NEWS: Trash and Treasure: First Discoveries Jake Norton - Basecamp Tue, April 03, 2001 11:50PM
I don't know who said it, but it certainly contains elements of truth: "One man's garbage is another's treasure." For me, this fact is nowhere more true and, at times, more sad than on the high slopes of Mount Everest.
It is 5:30 AM, and I snap awake at 21,000 foot Advanced Basecamp with glands swollen like walnuts and a headache making my eyeballs pulse and throb. Knowing a voracious group of little bugs are preparing to dine in my throat, I decide to descend to Basecamp and get some R&R before digging myself a hole of illness from which I may not climb back out. Bummed and feeling weak my teammates are now heading off to carry gear up to the North Col/Camp IV I begin the long, thirteen mile journey back down the East Rongphu Glacier.
Downhill in the Himalaya is always a relative term at best, and walking "down" the East fork of the Rongphu Glacier never seems as easy as it should; on this day I am moving especially slowly. Meandering through the lower reaches of ABC, I pass through the piles of trash, rusted tin cans, wrappers with slogans written in Korean, Thai, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Nepali, and English, and other refuse marking old campsites. These places offer a sad commentary on the ethics of many expeditions. Back home, our backcountry ventures always entail the axiom: "Pack it in Pack it OUT!" Somehow, however, this practice is oft forgotten by exeditions to the big mountains, and their refuse lies in piles, a sorry reminder to climbers for years to come. Not quite as bad as its more popular, southern flank, the North Side of Everest nonetheless sees its share of foreign waste. And it all began a long time ago....
As I descend, I pick up bits of trash in the rocks that are not fused to the underlying glacial ice: a beer can here, a plastic bag there, slowly filling the side pockets of my pack with the mistakes and oversights of recent history. The rock highway on which I walk is flanked by azure blue fins of ice thrust up by the dynamic Rongphu Glacier, and the edges are dotted with small, frozen ponds holding rocks captive in their icy clutches. Out of the corner of my eye, something strange invades my downhill focus: an oblong, cylindrical object protrudes vertically from one of the small ponds. It is far too symmetrical for a rock, and I wander over to investigate. Sure enough, the object in question is made of metal, and immediately memories from 1999 surface...
On May 17th, 1999, as Tap Richards and I descended off the First Step, Tap came across an old oxygen bottle which Eric Simonson had seen back in 1991. We carried the relic down to ABC where our team historian, Jochen Hemmleb, identified it as one of Mallory & Irvine's 1924 bottles. Two years later, I am standing over an almost identical bottle, only slightly more narrow and its brown hue pockmarked by years of freeze-thaw action. Using a rock, I make a futile attempt to chip the ice away and free the cylinder; the ice clings tightly, and eventually I give up. At the 10:00 radio call, I tell ABC of my find and ask anyone who has time to check the site out. Later that day, Dave Hahn and John Race find the pond, and extract the bottle; John finds an additional one lying in the rocks a few meters away. Back at Basecamp, Jochen identifies the bottles: they are from 1922.
The first historical relic of the trip justifies the cliche One man's trash is another man's treasure. We hope, on this expedition, to uncover more trash treasures, more refuse relics, more forgotten items from the 1920's and `30's with which we can tell the story of the British pioneers of the era. Nonetheless, let this not stand as a justification for the continued pollution of these majestic peaks. Yes, items left behind 79 years ago have made a miraculous transition from trash to treasure; but, I strongly doubt that today's Snickers wrapper will hold much historical value in 2080. While we may marvel at extracted treasures from the 1920's, there is no need to create more.
On my fourth expedition to the Himalaya, I have always been happy with the way our trips led by Eric Simonson have operated in reference to waste. On my first trip to Cho Oyu in 1997 we not only hauled out our team's trash, but also packed and carried out 10 yak loads (500 kilograms) of waste left behind by other expeditions. It took eight of us only five hours to gather the waste, and the Chinese Mountaineering Association was good enough to pay for the yaks. Every other expedition I have been on with Eric has been the same: we have left the mountain with all that we arrived with, and then some. Climbing styles, routes, and equipment may change from year to year, but one thing remains true: Pack it in, Pack it OUT!