February 15, 2019
Spent oxygen tanks, abandoned camping tents, wind-torn plastic bags, thousands of pounds of human excrement, and even the occasional human body protruding from melting ice have made base camp around the China side of Mount Everest the world’s highest garbage dump.
Chinese authorities, as they prep for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the throngs of winter tourists expected to visit the country, want no part of it.
In an effort to get a handle on the trash problem around the 29,029 foot peak, authorities in Dingri County—also sometimes referred to as Tingri—have indefinitely closed access to areas above Rongbu Temple to tourists.
The base camp lies around 1,000 feet higher than the Rongbu Temple area, which sits at around 17,060 ft. above sea level.
Authorities claim the restrictions will not affect climbers who have permits for the spring climbing season, which usually runs from April through June, according to a Feb. 14 report from state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Nor will it impact scientists venturing above the temple area, Suo Lang, secretary general of the China Tibet Mountaineering Association, the organization in charge of the permitting process, told Bloomberg Environment.
Calls to the Dingri county government and media center for confirmation about the policies were not returned.
At the end of last year, China had already cut the number of permits allowed for foreigners in 2019 down by a third to 300.
“Assuming good intentions suggests [local Chinese authorities] fully understand their environmental responsibility to maintain Everest as pristine as possible, thus the cleanup and limiting the number of climbers,” Alan Arnette, a mountaineer who has climbed Everest four times, said.
The route up Everest from the Tibet region attracts fewer climbers than the route beginning south of the summit, in Nepal. Roughly two-thirds of the summits in Mount Everest’s history have originated in Nepal.
“As for banning people from visiting base camp [that’s] a good thing as it really does not need more people than the climbers,” Arnette said.
At the end of last year, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association announced that climbers would also now have to pay a $1,500 garbage fee on top of the $9,500 cost for a permit, bringing costs for a climb up to the same level as neighboring Nepal to the south.
It appears likely that the base camp area will be off limits to tourists indefinitely, perhaps up until the 2022 Winter Games, and possibly longer.
Local authorities are working to steer them toward a tourist hub 20 miles from base camp in Gongar county, where construction of a $14 million mountaineering center is expected to be completed later this year.
The center will house travel agencies, medical services, a helicopter rescue base, and mountain activity support facilities, according to state-run newspaper China Daily.
Around 60,000 people visit areas around the base of the mountain, known as Mount Qomolangma in China, each year.
“Of course the world we live in tends to be skeptical and would assume that China is trying to make money off Everest like Nepal does, Europe with the Alps, the U.S. with Rainier and Denali, and on and on,” Arnette said. “So they need to improve the image of dead bodies and trash, which are both mostly true.”
China Daily reported in late January that a cleanup team has been formed and besides cleaning up around base camp, it will attempt to remove bodies at or above 26,000 feet for the first time.
“For the garbage cleanup, this year’s team has not yet entered [the area], and won’t go until early April,” Suo of the mountaineering association said.
“The annual climbing season is spring and autumn, that is, April to June and September to October,” Suo said. “We cannot clean now or know much about the [garbage] situation on the mountain [until then].”
Last spring, teams removed over 2 metric tons of human excrement, over 5 tons of camping waste, and 1 ton of mountaineering equipment in a similar cleanup around base camp, according to state media.