We have all experienced that spark of wanderlust. We see photos of towering mountain ranges decorated with snow-capped peaks and think to ourselves, “what if?” Imagine yourself: exhausted, hungry, aching and short of breath-- but in complete and utter awe. Your feet planted on a snow-and-ice-covered point. More specifically, the highest point for miles in every direction. A crisp wind blasts you in the face, and your body is a confused mess of numb fatigue and awakening sensations. You are in a pristine island above the clouds; you are accomplished. It is no easy task to go from drooling over a picture to standing on the summit of your dream peak. Yet, it is done, and by more and more people every decade. The mountains have an appeal that cannot be easily explained, and for years humans have ventured outside of their comfort zones to wander them.
As a climber, hiker, endurance runner, and lover of anything and everything outdoors, it is no surprise that I am slightly obsessed with mountains. I spend a good portion of my time-- both awake and asleep-- dreaming about epic alpine mountain summits all over the world. There is something beautifully poetic in enduring frostbitten appendages and sore muscles in order to accomplish such a goal; to become remote and vulnerable, teetering on the precipice of every human emotion. My mind is in a whirl of possibilities just writing about it… and I know that I am not the only one! From Alaska to the Himalayas, there is no shortage of adventures to be had.
On that note, there is also no shortage of adventurers who are willing to pay the price to climb these beautiful parcels of land. So many, in fact, that mountain destinations like Mount Everest in the Himalayas are experiencing massive influxes in human traffic in the form of mountain tourism. From 1988-1994 alone, the annual number of visitors into Everest and the surrounding park increased by about 155%, and that figure is still growing-- and it is becoming a problem.
Wait a minute-- why is that bad? You may be asking why I am suggesting that you should reconsider that trip to Everest after that juicy description of how wonderful it is to summit a mountain. Anyways, this is mountain tourism we are talking about-- outdoorsmen (and women) like us care about the environment and culture; we are a group of environmental stewards and travelers who thrive on the mountain experience. However, evidence shows that the “leave no trace” principles we hold near and dear to our hearts are not applied to some mountaineering and trekking expeditions in the Himalayas; and this is causing some major issues.
This blog is about adventure, the outdoors, and their corresponding hobbies. But what happens when these things conflict with the very platform that they rely on? The environment is an essential part of life for obvious reasons-- and anyone who spends much of their time in nature understands the importance of its protection not only for economic purposes, but also aesthetic purposes. Nature is a place of healing on many levels, and its health is of utmost importance. For my first blog post, I think it is important to introduce the relationship between the environment and the hobbies that take place in it that we all love. The preservation of natural areas should be second-nature for those involved in outdoor recreation; this is the case for many, thanks to organizations like Leave No Trace and simply following environmental ethics. However, issues remain still, hence this extensive look at one of the many environmental problems in the Himalayan region due to outdoor tourism. There is a lot to talk about, but for the purpose of this post, I want to talk trash.
In Nepalese trekking and expedition areas, the presence of waste is particularly high. Since the number of tourists, trekkers and mountaineers is increasing rapidly, a huge amount of human-induced pollution and solid waste is being deposited in these ecologically sensitive areas. This trash accumulation is exacerbated in part by the expenses associated with waste management-- but lets be honest, it is absurd to ask that elaborate waste management facilities be established in an area deemed remote, alpine and wild. If an area is not capable of supporting the waste of thousands of tourists, it is the individual’s duty to manage their own waste, not only for ethical reasons, but for lack of a better option. Being in an alpine environment, there are simply no realistic options for transporting the waste deposited by visitors; recycling and “pack in pack out” ethics depend heavily on the voluntary behavior of the visitor.
I find it interesting that so many mountain tourists--people who supposedly care about the outdoor environment-- are so utterly unaware of their trash impacts. In an article from Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Kuniyal notes that “the visitors traveling in topographically fragile and ecologically highly sensitive areas continue to establish only a one-sided relation with nature. The untreated waste alongside the trails only occurs due to the negligence of visitors and the lack of awareness of host communities.” Take note that waste is more than just an eyesore; humans and their environment interact more than most humans care to acknowledge. The build-up of trash has negative connotations for the Nepalese people living in the area. Pollution is still pollution regardless of its location, and it is still harmful. Contamination left behind by visitors does not go away, it is left for the local people to deal with. It is upsetting to know that “leave no trace” ethics seem to go out the window for many in the international mountaineering setting, where the locals must suffer the consequences.
Indeed, the trash problem in the Himalayas is a complex issue that mountain tourists cannot take all the blame for. As is the case in nearly every environmental or social issue, there are many factors at play. I acknowledge the fact that I do not live anywhere near Everest, nor have I spent the past year researching the topic for a thesis paper. I by no means have all the information relevant to the issue permitting me to point fingers and draw conclusions. However, I recognize that there is a problem... and being that it involves fellow mountain dwellers, I encourage looking into it.
Exploring the mountains is a deeply personal experience, characterized by connecting to nature through pushing the body’s physical and mental limits. The mountains demand respect, and us humans need to oblige if we decide that it is our right to wander them. The relationship between mountain and man is delicate, and a certain level of awareness on our part is essential to the maintenance of this relationship; not only for the preservation of ecological processes, but for the well-being of the locals living in the area. As a fellow nature-lover and mountain athlete, I suggest pondering this notion before setting off on your next expedition or trip. Think of the implications of your presence and how it affects the local people. The mountains are calling; if we must go, let us go with these issues in mind. Let us go knowing what must be done as an individual in order to preserve the areas that we love.
Jefferies, Bruce. "Sagarmatha National Park: The Impact of Tourism in the Himalayas." AMBIO - A Journal of the Human Environment. 11.5 (n.d.): 274-81. Web.
Johnston, Barbara R., and Ted Edwards. "The Commodification of Mountaineering." Annals of Tourism Research 21.3 (1994): 459-78. Web.
Kuniyal, Jagdish C. "Solid Waste Management in the Himalayan Trails and Expedition Summits." Journal of Sustainable Tourism 13.4 (2005): 391-410. Web.
Nepal, Sanjay K. "Mountain Ecotourism and Sustainable Development."Mountain Research and Development 22.2 (2002): 104-09. Web.
Sundriyal, R. C., and S. C. Rai. "Tourism and Biodiversity Conservation: The Sikkim Himalaya." AMBIO - A Journal of the Human Environment. 26.4 (1997): 235. Web.