Poop bags and GPS trackers are among the new plans to tackle overtourism on Everest

Climbing Mount Everest – known to the Sherpa people of Nepal as Sagarmatha – was once an activity reserved for the world’s best mountaineers. During the decade that followed the first ascent in 1953, only thirteen people reached the summit of the world’s highest mountain.

Times are changing. During the 2023 climbing season, more than 600 climbers claimed the summit of Everest, many of them enthusiastic amateurs who paid more than $55,000 (£44,000) to be escorted to the summit by expert mountaineers, Sherpa porters and guides. Tragically, the 2023 season also claimed the lives of at least 17 climbers.

Photos of traffic jams in the ‘death zone’ above 8,000 meters and piles of rubbish at Everest Base Camp have pushed overtourism on the mountain into the headlines, leaving many to wonder, as teams set to conquer the mountain this spring, is climbing the Everest still sustainable, or even ethical?

In response, the Nepalese government launched a series of new rules for climbers in 2024, aimed at improving safety and reducing the mountains of rubbish that have grown since Everest first summited.

This season, as part of the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality’s Base Camp Management Procedure, the size of climbing groups will be limited to 15 people and all climbers will be required to carry emergency tracking devices.

The new rules also require expeditions to use special shared toilet tents, and anyone who goes higher than Everest Base Camp will be required to carry their bodily waste down the mountain in a poop bag and clean up at least eight kilograms of waste by the end of their expedition.

It’s an ambitious move for a mountain that generates US$4.9 million ($3.9 million) in direct revenue from climbing permits every year, but will the new rules Real Solve Everest’s problems and will they be enforced? Opinions are divided.

Mount Everest nonsense 1993

Climbing expeditions on Everest deposit more than eight tonnes of human waste, pictured here in 1993 – AFP

“GPS trackers are a step in the right direction,” says Billi Bierling of the Himalayan Database, the organization that keeps track of summit attempts. “It is certainly better than not having them as clients and Sherpas can be located quickly, especially if something happens in the Khumbu Icefall.

“But the best way to make Everest safer is to have more talented climbers on the mountain. Every season there is talk about requiring mountaineers to have previous mountaineering experience, but for some reason that hasn’t happened yet.”

However, the introduction of Waste Alleviating Gel (WAG) bags for human waste is undeniably a step forward. According to a campaign by Nepalese environmental activist Dawa Steven Sherpa in 2019, climbing expeditions dump more than eight tons of human waste on the slopes of Everest every year.

“The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC) will provide each climber with a bag containing a chemical powder that coagulates human feces and makes them odorless,” Nima Nuru Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, explained. “It is the first time such a rule has been imposed and it will be repeated in other mountains of Nepal.”

Dealing with the problem of equipment and litter left behind by climbing expeditions can be a more difficult task. “The waste found in many mountain areas has taken decades to accumulate, and it will take time and effort at all levels to remove it,” said record-breaking Nepalese mountaineer Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja, who leads waste collection teams to the Everest, K2 led. and Manaslu as part of the Big Mountain Clean Up campaign.

According to British mountaineer Kenton Cool, who is currently on the mountain, authorities must do more to ensure people understand the responsibilities associated with climbing in the Himalayas. “The biggest change needed is education, for both climbers and Sherpas,” he says. “People don’t always know how to behave in the mountains.

“The Nepalese ministry has its heart in the right place, but solving the problems on Everest is not just about issuing rules, but about ensuring they are understood and followed. The WAG bag is an honorable idea, but no one seems to be checking. We took ours a few days ago and the staff at the SPCC checkpoint had no idea what to do with it.

Kenton CoolKenton Cool

People don’t always know how to behave in the mountains, says British climber Kenton Cool – Kenton Cool

Communication is a big part of the problem, agrees Austrian climber Lukas Furtenbach. “The specific regulations of the Khumbu Authority were only disclosed to Nepalese operators; foreign operators received the news from local partners, rumors and the media.”

To add to the complications, the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality has already withdrawn some of the new regulations, including a proposed ban on helicopters ferrying supplies to the base camp (this is now allowed, but only with official permission).

Sherpas have their own concerns about the new regulations. “These rules have been suddenly and unexpectedly announced not long before the start of the mountaineering season and this will have a significant impact on our operating costs,” warns climbing guide Lhakpa Tsheri Sherpa.

Climbers in EverestClimbers in Everest

Sherpas are concerned that the new rules will impact operational costs – Gamma-Rapho

“While some believe the new rules will generate more employment for local porters and yak herders if fewer helicopters are allowed to transport goods and materials directly to base camp, others believe the new rules will make Everest expeditions even more expensive, which could lead to a downturn in business.”

Climbers aren’t the only people affected by the changes. More than 90 percent of the 57,690 visitors to Sagarmatha National Park in 2023 were trekkers, who booked their hikes with hot tea, freshly baked cakes and sometimes even luxurious spa treatments at the climbers’ village at Everest Base Camp.

Starting this year, business ventures will be banned at Base Camp, which could mean an end to camp bakeries and high-altitude mass tents. In the future, climbing Everest may be safer and cleaner, but also more frugal – for better or for worse.

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