The cry of the wilderness…

Mt Everest Base Camp

Recently, it was the 60th anniversary of man’s first ascent of the highest point on Earth, Mount Everest.

Back in those days, what Tenzing Norgay and Hillary did was awe-inspiring. Fast forward to today, and it is nothing unusual, with the opportunity available to anyone who can afford the fees.

So what has resulted in the headline above….why does the wilderness cry?

It cries because hitherto it was untouched and untamed by man, it was a true wilderness….now it cries because it has truly lost it’s virginity…it has been deflowered in the most appalling ways in some places….and all because it has been opened up to massive visitor numbers.

Whereas at one time these places were havens for wildlife, now the same places are strewn with garbage, some of it so permanent that it will take many thousands of years to disintegrate back into the soils.

Getting back to Everest…what will it be like in 50 years time….or 25 years time…or even 10 years time, given the wanton despoiling of the region going on presently?

Without doubt, tourism in the region has multiplied exponentially over the past 10 years or so….nowadays, if a climber is in trouble, helicopters are able to mount a rescue even at heights of up to 26 000ft, something unheard of just a few years ago.

Very soon, many people believe that a helipad will be built on the South Col of Everest, supplying tourists with bottled oxygen and other aids to successful ascents of the mountain.

Helicopter lands at Namche Bazaar
http://www.flickr.com

The problem of such huge visitor numbers in an area that is not conducive to holding human habitation has reached a crescendo….climate changes have depleted the water supplies at these altitudes, and everywhere you go here, people are talking about the water supplies.

In answer to these worries, the Government is installing a 5 mile pipeline to bring water to Namche Bazaar, a small Sherpa town before the invasion of tourists. This water will hopefully dampen the tourist demands for hot showers and flushing toilets, but the worry is where will all this waste water go? A small stream in the area is now so contaminated with human waste that it is almost bursting at its seams with the stuff.

Namche Bazaar

At Base Camp, human waste used to be just buried hurriedly in a few inches of rock and gravel, but as the numbers of visitors grew and grew, it also became unmanageable….it wasn’t unknown for a person walking around the area in the early morning or late night, to step in human excrement.

That problem has thankfully been brought under control, in a rather primitive fashion…the waste is filled into plastic barrels and emptied into a huge pit a little way down the valley by porters. But now there are fears that this pit itself will start leaking its contents into the water-table of the area…

Human waste, empty oxygen bottles and other detritus piles up every day

Such problems can be solved quite easily…someone has suggested that just $500 000 a year can solve this problem once and for all time…compare that sum to the fee of $90 000 a climber has to pay to climb Everest, then you can see that there is more than adequate cashflow to improve the problems.

Further problems caused by climate changes also threaten the area, made worse by the lack of trees lower down in the valleys….these trees served as a natural sponge, soaking up all the annual flood water coming from the glaciers, but all the trees have now gone, destroyed by herds of livestock and cut down for firewood.

So now, when the glacial lakes do overflow, they threaten to wash away the Sherpa homelands.

Another problem of the human excursion into this area is how careless the climbers are when they leave….a recent team of 25 porters sent up to the area around the summit by the Nepalese Government found over 300 tons of waste…and even more shocking, five dead bodies of team members. The government estimates that since the 1920s up to the present day, the period during which climbing has increased in the area, the bodies of over 100 climbers lay strewn along the routes to the ascent. When bodies are identified, the families are always asked if they would like their relative’s body back, and overwhelmingly the relatives refuse, due to the extremely high cost of bringing the corpses down. So the dead are left where they lie….an example is the body of climber Scott Fisher, who lies up there still….

Body of climber Scott Fisher frozen to death near Everest summit

The changing weather has also affected tourism…increasingly these days, Lukla airport, which is the gateway to the Everest region, has to remain closed to flights due to the constant cloud cover that has become de-rigeur nowadays.

Lukla Airport

As a way to overtake this problem, a new road to Lukla is being built, in order to guarantee a flow of tourists to the region, but many believe these new roads are being built with the aim of maximizing income from the tourists, with no attention being paid to the disastrous consequences of landslides and soil erosion that this network.

There is a ray of light amongst all this doom and gloom. Over the years, the Sherpas grew wise to the amount of income that could be earned in the area, so rather than act as porters themselves, they began to hire out the work to other ethnic groups in the area, paying them an absolute minimum and keeping the huge profits themselves. But although the new porters willingly accepted this new-found income, there were no facilities provided for them, resulting in huge numbers of deaths from injuries etc.

Bu recently, a group was set up by a former doctor to Chris Bonnington, who first climbed Everest in the 70s. The group has helped build porter shelters, health posts and warm clothing banks, which has resulted in a dramatic lowering of porter deaths.

And yet this move has not been welcomed by the Sherpas who now run the ascents, as they say that their porters have begun to ask for increases in wages which cannot be maintained. The truth of the matter is that the Sherpas were happy to exploit the poor porters for as long as possible, before this group, funded by foreign money, came about and upset the apple cart.

By opening up area such as these, mankind has made them accessible to laymen, but at what cost? What kind of world are we leaving for our children, where there is no wilderness left…nothing left untouched? What kind of a life would that be, where everything has been done…and noting else left to do?

It would be sad place indeed…and we are fast heading that way now…

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