Record-setting mountaineer Kami Rita Sherpa was unable to find any fixed ropes in the "death zone" on Mt Everest during his recent climb in the spring. Sherpa, who holds the world record for summiting 8,000-meter mountains an astonishing 39 times, understands the importance of ropes for climbers navigating the frozen slopes.
Every year, experienced sherpas install hundreds of kilograms of ropes to guide climbers to the summit of Himalayan peaks. However, what happens to these nylon ropes after the mountaineering season ends?
"They are usually left on the mountain," said Himal Pandit, training coordinator at the Nepal Mountain Academy established by the Tourism Ministry.
"Approximately 400 kg of plastic ropes are left on the mountain each year, and they remain there for decades. There is no policy to bring them down, and this has been polluting the mountains," he stated at the International Sustainable Mountain Tourism Conference in Kathmandu on Thursday.
Mount Everest is a significant source of revenue for the government, with climbers injecting billions of dollars into Nepal's economy annually. Around 60,000 trekkers visit Everest base camp alone to marvel at the world's highest peak, boosting the economy along the trail. However, observers note that the government lacks a policy to keep the mountain clean.
Kami Rita, who has been climbing since 1994, shared with the Post, "In the past, if we saw any ropes, we would bring them down to the base camp and repurpose them for tying yaks and cows. I don't know how much rope lies buried on the peak. It could be a lot."
Pandit has been conducting research on mountain pollution caused by plastic ropes and has interviewed over 20 high-altitude climbing sherpas.
"The sherpas say it's not their responsibility to remove the ropes and risk their lives. We estimate that there are ropes from 30 to 40 years ago. While the government has a policy to install ropes, there is no clear policy to remove them."
According to Pandit, it is estimated that around 50 tonnes of ropes are buried under the snow on various mountains in Nepal.
There are risks in bringing the ropes down in the same season. "Moreover, sherpas are not paid to bring them back. They are paid only to install the ropes," explained Kami Rita.
"So it's the responsibility of the sherpas who install the ropes the following year to bring down the old ropes."
Kami Rita further explained that the rope-fixing team cannot wait for an expedition to finish, and therefore the ropes are often either blown away by wind or swept down by avalanches, becoming buried under the snow.
Dambar Parajuli, president of the Expedition Operators Association of Nepal, mentioned that ropes are installed on Everest using two different systems.
The ropes from the Khumbu Icefall at the head of the Khumbu Glacier at 5,486 meters to Camp II at 6,400 meters are fixed by icefall doctors deployed by the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, a community-based NGO.
The committee charges $600 per climber for the service, and these ropes are usually removed.
For the section from Camp II to the summit at 8,848.86 meters, the Expedition Operators Association of Nepal invites applications from expedition companies to install the ropes.
"This system was introduced in 2014 and fully implemented in 2016," said Parajuli. "Before that, ropes used to be installed through mutual understanding between the expedition operators."
The operators had to provide sherpas and logistics to install the ropes.
Parajuli explained that it costs over Rs10 million to install the ropes, and approximately 1,300 meters of climbing rope, typically Beal ropes, are required for Everest.
In order to prevent confusion, we utilize ropes of different colors each year, as stated by the source. For instance, if red ropes were used in 2021, yellow ropes would be used in 2022.
According to the source, removing ropes from Everest is an incredibly challenging task that is almost impossible to accomplish without endangering the lives of Sherpas. As a result, the ropes are often left on the mountain.
The issue of litter on Everest has been a longstanding problem. Mountaineers, Sherpas, guides, and other high altitude porters leave behind tons of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, including empty oxygen canisters, bottles, ropes, kitchen waste, and human waste, which pollutes the area and downstream settlements.
Plastic, a non-biodegradable material made mostly from fossil fuels, has become a significant problem on Everest due to the increasing number of climbers. It takes an estimated 500 years for a single plastic bag to fully biodegrade.
Sherpas earn a substantial amount, ranging from Rs900,000 to Rs1 million, for fixing ropes on Everest, a process that can take five to six days depending on weather conditions. The old ropes also serve as markers for the route, aiding the rope fixers.
Plastic pollution has worsened over the years in the Everest region, with the trek from Lukla to Everest base camp often referred to as the "garbage of toilet paper." Human waste in the Khumbu area has also been a significant problem, polluting downstream water sources.
Despite a government rule requiring climbers to bring back at least 8 kg of garbage per climber, the problem of garbage on the mountain persists, with nearly 60,000 trekkers visiting Khumbu annually and leaving behind massive pollution.
Alton C Byers, a mountain geographer, conservationist, and mountaineer, believes that the issue of garbage on Everest is solvable, but requires action. He notes that two decades ago, there was no garbage in any village in Khumbu, but with the growth of tourism and lodges, plastic waste has become ubiquitous.
Since January 2020, Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality has banned the use of plastic bags, bottles, and other plastic items due to their adverse effects on human health, particularly in the Everest region. However, plastic pollution continues to be a serious issue, as highlighted by Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane, a joint secretary at the Tourism Ministry.
Source: The Kathmandu Post