he describes as being the bountiful provider, and her powers being the gift of food (Norgay, pg. 56). The Sherpas also believed that their leader Guru Rimpoche, meditated in the Khumbu and Himalayas, thus making the mountains, including Mount Everest, a spiritual sanctity in their lives (Norgay, pg. 56). The Sherpa people have respect for the Himalayas and Everest, so the tourism and environmental impact has taken a toll on their beliefs. Norgay talks about the environmental changes to the landscape in writing about the depleting forests in the region due to the expeditions on Everest, as well as the pollution from about 26 trips a season, and he refers to Mount Everest as “the world’s highest garbage dump” (Norgay, pg. 57). Norgay recognizes that solutions need to be set in place to help the environment of the mountains, and applauds the efforts being made to reforest the land, clean the polluted areas, and educate mountaineers on the importance of removing their waste of their expeditions (Norgay, pg. 57). Unlike some of the other sources analyzed for this evaluation of the environmental impacts on mountains, Norgay recognizes the personal experiences many have while climbing, and the importance that mountaineering holds for so many in the world. The difference with Norgay’s outlook can be seen in his position in the mountain climbing industry, in that he is a Sherpa and can see first hand the effect that climbing the world’s highest mountain holds for so many.

The importance of recognizing climate change in the world and the pollution that is changing our mountain’s natural environments is significant and is seen through the combination of the impacts of both. Conrad Anker, Bozeman resident, and Alex Lowe, another former Bozeman native were caught in an avalanche in 1999 on Tibet’s Shishapangma, resulting in the death of Alex Lowe. This death left a body on the mountain that could not be found, leaving a human corpse to be buried within a glacier, much like the many bodies scattering Everest, even up to today. Grayson Schaffer of Outside writes on the recent discovery of Alex Lowe’s body. About sixteen years after the incident, Lowe’s body, along with another climbing partner David Bridges’, were found due to glacial melt (Schaffer). This spring has been recorded to be warm and dry, as a result of climate change, causing glacial melt, uncovering human corpses, left over a decade ago (Schaffer). The importance of realizing the impact of waste left on the mountain, and the impending global warming, is showing results, even now in 2016, and Jenni Anker is quoted saying “I kind of never realized how quickly it would be that he’d melt out… I though it might not be in my lifetime” showing her surprise at the speed of the glacial melting (Schaffer). Through careful examination of professional articles, books, and studies, the environmental concerns over climate change and polluted mountains are an important issue of the climbing world, and the results show cause for worry through many mountain ranges, and especially the Himalayas.


Works Cited

Bowen, Mark, Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains. (New York: Owl Books, 2005)

Breashears, David & Wheeler, Major E.O.,GlacierWorks.org(GlacierWorks.org, 2009)

Callaghan, Anna, Climate Change is Melting Everest. (OutsideOnline, 4/12/2016)

Danielson, Stentor, Everest Melting? High Signs of Climate Change. (National Geographic News, 6/5/2002)

Mazzolini, Elizabeth, Food, Waste, and Judgement on Mount Everest. (University of Minnesota Press: 2010)

Norgay, Jamling Tenzing. 2004. “Mountains as an Existential Resource, Expression in Religion, Environment and Culture”. Ambio. [Springer, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences], 56–57. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25094589.

Rassler, Brad, Experts Ask: Are We Loving Our Mountains to Death?.(Alpinist, 8/7/2014)

Schaffer, Grayson, Alex Lowe’s Body Found On Shishapangma. (OutsideOnline, 4/30/2016)

Stevens, Stanley F.. 1993. “Tourism, Change, and Continuity in the Mount Everest Region, Nepal”. Geographical Review 83 (4). [American Geographical Society, Wiley]: 410–27. doi:10.2307/215823.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *