<p>A view of the might K2 polluted with trash. — Photo by CKNP</p>

Locals, experts sound alarm as mountains of trash pile up on the mighty K2

Plastic waste left behind on world's second-highest peak may contribute to accelerating glacial melting, warns expert.
Published September 12, 2022

On July 22, Wajid Nagar and his determined team commenced the journey to scale the mighty K2. The climber was prepared for an array of challenges during the expedition, but what caught him by surprise were the mounds of trash piled up at the second-highest mountain in the world.

The K2, one of the most difficult peaks to summit in the world, is a popular site for mountaineers from across the globe. This year, it hosted a record number of climbers. According to the Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Department, in the 2022 summer alone, 204 permits were issued for expeditions on the K2, compared to a total of 1,800 permits issued for all the 8,000m peaks in the region.

For most adventurists visiting the mighty mountain, scaling K2 is not just about the adrenaline rush or the accolades that come after summiting it. Nagar Valley’s Wajid called it a gritty yet a humbling experience that stays for a lifetime.

“The Karakoram mountains deliver mind-blowing beauty and leave you with maturity found nowhere else,” he told Dawn.com. “This alone makes the entire adventure, all the effort and suffering worthwhile.”

However, the mountaineer went on, when the excitement and dust settled, “the negatives surfaced”.

“As soon as we reached Camp 1 on the K2, in front of us was pile upon pile of trash which included corpses, abandoned ropes, tin packs, tents, climbing gears, human waste, and plastic wrappers,” said Wajid, recalling that the garbage looked as fresh as if it had been discarded seconds ago.

 The trash collected from the mountain was brought down to the base camp. — Photo courtesy: CKNP
The trash collected from the mountain was brought down to the base camp. — Photo courtesy: CKNP

Most of this trash was found in camps 1, 2, and 3 of the K2. “When you reach there, it is the smell that hits you first, even before the stunning view. It is nauseous […] kind of rotten.”

Wajid is not the only person who was irked and concerned about the immense garbage dump. Sarah Strattan, a US-based mountaineer, who arrived in Gilgit-Baltistan in June for a K2 summit, had similar concerns.

“Camps 1 and 2 were the worst with trash — old tents, gear, food packaging, fuel cans, human waste, old ropes, etc,” she told Dawn.com. “And you camp right on top of it.”

Camps 3 and 4, Strattan went on, were a little better but not pristine, adding that there was also trash littering the climbing route.

She explained that the trash created many problems for climbers, especially when it came to sanitation. “We melt the snow for water in all camps and if the snow is dirty, it can make us sick.

“Another important thing here is that the trash is visually unappealing. Climbers come to the mountains because they are beautiful and the trash is its opposite, which leaves us feeling angry, sad, and frustrated,” Strattan added.

Nepal’s popular climber and athlete Nirmal Purja echoed her thoughts. “The rubbish at Camp 2 was so bad this year that I almost threw up from the smell,” he recalled in a social media post. “Rotting food and human waste, old tents and ropes cascading down the mountains frozen into the ice and leaching in the groundwater,” Purja described.

Besides the smell and the nuisance value, Wajid said that the trash, especially the ropes, was quite dangerous for climbers and often resulted in severe injuries, sometimes even death. “Because there are so many ropes, sometimes due to the weather you end up taking the wrong rope, which has been in the ice for a while and weakened. Halfway through the climb, the rope gives up and you fall to your death,” he explained.

The mountaineer also said that the amount of trash that had piled up there couldn’t be brought down in a day or by a handful of people. “It would need another expedition. A K2 cleanup expedition.”

What goes up must come down

The GB government, under whose remit the K2 falls, organised a campaign to clear garbage on the mountain earlier this year, after almost a decade.

Yasir Abbas, ecologist of the Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP), told Dawn.com that a team of eight climbers was sent to collect trash from the K2 basecamp all the way up to Camp 4, which is located at a height of 7,800m.

 Climbers clean trash left behind by mountaineers on K2. — Photo courtesy: CKNP
Climbers clean trash left behind by mountaineers on K2. — Photo courtesy: CKNP

The cleanup mission commenced on July 19 and was completed on August 18. “During this period, the team ended up collecting 1,610kg of trash which includes climbing gear, tents, ropes, cylinders, batteries, and shopping bags,” Abbas said, adding that they sometimes worked in temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius, coupled with strong winds.

He also said that this was the first time a team had gone up to Camp 4 to collect garbage. “Previously, we only collected trash from the base camp. But this year, we went higher due to the complaints.”

Once brought down, the garbage was discarded at the CKNP’s dumpsite. Moreover, the official said, “we also set up separate camps for collecting the waste every year and an incinerator has also been fixed in the Askoli area to incinerate trash and ensure proper disposal”.

 A Central Karakoram National Park team brings back trash from the K2. — Photo courtesy: CKNP
A Central Karakoram National Park team brings back trash from the K2. — Photo courtesy: CKNP

Abbas admitted that the waste this summer was the highest collected in years, adding however that this was because of the number of expeditions on the K2.

“I believe that there were shortcomings also on the part of the climbers who, despite being told to bring back their waste, leave it up there,” he complained, calling for mechanisms and policies to restrict trash on the mountain, which was a threat to its vulnerable environment.

The deputy director of the GB Tourist Department, Sajid Hussain, echoed his sentiments. He told Dawn.com that whenever a team arrived in the region to scale K2, it was first given a briefing which includes lessons on avoiding the restricted zones of the mountain and bringing back trash.

“The mountaineers aren’t allowed to go into the mountains without the briefing and it is compulsory for them to debrief us about the events up there once they are back.”

