What comes to mind when you think of the word 'garbage'? Maybe the hapless barge that virtually circled the globe for more than a year, or your teenager's room.

One place you probably won't think of is Mount Everest, the highest point on the globe and the world's highest garbage dump.

In a failed 1987 attempt to become the first American woman to reach the summit of Everest, Walt Whitman High School graduate Liz Nichol saw enough to mount a much more ambitious project, one she hopes will have a lasting effect on the planet.

"Just being there and seeing the trash -- it's not as much of an impact unless you're there and you see it," said Nichol, 43, a founding member of the Walt Whitman Rock Climbing Club. "I decided to go back and do something."

In 1990, Nichol and her husband, Bob McConnell, a lawyer in Colorado Springs, where the couple now lives, organized the first expedition dedicated solely to removing garbage from Everest, on the Nepal-Tibet border. They called it the Everest Environmental Expedition, or E3.

And this month the team -- including McConnell; Nichol's younger brother, Peter Nichol, 30, of Potomac; and five others -- has returned to the mountain to continue where E3 left off as part of the Everest Environmental Project.

Liz Nichol is staying home this time to care for the couple's 2-year-old son, Christopher.

"They found they had a lot more to do" after the 1990 expedition, said Peter Nichol, a Churchill High School graduate who just returned to the Washington area after three years in Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"Other expeditions have called themselves cleanups, but all of their efforts went into climbing. We wanted to make it very clear our purpose was solely cleanup," Liz Nichol said.

For decades, climbers -- who spent months, even years, intricately planning every aspect of an ascent to the summit -- have neglected to plan for disposing of their garbage and usually threw it down crevasses or simply left it. Fierce, sweeping snowstorms buried the trash under tons of precipitation that doesn't melt.

But, as in many confrontations between man and nature, nature succumbed, and on Everest, not even the snows prevented the garbage from piling up.

Members of the environmental expedition are not simply high-altitude garbage collectors. Their ultimate achievement will be educating people, Liz Nichol said. "We will be making people more aware, and we'll be making people feel a moral or ethical obligation to be responsible" for their trash.

"Meanwhile," she continued, "people have a tendency to keep a place cleaner if they find it clean. If we pick up the mess, people might be inclined to do a better job."

The team will stay six weeks and will be joined for a week by a support trek team.

In 1990, E3 removed 1 1/2 tons of garbage from base camp and advance base camp, at 18,500 feet. It was carried down the mountain by people, yaks and trucks. This time, the team will proceed upward to areas from which refuse can be taken down the mountain only by humans. They also will check on the condition of stone trash receptacles and latrines they built two years ago.

"To camp on the Nepalese side, you literally have to pull garbage away to find a place for your tent," Peter Nichol said.

Above 20,000 feet (Everest is 29,028 feet high and the real climbing doesn't begin until 20,000), breathing is difficult. At those heights, waste of any kind does not disintegrate, assimilate, decompose or otherwise benefit the environment. There is no topsoil or bacteria because conditions are simply too harsh. In other words, garbage stays where it's put.

"When you're operating on what {Austrian climber} Reinhold Messner called the edge of the death zone, the edge of human existence, if you leave something, it's the payoff for proving yourself," McConnell said. "But we've reached a point in the mountains where it's no longer justifiable."

There is every kind of trash on the mountain -- wine bottles, cans, human waste, heavy-gauge oxygen cannisters, tents, aluminum poles and aluminum foil.

Most of the world's peaks, including K-2 in Pakistan and Mount Aconcagua on the Chile-Argentina border, are similarly defaced by climbers' garbage.

"We're looking ahead at creating policy, changing the way Everest is used. We want to cut off the trash at the source, which is poor expedition planning," Peter Nichol said. The team hopes to change the way expeditions are sanctioned by local climbing clubs by urging waste-disposal plans and improving policing efforts.

McConnell, chairman of the International Conservation Committee of the American Alpine Club, established waste management guidelines that the team hopes will be adopted by other countries. But ultimately, McConnell said, "the long-term solution has to be left with the local people. We have to offer ideas but not impose values."

In 1990, E3 and The Woodlands Institute, an environmental group in Tennessee, donated a truck to Tibetan authorities. McConnell said reports from the region indicate that the truck is being used to transport garbage from the mountain. The group also has started a fund to find and train managers for the nature preserve on the Tibetan side and to implement a management plan.

In 1963, 20 people used the Nepal-side approach to Everest. In 1991, 70,000 people used the same base camp. About 1,000 people visit the Everest camp on the Tibetan side each year.

"We're taking the most remote corners of the world, which Western travelers have sought out, and they become well known and trashed," McConnell said. "We're running out of places."