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Imagine a lonely pristine snow peak surrounded by virginal white for as far as the eye can catch. The thought sadly is good only while it lasts as humanity’s ever-expanding footprint has not even spared the world’s highest mountain peak. It is that time of the year when there is a traffic jam in the most unlikely place, Mount Everest.

Lately, scenes on Everest have been in dissonance with all that the mighty peak stands for. Man, and his thirst for conquest have superseded nature in its glory although a fair number of mountaineers still trek only to answer the mountain’s call.

Images from a few weeks past show a queue of climbers waiting in single file to shuffle baby steps in treacherous terrain. Stuck in this bottleneck, losing momentary focus or patience while clinging to a narrow ridge could be the difference between life and death. Within touching distance, it is near and yet that far as it takes anything between 20 minutes to 1.5 hours to summit. Climbers have been forced to turn back meters away from the summit.

Much depends on the weather window which is by and large 10-15 days in May. The shorter it is, the more the crowding. After a gruelling journey, those who have no choice but to wait on the last stretch do so in freezing temperatures and winds, more importantly, they face the risk of running out of oxygen, especially on the way down. The descent most experienced climbers say is also the dangerous part.

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Another tourist trap

Is the overcrowding dangerous? Permits given from the Nepalese side – even though fewer permits were reportedly issued this year – far outnumber those from the Tibetan end. But it is not just those who have a permit, their support staff of sherpas and guides further expand the numbers. The fears are no longer unfounded that profit-making may be at the expense of quality control even here.

Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha as it is locally called is an industry that has tried for long to compete with Western companies who bring climbers to the summit. As one of the poorest nations, Nepal relies heavily on tourism, and with few days of business in a year, Mount Everest gets competitive with standards breached. This is also how an admirable feat became just another tourist trap.

With expeditions becoming popular as an extreme hobby and people who can afford them chase new challenges, expert climbers say tourists’ training and physical capability are shortchanged. In a snaking line amidst dangerous crevices, it takes just one man with a less-than-perfect physical calibre to derail those in front and behind him. The climb and descent take place from the same path.

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Inexperienced climbers put not just their own lives in jeopardy, they also risk the lives of sherpas and local guides who accompany them to earn a livelihood. There are reportedly 8 deaths this year while 300 people are believed to have died on Everest.

As at least a handful of climbers go missing every season, 200 of those bodies are estimated to be still on the mountain. People speak of seeing dead bodies and even climbing over them while descending from the summit. Winds at that altitude are so forceful that even bodies are swept in their force.

Despite the arduous trek, there is something shallow in what we are seeing. The love and spirit of adventure have been taken over by tourism. Is the sense of achievement as life-altering as when Edmund Hillary and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay first summited?

Highest garbage dump

It seems vastly different from when the two made it into history books. Increasingly, it comes across as another commercial venture, nothing more than a to-do list for those who can fork out and tick it. In this change lies all that is amiss with humanity.

With glaciers melting, as nature faces an unfiltered climate crisis, this man-made disaster is an additional burden that will extract a price. What is it about us humans that we cannot leave the well alone? Must we ruin everything we touch? Mount Everest is littered with trash including discarded tents, cans, empty oxygen cylinders, and even human faeces, and is not without reason described as the world’s highest garbage dump.

A climber is believed to generate about eight kilograms of waste but a sustainable solution for waste management has not corresponded with the increase in traffic. Missions by the Nepalese government for cleanup have so far involved collecting 110 tonnes of trash, it has also recovered bodies and a skeleton.

If the mountain’s novelty and glory are to be kept intact, the need of the hour is an international effort on a war footing. Can we fix the broken? It is crowded once again at the top. Defiled, the last frontier is now a new edition in the dirty planet. Perhaps, Mars cannot come sooner.