Sajid also said that the department charges a fee of $200, approximately Rs43,430, from every mountaineer for the collection of garbage after they use it. “The amount is later used for such cleanup drives.”

But he regretted that despite all these measures, the climbers didn’t follow these guidelines, leaving behind hordes of trash piled up for someone else to dispose of.

“As much as we try, you need to understand that sending people up in these high altitudes is not an easy task. Most of the local climbers are not willing to go up till Camp 4, and those who do have to endure severe climatic challenges,” Sajid explained.

 Ropes left behind on the mountain pose life threats to climbers. — Photo courtesy: CKNP
Ropes left behind on the mountain pose life threats to climbers. — Photo courtesy: CKNP

However, local mountaineer Wajid dubbed all these guidelines and mechanisms as “rubbish”, claiming that it was not at all possible for climbers to bring back their trash.

He said that during his expedition, he brought back nearly 20kg to 22kg of trash in polythene bags but contended that collecting it was a difficult job. Furthermore, Wajid accused foreign climbers of littering the mountain, adding that the organisations that said they would collect garbage in exchange for a fee were “more words than actions”.

The key is not cleaning, it is not littering at all

As the number of people summiting K2 each year increases, it is important to understand that the solution does not just lie in cleaning, but also not littering.

According to Haider Raza, regional head of WWF Gilgit Baltistan, all the 8,000m peaks in Pakistan produce between 15 to 20 tonnes of solid waste per year, of which 86pc is generated from the K2. This figure includes non-burnable waste such as tins and glasses that amount to 45pc, while the remaining is burnable waste such as plastic and paper.

 The trash CKNP brought back form the mountains amounted to more than 1,600kg. — Photo courtesy: CKNP
The trash CKNP brought back form the mountains amounted to more than 1,600kg. — Photo courtesy: CKNP

The ecologist said that this trash didn’t include all the garbage lying on the mountain. “No one knows exactly how much waste is on the mountain, but it is in tons.

“Litter is spilling out of glaciers, and camps are overflowing with piles of human waste,” he pointed out, adding that this trash stays up there for decades because in the snow, everything, from dead bodies to plastic, is preserved.

“If anything, all this trash can stay up in the snow, in its original condition, for more than 1,000 years.”

Raza explained that this didn’t just disrupt the scenic beauty of the mountain but was also trashing the natural environment and posing a threat to the people living under the Karakoram watershed, which serves as a basin for the Indus River — stretching from the Himalayan mountains to the north to the dry plains of Sindh and flowing out into the Arabian Sea.

 Upper Indus River basin flowing through Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. — Photo courtesy: ResearchGate
Upper Indus River basin flowing through Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. — Photo courtesy: ResearchGate

“The plastic releases radiations under the sun and releases carbon monoxide which increases the speed of the melting of the glaciers. And when that happens, all the waste flows down into the rivers and streams, creating problems not just for people but also the aquatic life.”

According to a 2017 research paper published by the Cambridge University Press, over 80pc of the flow of the upper Indus River is derived from less than 20pc of its area: essentially from zones of heavy snowfall and glacierised basins above 3,500m elevation.

“Hydrographs of rivers draining the Karakoram, such as the Hunza, Braldu, and Shyok, indicate that their flow is dominated by meltwater from glacier basins. Some 80-90pc of the discharge occurs after snow cover has disappeared from areas below about 4,500m [above sea level], and at a time when rapid melting takes place between 3,000m and 4,500m on the middle and lower zones of the glaciers,” it said, hence proving that millions of people and their livelihoods are dependant on these mountains.

The contamination of this watershed could lead to dangerous health-related problems for the locals, their animals, and their crops.

There is still hope

K2, also called Kechu or Chhogori in the Balti language, has been called the ‘King of Mountains’, ‘The Mountaineers’ Mountains’, and ‘The Mountain of Mountains’ by climbers over the course of time. For the local people, a mountain is a sacred place, deserving dignity and respect.

While the recent debate over hordes of climbers and their mess has created a buzz, there is still hope for the future.

GB tourist department’s Sajid told Dawn.com that in the upcoming years, the local government was mulling over refunding the $200 fee charged to climbers who brought back their trash in a bid to encourage the practice.

Furthermore, he said, “we are planning on running awareness campaigns which would educate climbers more about collecting their own trash”.

Separately, the Nimsdai Foundation, run by mountaineer Nirmal Purja, has announced a ‘Big Mountain Cleanup’ for K2 next year, it said in an Instagram post.

“Next year we want to have a team of Sherpa who will have the job of cleaning full time and removing old, used, and dangerous ropes. This will be a challenging and expensive project because of the remoteness of K2 and because we will have to pay for permits and full-time wages for those Sherpas working with us, (who will need to be compensated really well for what will essentially be them missing the K2 climbing season),” it said.

The foundation added that this was what being responsible was about, calling for funds.

Meanwhile, Sarah Strattan proposed that climbing companies should come together and be involved with the CKNP cleanup crew to alleviate the problems of trash.

“One strong Sherpa team would be responsible for climbing up and bringing down trash from the various camps throughout the entire climbing season. This would be their main job and they would get paid. The other Sherpa team would be responsible for establishing and maintaining fixed lines and anchors throughout the entire climbing season, also carrying down old and damaged ropes that are no longer needed. This would also be their main job and they would get paid.”

Apart from this, another idea the mountaineer proposed was that climbers needed to use wag bags (a toilet in a bag) and carry them down.

“The K2 is one of the most beautiful and amazing mountains on planet Earth and it needs to be respected as such,” she added.