Cost of Commercialization: Deteriorating Nepal’s Sacred Mountain – Final Essay

Introduction

Commercialization — the word used to describe the process by which a new product or service is introduced into the general market; or, more commonly known as — to exploit for profit. No definition can be found that describes the commercialization of Mount Everest more accurately than the latter. Discovered as the world’s tallest mountain in 1865, Mt. Everest was a place of mystery and unparalleled beauty. It’s untouched faces and razor sharp slopes gave it a majestic appearance, one that outshone any competition at the time. Mount Everest was a mystery; its inaccessibility and sublime qualities made it appealing to not only the locals, but to every foreigner worldwide. But as time passes and technology and greed progress, the amount of people adding Mount Everest to their bucket list, increases rapidly. On average, over 800 people attempt to climb Mt. Everest each year, and with commercial expedition companies becoming more and more common through the years, this number only increases. The peak has become less and less desolate then when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited in 1953, as more than 4,000 people have stood atop the summit since. In 2012, 234 climbers successfully reached the summit in one single day. With individuals paying up to $70,000 to climb, it is no wonder that Nepal’s economy relies so heavily on tourism. However, this isn’t the only cost that has become associated with the commercialization of Mt. Everest. The mountain, its environment, its reputation, the climbers, and local Nepal culture have all felt a different type of cost; a negative one.

Worlds Highest Garbage Dump

What once was considered a pristine and untouched peak, has now become commonly known as “the World’s Highest Garbage Dump”. With each climber creating an estimated eighteen pounds of garbage in a single visit, pollution and trash have turned this majestic mountain into a disposal site. A climber today will find trash on the mountain in the form of old tents, fixed ropes, used oxygen bottles, human waste, tins, glass, paper, and other garbage left behind (Bishop and Naumann 323). The practice of disposing trash in crevasses has become acceptable, as a result of the attitude of “out of sight, out of mind”. Currently, there is an estimated ten tons of garbage on the mountain, with twelve more tons of human excrement being buried in the snow each year (Figueroa). In the article Mount Everest: Reclamation of the World’s Highest Junk Yard, authors Brent Bishop and Chris Naumann believe that this trash accumulation is a result of two primary forces: the first being the historic climbing style and ethics that emphasized summiting without holding any regard for environmental concern, and the other being the sheer volume of climber days at Base Camp and higher elevations (Bishop and Naumann 323). It seems this dismissive attitude towards littering on the mountain began early on, and only seems to get worse with time. Hillary admits to being cavalier towards garbage, confessing that “when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them” (Bishop and Naumann 323). It seems feasible that garbage and environmental degradation wasn’t at the top of the climbers lists of concerns in the early to mid 1900’s, but it seems quite astonishing that there isn’t more emphasis and concern now a days amongst the climbers. Numerous organizations and committees have taken initiative towards cleaning up the garbage, while the Nepalese government has implemented a mandatory $4,000 fee to encourage clean up. Even with companies being tasked to clean up garbage left behind, some will still remain due to being covered by ice and snow over the years (Paramaguru). With the amount of traffic that Everest sees daily, the efforts of the government and these organizations will fall short if there isn’t more concern from the climbers themselves. The only real solution to get a complete grip on this problem, is to start with the very source of it.

Along with the tonnes of trash and emptied oxygen bottles cluttering the routes up Everest, there is a much larger and disturbing form of litter: human bodies. The corpses of more than 200 climbers who have lost their lives on the mountains, remain half-buried and frozen along the ascent routes. Because most of the deaths occur at higher elevations with lower amounts of oxygen, making it next to impossible for helicopters to fly and recover the corpses, they are left there to freeze and become part of the mountain. A climber to come across a corpse while ascending has not only become a common and expected encounter, but the frozen bodies have familiar landmarks, letting current climbers know their location on the route. Aside from a litter standpoint, the bodies of the deceased have become a much bigger issue: a moral one. The wishes of the deceased, along with their families, are a contributing factor in what happens with the bodies. However, like everything else associated with Everest, there is a cost. Returning a body to a family is extremely expensive, costing thousands of dollars. Money isn’t the only issue that makes returning a body difficult, as the actual removal process is difficult, potentially putting the lives of Sherpas at risk. In an article published in National Geographic, Maxed Out on Everest, journalist, author, and adventurer Mark Jenkins recalls the moment he had to navigate over four frozen bodies on his last visit to Everest. Jenkins acknowledges the tradition of mountaineers wishing to remain on the mountain if they happen to die, “but when we have 500 people stepping over a body every year, that’s no longer acceptable”, Jenkins declares, “That’s disgraceful”. Thinley Pajlor, the brother of young Indian climber Tsewang Paljor who lost his life in the infamous 1996 disaster, recalls the moment he first learnt about his brothers body being nicknamed “Green Boots” along with photos on the internet. “I was really upset and shocked, and I really didn’t want my family to know about this”, Thinley states (Nuwer). Has the hype of Everest and the need to summit interfered with climbers morality to the point that respect for the deceased and their families is no longer of any relevance? Paul Distenfano also knows the distressing feeling that occurs when seeing photographs of your loved ones body plastered online. Distenfano lost his mother to Everest, whose body has come to be known as “Sleeping Beauty” (Nuwer). It is one thing to lose a loved one on the mountain, but it is another thing to have to live with photographs of their remains all over the internet, knowing hundreds of people are stepping over their remains.

