Mount Everest is overcrowded, polluted and nearing a crossroads, 60 years after first climb

Sixty years have passed since the first historic Everest ascent, but neither the world's tallest mountain nor the climb itself are quite what they used to be.

In the weeks leading up to today's anniversary, climbers have complained that the mountain has gotten too crowded and commercialized, often with rich, inexperienced tourists looking for a high-prestige vacation. (It's indicative, perhaps, that one of the most widely circulated videos from the 60th anniversary celebration was essentially a commercial for the Austrian energy drink Red Bull.) See the video below.

Several hundred people climb the mountain each season -- Time reports that, on a single day in 2012, more than 230 people reached the summit. Two Norwegian alpinists told the Guardian that's led to waits of more than two hours on the last leg of the ascent. And it's changed the lives of locals, for both better and worse:

The crowds also leave behind signs that they've been there: empty oxygen canisters, torn tents and "pyramids of human excrement," according to Time's Bryan Walsh. Deforestation was long an issue in areas where tourists cut down wood for warmth. ("They behave as though they are lords of the area," Edmund Hillary, one of Everest's first climbers, complained of modern tourists 10 years ago.)

And that litter pales in comparison to the greater environmental damage wrought by carbon emissions, which researchers believe have shrunk Mount Everest's glaciers by 13 percent in the past 50 years and moved the snowline up more than 500 feet. That's a serious problem, since those are the same glaciers that feed the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, which provide drinking water and irrigation in some of the world's most populous regions.

In short, if the first climbers could see Everest now, they would "not have been happy" -- or so Sherpa Tenzing Norgay's son told the BBC.

Fortunately, both the Nepali government and a range of non-profit groups have signaled that they have plans for Everest's recovery. According to the BBC, Nepali officials are considering a limit on the number of climbers allowed on Everest, apparently despite the fact that such climbers pay a whopping $10,000 for permits and pump much-needed cash into the local economy.

An organization called Glacierworks has also mobilized support for preserving Everest's glaciers. The organization's founder, American filmmaker and five-time Everest "summiteer" David Breashears, started the non-profit after noticing differences between the landscape he saw and a black-and-white photo taken by the early Everest adventurer George Mallory. The non-profit has since partnered with everyone from the Asia Society to Internet Explorer to publicize their cause; Glacierworks also launched a stunning interactive Web site to coincide with today's anniversary.

It's too early to know what kind of effect these projects could have on the Everest of the future. Asked by the Nepali Times what he thought the mountain would look like in 100 years, Breashears was ambivalent:

If this global trend continues, there will be considerably less snow and ice on the mountain and the glacier will be in a much less stable state. But the truth is that we don’t know what it will look like in 100 years.

You can, however, see what Everest looks like today (and in pretty astounding detail): Glacierworks previously took a 3.8-billion pixel panoramic photo of Everest, and the mountain has been mapped by Google Street View.

Update: An earlier version of this story referred to Red Bull as an American drink; it's actually from Austria. The post has been edited to reflect that change.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
Comments
Show Comments

Get the WorldViews newsletter

Sign up for daily updates from WorldViews.

Most Read World
Next Story
Caitlin Dewey · May 29, 2013