American heads to Nepal: It's trash day on Mt. Everest

US climber leaves today, hoping to bring down some 6,000 lbs. of garbage from the slopes of the mountain.

Climbers the world round dream of scaling Mt. Everest. Robert Hoffman hopes to scour it.

To that end, he begins a journey today that will take him from his sleepy suburban home in Belmont, Calif., to the South Summit of the world's highest mountain.

He won't be the first on its wind-swept and frequently treacherous slopes.

But he does hope to accomplish something no on has before: an environmental cleanup so thorough it will leave the mountain nearly as pristine as when encountered by its first successful climbers a half century ago.

During those intervening 50 years, men and women climbers of all nationalities and in increasing numbers have headed for the summit. As a trophy of personal triumph, its allure has only grown, spurred in part by Jon Krakauer's best selling book "Into Thin Air" and the documentary film chronicling that same tragic 1996 expedition.

Yet the march to the top has a seamier side. The mountain has become host to a pile of abandoned oxygen bottles, fuel canisters, batteries, paper, human waste, and even ice-encased tent poles waving in the wind.

This year, it's all coming down off the mountain, vows Mr. Hoffman.

"I'm sure we can do it, based on past experience. There's going to be some stuff that's not visible and could crop up again when the snows and ice shift," he says. "But I think we can bring down everything that's visible."

Everest is famous for rebuffing even the most-experienced climbers. Yet weather and the performance of Hoffman's team notwithstanding, there's good reason to think the climb will succeed.

Indeed, this is the fourth trip to Everest for Hoffman. On his first expedition, the airline-maintenance manager left no garbage or used equipment on the peak.

In 1995, his team set its sights on not only cleaning up after itself, but others as well. They brought down about one-third more garbage than they generated.

And a 1998 trek to Everest was actually labeled an "environmental expedition" and retrieved about 3,000 lbs. of general garbage.

The Nepalese government has played its own increasing role in policing and protecting the environment of Everest. In the early 1990s, the government required that groups bring out what they take in, though that injunction is not always carried out to the letter because of the hasty conditions under which many teams must make their descent.

But the pile of garbage on Everest has been dwindling, and this climbing season could witness the final elimination of the accumulated debris, which because of the extremely cold conditions doesn't degrade on its own.

Hoffman's expedition includes an eight-man team whose main mission is simply to climb Everest. Hoffman and a large team of Sherpas will spend their entire time on the mountain - nearly two months - moving up to the various camps en route to the summit and hauling out an estimated 6,000 lbs. of debris in large green duffel bags.

The expedition will be the subject of a documentary film and has raised $450,000 from two sponsoring companies - Gateway and Inventa - to pay for the food, equipment, and camp-management costs of the cleanup effort. Those there just for the climb are paying their own way, says Hoffman.

Hoffman is a veteran climber - he's scaled the highest peaks of the world's seven continents - and spent the past week assembling what looks like an armed invasion from his suburban home, loaded with mountaineering books and memorabilia.

In practically every room there are large blue plastic drums for transporting equipment, which itself is scattered in numerous piles.

And for Hoffman, each day includes a strenuous three-hour exercise regimen of weights, running, and bicycling.

Hoffman is no rabid environmentalist. But as a frequent traveler and climber, he says he's seen "how fragile an egg surrounds this world." He's also a self-described bulldog when it comes to finishing something he starts. And having seen the logic of cleaning up after his first Everest climb, he's says he's simply extended that goal to wanting to clean up the mountain in its entirety.

"It just makes sense to me to finish that job," he says.

With the 50th anniversary of the first summiting of Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay approaching in 2003, Hoffman wants the whole issue of the mountain's cleanliness settled now.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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