Environmental Degradation: One Step at a Time

Since the Chinese invasion, there has been a flurry of road development across the Tibetan Plateau. As the old saying goes, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot”, these once remote landscapes are now easily accessible to visitors. The development of recreational industries and new travel routes have created various demands on the limited resources of the area (Pawson 237). Deforestation is resulting from the construction of new roads and buildings, which includes lodges and tea houses for the enjoyment of tourists. Soil erosion is another result of the crowded pathways, with each climber adding more wear and tear to the mountain and its vegetation. As shown in the article Landscape Change and Man-Accelerated Soil Loss, a study from the 1984 United Nations University and the Biosphere Mountain Hazards Mapping Project proves that overgrazing has led “to a heavy depletion of vegetation”, which combined with the deforestation, “left a rudimentary vegetation cover not capable of holding the soil” (Byers 211). The previously mentioned issue of waste disposal on trails and campsites have lead to the pollution of some streams, forcing signs to be posted warning trekkers to not use the contaminated water (Pawson 244). With the rise of tourism only becoming increasingly popular as time passes, when will Everest become a fully paved paradise? If the threat of Everest slowly disappearing to exploitation and abuse isn’t taken more serious, commercialization may cost the mountain the one thing that cannot grow back: it’s natural and sublime beauty.

From Desolate to Chaos and Traffic Jams

With the number of climbers attempting to summit Everest increasing each year, Everest has shifted from a romantic unconquered place to a place of traffic jams and chaos. The commercialization of Mt. Everest has its many costs, but perhaps none more detrimental than the cost of lives and climbers safety. With a peak that once saw very few summits within decades, to a peak that now sometimes sees over 200 summits in one day, an overcrowded Everest has become a death trap now more than ever. By commercializing Everest, companies allow access for almost any inexperienced climber with enough cash to pay their way. Unfortunately, as long as there are people willing to pay, which there always will be, there will be companies willing to run the risk in order to make a profit. The danger that lies within adventure based businesses, is that companies rely on successful adventures. In regards to companies being successful on Mount Everest, it refers to summiting. In the article Shit Happens: The Selling of Risk in Extreme Sport, author Catherine Palmer argues that in order to run a successful adventure based business, companies downplay (or nearly erase) the risk that is truly involved in these ‘adventures’. Not only do they promise that their is little to no risk involved, but that anyone without experience can participate. By doing this, Palmer claims that “as such accounts make clear, money mediates or mitigates risk, in doing so producing a dubious kind of expert: if you have sufficient money, then that qualification is enough to get you to the top of Everest” (Palmer 332). Fixed ropes, set-up camps, and Sherpas carrying your heavy gear for you, are just some of the benefits of companies that make it easy for anyone without experience to make it to the top without the challenge that true mountaineers faced back in the pre-commercialized days. One never heard of relaxed attitudes in the earlier days of mountaineering, like the one from American mountaineer and guide Scott Fischer (who later lost his life on Everest in the 1996 tragedy) who stated that “experience is over-rated, I’m telling you, they’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit” (Palmer 332). Numerous accounts of lives have been lost due to inexperience and crowded situations. The bottlenecks up the mountains are inevitable with the large amounts of climbers attempting to summit at the same time, with each individual ranging in experience. On a summit day, hundreds of climbers can be seen lined up at the Hillary Step for excess of two hours. The common traffic jam at this famous last obstacle before reaching the summit, causes climbers to waste precious time and oxygen, as well as lost body heat and decreased physical strength. To be climbing in the “Death Zone” is one thing, let alone to be standing for hours on end while your body is slowly shutting down. In the article Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt Everest, one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers Ed Viesturs, claims that “It’s the traffic jam that causes all the trouble…climbers run out of bottled oxygen and collapse, or they push upward long after a sensible turnaround deadline and end up descending in the dark” (Figueroa). It might seem like an easy fix, as Nepalese government could simply limit the number of permits each year, but with a third world country depending so heavily on the money acquired from permits each year, its hard to imagine them cracking down anytime soon.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

