Cleaning Earth's Highest Junkyard

IF you have never thought of loading 250 lbs. of garbage onto a sled, attaching it to a robot-controlled parasail, and catapulting it into the rarefied air of the Himalayas, you have not talked to Valentin Bozhukov about his plan to clean up Mt. Everest.

This month, Mr. Bozhukov and fellow Russian parasailers will take part in one of the most unusual environmental projects ever conceived: to remove the estimated 16 tons of garbage that mountaineers have left on the world's tallest peak over the past 40 years.

He has won Nepalese government approval for his system, which he says will be quicker and safer than using Sherpas to lug trash down the slopes. Nepal has tried for years to clean up the five camps that climbers traditionally use in scaling Mt. Everest - taking the path that Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay took when they became the first people to reach the summit in 1953.

Since then, the spot from which they launched their final assault - Camp IV at 26,000 ft. - has become known as the highest junkyard in the world. Like camps farther down the mountain, it is littered with empty oxygen and cooking-gas cylinders, tins, tents, sleeping bags, food, ropes, batteries, plastics, and the frozen corpses of climbers who have died on the mountain.

Getting even half of this off Everest would take scores of porters making dozens of trips each over life-threatening terrain. The remote-controlled parasail, say its inventors, offers an innovative alternative.

At Moscow's State Aviation Research Center, which traditionally worked for the Soviet military, a group of designer-mountaineers, sharing "a natural passion for height and space" says Bozhukov, began working on an automatic parasail in the mid-'80s.

The initial idea, explains Alexander Fedotov, one of the design team, was for a precise cargo delivery system (not for bombs, he insists). A downed pilot, for example, could use a transmitter to send signals to a parasail bringing him supplies, in order to guide it to his location.

Robot to the rescue

The parasail - like a giant rectangular parachute - can be navigated by remote control transmitter from up to six miles away via a robot-receiver hanging from the parasail's cords, which pulls on them to steer the craft according to instructions.

Familiar with the high mountains in Tajikistan where they had all climbed, the design team tested their robot-parasail for high altitude performance in the Pamir range, and perfected a catapult sled from which to launch it. By then, the idea was to bring down the abandoned bodies of fellow climbers, whom nobody could physically carry with them.

On the Everest expedition, the plan is that one team member will carry a 25-lb. parasail on his back up to the site to be cleared, where Sherpas will have packed garbage into 250lb. loads. The rubbish will be hooked on to the parasail, which will be launched by catapult (to create a headwind), and then steered down to base camp by an operator there with a remote-control device.

For Bozhukov, a lithe, bright-eyed man with the broad, strong fingers of a seven-time national climbing champion in the Soviet Union, the Everest expedition is a dream come true.

A mountaineer for more than 40 years, he was to join a Soviet-Chinese expedition to Everest in 1959. But Moscow pulled out of the venture when the Chinese brutally suppressed a rebellion in Tibet, where the climb had been due to begin. Then-Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev "said that Russians should not climb Mt. Everest in tanks," Bozhukov recalls.

Even more than climbing, however, flying fascinates this adventurer. "In childhood, from as early as I can remember, I used to fly in my mind at night," he says. "I'd fly from one room to another. Mountaineering is imagined flight - parasailing is real flight."

For a man who once spent five days without food or water in a blizzard on the peak of the Soviet Union's highest mountain, waiting for the weather to clear so he could get down, the physical challenges of the Everest expedition pose few problems.

Scaling Mt. Communism

Bozhukov is one of the few Russian climbers to achieve the title "snow leopard" granted to mountaineers who have scaled all four of the former Soviet Union's highest peaks, including Mt. Communism (formerly Mt. Stalin), Mt. Victory, and Mt. Lenin.

The financial obstacles, however, are another matter.

The Nepalese government charges $10,000 for each foreign climber who goes farther than base camp on an Everest expedition, and is refusing to make an exception for clean-up crews this spring. Officials complain that climbers often have promised to collect garbage, only to take advantage of the offer to climb the mountain without paying.

So far, Bozhukov and his colleagues have scraped together enough money to get to base camp with their parasails, though they are still looking for the $10,000 that would pay for one of them to start off from Camp I. Nepal will then pay $40 for every 2.2 pounds of garbage brought down to Base Camp, which means that with three or four flights of a parasail, the first operator could pay for a second climber to join him, Bozhukov says.

In theory, the garbage collecting could continue until the whole Russian team was working. But without the initial fee, the team can't start. Russian enterprises, caught up in their daily struggle of cutthroat capitalism, have yet to be captivated by the vision of their corporate logos emblazoned on the fluorescent wings of a parasail, soaring above the roof of the world, it seems.

"It is difficult to find a Russian company that is interested in ecological projects," says Alexander Moryev, the man in charge of the sponsorship. "But we keep hoping."

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