K2, the world’s second-highest mountain peak, is covered in garbage
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Videos published in July 2022 show piles of garbage left behind by climbers on K2, the highest summit in Pakistan and the second-highest mountain in the world. After a particularly hot summer with an unprecedented number of visitors, the slopes of K2 were weighed down with litter, posing a threat to local populations and wildlife.
Shredded tents, abandoned ropes and plastic litter – all in the middle of the majestic snowcapped landscape of the Himalayas. The striking contrast was highlighted in videos and photos shared online this summer.
The images were taken by mountaineers during their climb to the peak of K2, the second-highest mountain in the world at 8,611 metres. Second only to Everest, K2 is one of the most difficult summits to conquer.
'It felt like my home was being destroyed by garbage'
One of the mountaineers who scaled K2 this summer was Wajid Nagri, a Pakistani climber.
All mountaineers want to climb K2. I was excited to get to the summit. What I saw at the top of the mountain broke my heart. It felt like my home was being destroyed by garbage and it needed to be cleaned.
At Camp 1, there are many old tents that have been frozen under the ground – about 20 to 30 of them. But when it starts getting a bit warmer and the sun starts shining, the snow and ice start to melt. The toilet and food-waste areas beside the tents start to melt and smell bad. It’s unbearable.
'When we were taught how to climb mountains, we learned to leave no trace'
Eric Gilbertson, an American mountaineer who has set out to climb the highest peak in every country in the world, witnessed the same mess.
It is kind of disappointing that there's so much trash up there. It's such a nice mountain, so deep and so, so hard to get to. So remote.
I've climbed a couple other mountains where they have policies that seem to address the problem. So on Denali, I didn't really notice any trash.
Most of my friends and I, when we were taught how to climb mountains, we learned to leave no trace. Anything you bring up, you should bring it down.
But after reaching the peak, where oxygen is scarce, some climbers get rid of their belongings to have an easier climb on the way down.
A tourism boom
The pollution problem isn't new, but this summer it reached unprecedented proportions. Yasir Abbas is an ecologist at the Central Karakoram National Park, which is responsible for waste management on K2.
This year, the K2 route was overloaded. More than 150 people reached the summit, 140 of them in a single day. In a normal season, there would only be between 20 and 40 people.
We had a tourism boom, due to the end of the health restrictions linked to Covid-19, and the organisation of several winter expeditions last year which put the spotlight back on this summit.
Bottle Neck of K2 on 22-July-2022 pic.twitter.com/HM1wtHNieE— Mingma G (@14peaks) July 27, 2022
Both Yasir Abbas and Wajid Ullah Nagri point the finger at international expeditions and tour operators, who offer many services such as transport and oxygen tanks to their customers. These packages cost up to €40,000, but they increase the amount of equipment that is brought to K2 as well as the risk of improper waste disposal.
But the increased number of visitors to K2 doesn't explain everything. Abbas continued:
This summer's high temperatures have also caused the snow to melt more than usual, and this has brought out waste that has been accumulating for years and was previously buried under the snow.
Global warming is having a significant impact on the Himalayas. Glaciers in the mountain range have experienced significant ice loss and are melting twice as fast now compared to the end of the 20th century, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science Advances.
Threats to local populations and biodiversity
And this pollution isn't just an eyesore. Exposed to the sun's rays, plastic left behind emits greenhouse gases, accelerating the melting of the glaciers.
The rubbish also impacts the fragile ecosystem of this Pakistani region, Abbas explained.
The waste is not biodegradable, so it pollutes the glaciers, which contaminates the rivers. This threatens the flora and fauna, as the park is home to many endangered species: snow leopards, lynxes, marine species...
The Baltoro and Biafo glaciers in Karakoram Central are also a source of drinking water for the entire country. The Pakistani population and various industries all depend on it.
Although climbers are at the root of this pollution, they're also being impacted by its effects, Ullah Nagri explained:
When we are climbing, we melt the ice and drink it since we have little stoves and we can boil the water. It is common among climbers to suffer from diarrhoea because of the quality of the water.
Gilbertson says ropes and equipment left behind can also pose a risk to climbers.
Every year, the ropes get attached, but they never get taken down. So if you're at the bottom of a fixed line, you don't know the quality of the rope. So if you put all your body weight on it and it was actually cut above, that's very dangerous.
A clean-up campaign
In response, the national park surrounding K2 organised a month-long clean-up this summer. The project was partially financed by the $200 (around €200) fee to climb the mountain. Abbas continued:
We collected nearly 20,000 kilos of garbage on the K2 route, including more than 1,600 kilos of garbage between the base camp and camp 4.
We had to call on nine climbers to work at high altitude and in difficult conditions with wind and very low temperatures.
Field staff of Central Karakorum National Park are busy in cleanup campaign at camp-2 of K-2. Team is moving forward to camp 4. They will try to clean the recent tents/remains/waste left by Climbers at Camp 2 K2. 7 bags 280 kg waste has collected so far. pic.twitter.com/4Ep6C1uFp7— پکا پاکستانی (@mibalghari1) August 6, 2022
Climbers are required to bring all their rubbish back down to the camp at the base of the mountain to be collected by park personnel. But this practice is hard to enforce at an altitude of more than 5,000 metres.
In order to better enforce littering regulations, the park is considering limiting climbing permits or weighing climbers' equipment at the beginning and end of their expeditions.