There is no better image in the history of climbing Everest that depicts the traffic jams and chaos caused by commercialization, than the iconic photograph taken by German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits. Taken while descending down Everest in 2012, one of the most crowded and disastrous years, Dujmovits captured this image of an enormous queue of climbers underneath the traverse to Camp III. In an interview with Outside Magazine journalist, Scott Rosenfield, Dujmovits explains the sight that left him in disbelief. What appeared as a long, solid black line, was a several hundred meter long line of climbers. “I almost couldn’t believe what I saw” states Dujmovits, “that so many people made the decision at the same time to go up” (Rosenfield). When asked if this gave him cause for concern for any of the climbers lives, Dujmovits responded, “I was very sure at that moment that some of them wouldn’t make it back…I just know that there is not enough space for everybody”, also adding in that “the more people queuing up, the fewer making it back” (Rosenfield).

Summiting Over Survival: A Case of Summit Fever

Perhaps one of the most disturbing cases of a death on Everest is the story of David Sharp. Sharp was an English mountaineer who lost his life while attempting a solo climb up Everest. Sharp was passed by over forty climbers while huddled in the spot known as Green Boots’ Cave. Although speculated by many that summit fever and personal satisfaction caused the large amount of climbers to ignore a dying Sharp, most climbers claim that “they did not notice Sharp or assumed that he was simply resting” (Dying for Everest). Whatever the case may be, Sharps lonely death caused an immense amount of controversy and debate, sparking remarks from many critics including Sir Edmund Hillary. In the article Because It Is There: Commercializing Mount Everest, author David Savage claims that “the sheer number of books and media reports on the subject would suggest that something is very wrong with the attitudes of modern climbers, and that commercialization of the Everest climb is to blame”. Along with fellow researcher Benno Torgler, Savage analyzed more than 60 years of Himalayan climbing data covering more than 6,300 expeditions, 285 peaks and more than 47,000 expedition members (Savage). The following analysis was completed:

After a death on commercial expeditions, its members went on to record successful climbs in 80.6% of cases, but only 37.8% of non-commercial expeditions carried on after a death. A deeper analysis, which controlled for differences between commercial and non-commercial groups such as group size, duration of the expedition, number of hired people and supporting material, also reported a similar picture. A death in a non-commercial expedition has a highly significant negative impact on the probability of success (24.3%), indicating a willingness to stop or abandon expeditions. However, this result was not found in commercial expeditions, where the death of an expedition member had no statistically significant impact on success. (Savage and Torgler)

These results suggest that commercialization has removed the comradery and willingness to help others in dire situations, by making the climb more about business and profit, and less about cooperation and teamwork.

From Everest Success to Everest Shame

The new attitude of “a yellow brick road” making it possible for anyone without experience to stand on top of Everest, has caused controversy within the mountaineering world, as critics and professional mountaineers claim that it has taken the pride and accomplishment out of it. In the article Climbing Mount Everest: Post-colonialism in the Culture of Ascent, author Stephen Slemon explains how even professional guides are starting to desert Everest. Slemon explains that these mountaineering professionals are not necessarily neglecting Everest as a profession as it is still a good source of income, but “their desertion takes place at the level of meaning” (Slemon 62). Some critics have even gone as far as saying that climbing Everest is now considered a joke. Mountaineer and author Graham Hoyland claims that climbing Everest “isn’t a wilderness experience…it’s a McDonald’s experience” (Nuwer). In Everest’s earliest days, it took forty one years — from 1953 to 1994 — for the first 658 climbers to summit; in 2013 alone, 658 climbers and guides reached the summit (Reid). It appears that the romantic notion of summiting, is no longer all it’s cracked up to be. Author and mountaineer, Jon Krakauer, regards his choice to climb Everest as “the biggest mistake I ever made” (Bryant). Krakauer was part of the worst tragedy on Everest to date associated with commercialization, leaving him stating that “the commercial experience on Everest leaves a bad taste in my mouth” (Bryant).

