One of the absolute pinnacles of human exploration is to conquer Mount Everest. Since 1953, when the peak of Everest was first reached, thousands of others have tried to reach the summit, with hundreds of the local Sherpa population aiding in these attempts. As a result, tonnes of waste and human excrement now lie on the slopes of Mount Everest.
Yes, this is an ecological disaster – this element of the situation has been reported in Western press. But it is also a social and cultural catastrophe. Everest has a special place in Nepalese culture and religion, especially for the Sherpa people. For the Sherpa, Everest is the ‘Mother of the World’. Further, Everest is deeply bound up in the Buddhism that the majority of Sherpa practice, giving the mountain a special religious significance.
There are two striking inconsistencies in the current situation. The first lies along the classic lines of, ‘if you wouldn’t want to be treated in a particular way, don’t treat other people in that way’. It is very difficult to imagine Roman Catholic climbers being happy with thousands of tourists coming here and dumping huge quantities of waste in the Vatican. Repeat this example for all faith/secular groups and it becomes quite plain that the attitude of the climbers shows a total lack of consideration of what is best for the natural environment or the Sherpa.
The second inconsistency lies in why Sherpas and the climbers act as they do. The Sherpas who helped the earliest climbers up Everest, and to a large extent the Sherpas of today, offer their aid not because of any want for personal gain. Rather, it was from selflessness that is embedded in the Sherpas’ Buddhism that allows the Sherpa to help the climbers. The majority of climbers attempt to reach the summit for purely egotistical reasons.
At its best, travelling and exploring can create a dialogue between cultures. Travelling is an opportunity to learn from others and through that process we come to respect the practices and traditions of others. It is sad that those who climb Everest so often ignore the Sherpa’s values and religion and have made Everest the ‘world’s highest junkyard’ in a blinkered dash for personal accomplishment.