It stinks to high heaven. This is now to be a thing of the past on the highest mountain on earth. Anyone who wants to climb Mount Everest or the neighboring eight-thousander Lhotse from the Nepalese south side from this spring onwards must buy so-called “poo bags” at base camp and use them if they need to relieve themselves on the mountain.
“Our mountains have begun to stink,” Mingma Sherpa, head of the local administration of the Khumbu region, told the BBC: “We are getting complaints that human stools are visible on rocks and some climbers are falling sick. This is not acceptable and erodes our image.”
The poo bags specially developed for outdoor use can be sealed tightly. Their inside is coated with a mixture of gelling agents, enzymes and odour-neutralizing substances. These ensure that the faeces are bound and the smell is reduced.
Similar bags were used on the US space agency NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and 70s. They have also long been used on expeditions to the 6,190-meter-high Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Until now, they have mostly been disposed of there in deep crevasses – which is certainly not a good idea.
Three tons of faeces on the mountain
According to the BBC, the Nepalese environmental protection organization Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) has ordered around 8,000 poo bags from the USA for the upcoming spring season on Everest. The SPCC is responsible for the management of the Everest Base Camp and also employs the “Icefall Doctors“, who prepare the route through the dangerous Khumbu Icefall and maintain it during the season. The organization estimates that between Camp 1 at 6,100 meters and Camp 4 on the South Col at just below 8,000 meters, there is a total of around three tonnes of excrements – half of it at the South Col, the last camp before the summit.
Several hundred summit aspirants are expected on Everest again this year. In addition, there will be an average of one or two local climbers per person, who will support clients on the mountain on behalf of the commercial expedition teams.
The problem is not new
Ten years ago, the then president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), Ang Tshering Sherpa, described the unresolved issue of faeces as “one of the biggest problems on the popular mountains”. Some expedition operators have been advising their clients to use poo bags for years. However, many operators don’t care.
Tim Mosedale, head of the British company Everest Expedition, described on Facebook how he pointed out the problem to a Nepalese government official a decade ago after an expedition to the 6,814-meter-high Ama Dablam in the Everest region: “The Under Secretary looking horrified that I was mentioning such an abhorrent subject and nothing ever came of it.”
Hardly a clean place for a tent
The faeces problem on Everest is becoming more and more obvious as the snow and ice melt away as a result of climate change. Scientists expect mountaineers to find a completely ice-free South Col in 2050. Then no one will be able to bury their excrement in the snow.
The problem does not only arise on the Nepalese south side, but also on the Tibetan north side of Mount Everest. Ralf Dujmovits, the most successful German high-altitude mountaineer, told me years ago that he had struggled to find a clean place for his tent in Camp 1 on the North Col because of the faeces lying around everywhere.
Since 2020, however, there has only been one Chinese expedition on the northern route in each of the spring seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, there will be a few foreign teams on the north side again for the first time – but nowhere near as many as on the south side, where the faeces problem is already more pressing due to the sheer mass of people.
P.S.: Here’s another tip. It might be helpful to eat a kind of liquid astronaut food on the mountain. It is very high in calories, but ensures few bowel movements. Such products specially developed for expeditions – e.g. Peronin, which I had good experiences with on the seven-thousander Kokodak Dome in western China in 2014 – are available on the market.