Been and Gone on the Andrex Trail : by Alan Ingram
  

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Base Camp beneath Annapurna I in the Nepal Himalaya
Coming across a piece of litter can be reassuring to the lost wanderer but certainly serves to destroy any illusion of breaking new ground and is utterly objectionable when encountered in an otherwise pristine wilderness. Regrettably on all popular climbing and trekking routes in the Nepal Himalaya previous tourists have left much evidence of their passage - indeed one route is now referred to as the "Andrex Trail" while the South Col on Everest is the world's highest rubbish dump with its jettisoned oxygen cylinders and abandoned climbing gear.

The basic solution is simple - "Pack it in, pack it out" - but the problem lies with enforcement.

Climbing expeditions are now required to pay a substantial deposit ( in addition to the substantial fee for their climbing permit ) in guarantee of clearing the mountain but the liaison officer paid and responsible for ensuring this rarely ventures above base camp and is also unlikely to be too demanding in fear of jeopardising the expected baksheesh.

Only group treks are permitted in certain restricted areas such as the Kangchenjunga region and trekking agencies must sign an agreement promising to protect the environment but on my visit I found many dirty lunch places and campsites - in the wilderness there is nobody to police the regulations! A group some two days ahead I knew to be Swiss from their trail of distinctive, chocolate wrappers ( and confirmed by their entries in the logbooks at the permit checkpoints ). However in Switzerland mountain paths tend to be impeccably clean - there people are employed to pick up the litter - an expensive remedy.

As all bottled and canned foodstuffs are brought by camping treks from Kathmandu some of the better agencies require their sirdars to bring back the empties. Donations of useful containers to villagers are permitted, provided a receipt is obtained, but otherwise a fine is imposed for any shortfall.

Another step in the right direction is the move to ensure all trekking guides are qualified and registered. Since passing the official training course Nima Lakpa Sherpa, my sirdar on recent treks, has become scrupulously conscientious about scavanging for litter - a marked contrast with his early treks as a porter and kitchenboy when he thought nothing of discarding the odd biscuit or sweet wrapper. However, as is the way in Nepal, many of the private, self-employed guides merely obtain the required identity badges through friends in high places with a little bit of "ghoos" ( the endemic commission charged for special service by officials - ie bribe ).

It is the cook squads though that tend to be responsible for leaving dirty lunch and camping places. In large trekking groups it is customary for them to be left behind by the sirdar and members still cleaning their utensils after meals and in their haste to catch up with the group abandon sites without properly tidying them. Agencies with overtight schedules ( for commercial advantage to reduce their charges - every extra day puts up the price ) are particularly guilty.

Burning rubbish might seem an obvious solution but one must be careful - cooking fires are sacrosanct with mystical properties and to throw on a piece of litter can cause offence and instant unpopularity. It is perfectly acceptable however to use a separate fire and there is talk of installing an incinerator at the Everest base camp.

Cost of course is a major consideration as with the enormous pile of empty bottles awaiting disposal at Shyangboche, the small airstrip above Namche Bazaar. Perhaps the international brewing company that has featured Kathmandu in its expensive advertisements could pay for the uplift. However even in affluent Switzerland there is an unsightly rubbish tip at most alpine huts.

A pleasant exception to the norm is the approach from Pokhara to the Annapurna Sanctuary. Here the onus is put on the local lodges by ACAP ( Annapurna Conservation Area Project ) to keep their surroundings tidy or to face sanctions including possible loss of licence. Similar schemes are also underway in the Sagarmatha ( Nepalese name for Everest ) and Langtang National Parks, the other two areas most frequented by independent, "tea-shop" trekkers.

However it is only once everybody adheres to the concerned backpacker's other maxim "Leave nothing but your footprints" that the vexed problem of litter in the wilderness and mountains will be solved. Persistent personal example helps. Also remonstration as I am wont, as necessary, to reproach my trekking staff:- "Fowar! Mila! Ramro chaina!" ( Dirty! Dirty! Not good! )

A sense of perspective must nevertheless be retained - at the base camp for Dhaulagiri at the foot of its towering "Little Eiger" Face the huge accumulation of rusty cans, the product of some forty years of expeditions and a major eyesore when viewed on its own, pales into insignificance within the overwhelming grandeur of the surrounding himalayan landscape.

Alan Ingram is a keen traveller, mountaineer and photographer.  He can be contacted at
photo-treks@caingram.freeserve.co.uk

© Alan Ingram – 2001/2
Reproduced with permission.