Alpinist, Everest garbage man has bone to pick with polluters

by Taiga Uranaka

The problem of garbage disposal — a nagging issue common to major cities around the globe — has grown so large that even the world’s most lofty place is not immune to litter anymore, mountaineer Ken Noguchi laments.

Ken Noguchi stands behind an exhibition of garbage that he and his fellow climbers retrieved near the summit of Mount Everest at the Tokyo Metroplitan Government building.

The 27-year-old climber, who in 1999 became the youngest man to have scaled the tallest peaks of the world’s seven continents, said 8,848-meter Mount Everest suffers serious garbage pollution.

He is one of the organizers of ACTIONS 8848, an exhibition of garbage retrieved from “the world’s highest dump site.”

“When I first challenged Mount Everest in 1997, I was shocked to see the view unfolding in front of me,” he said. “The base camp was littered with empty cans, oxygen tanks and boiled food packs.”

A more stunning revelation was the fact that most of the garbage had been left by Asian climbers, especially Japanese, he said. “I was really embarrassed when my colleagues of the international team criticized the bad manners of the Japanese.”

After successfully scaling its summit on his third try in May 1999, Noguchi made a personal promise to return to the mountain, not to climb to the top but to collect the garbage that littered it.

For about two months beginning last March, a team led by Noguchi collected 1.5 tons of trash from the 6,600-8,300 meter level.

The operation, conducted at an oxygen-depleted high altitude, was rife with difficulty and danger. “It was very different from regular climbing, because we had to remain near the peak instead of going back to the base camp,” he said.

It was also painfully time-consuming. Even a veteran mountaineer like Noguchi, who can shoulder 40 kg at ground level, could carry up to only 15 kg — about the weight of three empty oxygen tanks — per haul.

Noguchi said they retrieved about 120 empty tanks but there are still several thousand tanks remaining on the mountain. More than 100 tons of garbage is estimated on Everest.

He said the problem goes deeper than the etiquette of individual mountaineers.

“It is a matter of the societies they are from, for the garbage clearly shows the countries’ attitude toward the environment. A country whose team dumps garbage is invariably dirty,” said Noguchi, who spent his early life in many countries accompanying his diplomat father.

“I don’t intend to merely emphasize the pollution on Mount Everest. Rather, I hope that people will have greater awareness of environmental problems in general through the exhibition.”