Ever since his childhood, which included two years with his family in Nepal, Brent Bishop had known two things: that one day he would follow in his late father's footsteps and climb Mount Everest, and that in doing so he would likely wade through a sea of trash that was accumulating on the mountain's upper reaches.
"[The South Col] is the highest junkyard on the face of the Earth," Dr. Barry Bishop wrote in a 1963 article that ran in National Geographic. The elder Bishop was a member of the first American expedition to reach the summit of the mountain, and some of the junk up there was, in fact, left by the doctor himself in his haste to descend after suffering frostbite.
"I grew up with my father's Everest climb," says Brent Bishop, 28, a climbing guide who lives in Seattle. "It was a backdrop to our life, and I had no doubt that one day I'd be on top of the mountain."
As prepared as he was, the younger Bishop couldn't believe his eyes last March when he came upon Camp IV, at 26,200 feet the highest base camp on the South Col. "We came around this bend...and there was a football field of trash," he recalls. "It was quite dramatic." Bishop estimates that nearly 10 tons of refuse, consisting of oxygen bottles, tents, tin cans and rope, lay at the campsite. There was more trash at lower camps.
Leaving garbage behind has been an accepted practice on Mount Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa partner, Tenzing Norgay, became the first to reach the summit, in 1953. Climbers know that a descent after an exhausting summit push can be the most hazardous part of an expedition, and they try to leave the upper reaches of the mountain with as light a load as possible. But with more and more groups climbing Everest every year, the amount of garbage has grown enormously.
"I was blown away at the increase," says Scott Fischer, who led the climb in which Bishop took part. It was Fischer's second expedition to the South Col, and he estimates a fourfold increase in the amount of trash at Camp IV, from 500 oxygen bottles in 1989 to 2,000 this year.
On May 9, with Fischer and Rob Hess, Bishop reached Everest's summit. Upon his descent he was able to implement a cleanup program he devised while earning an M.B.A. at the University of Washington. He paid Sherpas 300 rupees (about six dollars) for every oxygen bottle hauled from Camp IV down to Camp II, at 22,000 feet, and another 100 rupees for bottles carried from Camp II to Base Camp. (Bishop had raised the money from T-shirt sales and a number of sponsors.)
Word of the program spread, and Sherpas on other expeditions joined in. Bishop's team collected more than 5,000 pounds of trash, including 250 oxygen bottles from Camp IV. At Base Camp the bottles were separated and sent to the U.S. for recycling. Other refuse was hauled by yak to Kathmandu's industrial furnace.
Most important, the program didn't risk any lives. "Nobody was going up just to collect trash," says Bishop. "The Sherpas [who climbed four times to Camp IV to set up a base for Bishop's party] would have been coming down empty anyway. The incentive program is an example of economic and environmental goals meeting."
Bob McConnell, chairman of the American Alpine Club's Conservation Committee, thinks Bishop's program should become standard practice. "What they did is going to revolutionize what people do when they go to the Himalayas," McConnell says. "[Bishop's model] proves that you can go to Everest, not put people in danger and behave in an environmentally responsible manner."
Should a third generation of Bishops make it to the South Col, perhaps they will find nothing but fresh snow.
Jim Gullo, who lives in Seattle, has written on the Pacific Northwest for Sports Illustrated.