Conclusion

Commercializing the worlds highest peak has come with a cost. Evidence lies within the mountain itself, slowly deteriorating with every added footstep to the summit. Aside from the mountain and its health and beauty being deteriorated, a much larger and more serious cost is prevalent: the lives of climbers. With over 200 frozen corpses being stepped over like cracks in a sidewalk, how many more will it take to bring upon some harsh realizations about the mountains state? After all, this is the only place on earth where leaving corpses of deceased to be stepped over by others is perfectly acceptable. The fact that it is considered normal for climbers to take a selfie with these frozen corpses only to post the photographs online, is morally wrong and disrespectful to the families of the deceased. Every year climbers perish as they fall victim to the mountain. As the number of lives taken coincides with increase in popularity of guided and profit run expeditions, are these lives victims of the mountain or of commercialization? With such negative notions surrounding Everest within the past few decades, what is keeping experienced, and unexperienced, people heading for the summit? If it is to join the exclusive club of a select few members who have stood a top the summit, when will this appeal fade as the club becomes not so exclusive? If it is for its sublime beauty, this has already begun to lose its attraction as mounds of garbage litter Everest now a days, giving it a label of “the world’s highest garbage dump”. Whatever the attraction may be, it raises the question of how long it can continue to withstand and last in these commercialized days, and what the future has in store for mighty Everest. If serious actions, including revised rules and regulations, aren’t implemented soon, the future of Everest looks bleak and dismal.

References

Bishop, Brent; Chris Naumann. “Mount Everest: Reclamation of the World’s Highest Junk Yard”. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 16, No. 3, In Memoriam: Barry Chapman Bishop,1932-1994. (Aug., 1996), p. 323-327.

Bryant, Mark. “Everest a Year Later: False Summit”. Outside Magazine, May 1 1997. Web.

<http://www.outsideonline.com/1915126/everest-year-later-false-summit>

Byers, Alton. “Landscape Change and Man-Accelerated Soil Loss: The Case of the Sagarmatha

(Mt. Everest) National Park, Khumbu, Nepal”. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 7, No. 3, Proceedings of the Mohonk Mountain.Conference: The Himalaya-Ganges Problem. (Aug., 1987), p. 209-216.

Dutta, A. and V. Singh. 1998. “Tourism in the Himalaya: Environmental and Socio-Cultural Concerns.” Mountain Ecosystems: A Scenario of Unsustainability, edited by V. Singh and M.L. Sharma, p 192-203. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.

Dying for Everest. Dir. Richard Dennison. Documentary, 2007. Film.

Figueroa, Pablo. “Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt. Everest”. United Nations University, July 15 2013. Web.

<http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/vanity-pollution-and-death-on-mt-everest>

Jenkins, Mark. “Maxed Out on Everest”. National Geographic, June 2013. Web.

<http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/06/125-everest-maxed-out>

Nuwer, Rachel. “Death in the Clouds: The Problem with Everest’s 200+ Bodies”. BBC, October 9 2015. Web.

<http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151008-the-graveyard-in-the-clouds-everests-200-dead-bodies>

Palmer, Catherine. “Shit Happens: The Selling of Risk in Extreme Sport”. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 13:3 p. 323-336.

Paramaguru, Kharunya. “Nepal to Mount Everest Trekkers: Pick Up Your Trash”. Time Inc., March 4 2014. Web.

<http://time.com/12144/nepal-to-mount-everest-trekkers-pick-up-your-trash>

Pawson, Ivan G.; Dennyse D. Stanford; Vincanne A. Adams; Mingma Nurbu. “Growth of Tourism in Nepal’s Everest Region: Impact on the Physical

Environment and Structure of Human Settlements”. Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 4, No. 3. (Aug., 1984), p. 237-246.

Reid, Chip. “Climbing Mount Everest: Once Lonely, Now Crowded, But Always Treacherous”. CBS News, April 18 2014. Web.

<http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mount-everest-how-climb-has-changed-since-the-first-summit>

Rosenfield, Scott. “The Photo that Captured the 2012 Climbing Season”. Outside Magazine, May 1 2013. Web.

<http://www.outsideonline.com/1915676/photo-captured-2012-climbing-season>

[Image: Courtesy of Ralf Dujmovits]

Savage, David. Benno Torgler. “Because it is There: Commercializing Mount Everest”. The Conversation US, Inc., May 30 2013. Web.

<http://theconversation.com/because-it-is-there-commercialising-mount-everest-14767>

Slemon, Stephen. “Climbing Mount Everest: Postcolonialism in the Culture of Ascent”. Post colonizing the Commonwealth: Studies in Literature and Culture, Ch 4 p. 51-66.

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