As explorers of the world around us and of our own physical abilities, nature has long had the stage set for human challenges. From immense and towering mountain scapes to the deepest caverns, there isn’t a river too wide or valley too low that our species has not attempted to dive, climb or explore. These marvels of the natural world offer a sense of humility and connectedness of the untainted places that have survived our built up human worlds. They also serve the other unavoidable traits we carry – competition and achievement. Scores of people flock to these natural monuments, to see them, scale them and stake their claim to have conquered the unconquerable. Today, the great wonders of the world have become immense extreme sports and visitors centres for humans to test their abilities. But typical of every place that humans congregate, we are wreaking havoc.
Since the first intrepid explorers paved the unexplored territories, rewarded with awe and acclaim for their bravery and testament to human ability, these areas have been transformed into something more like dangerous theme parks for people with enough money and equipment to get there. Now, after hours of painstaking endurance, sweat, and tears, the widely acclaimed end is in sight – along with hundreds of other humans lined up to stake their claim on the monument. As you wade through the other plucky adventurers, you also have to trawl through the other legacies left behind them and their predecessors; tonnes of waste. From empty oxygen canisters and tents sprawled across Mount Everest to the jettisoned empty plastic water bottles of dutifully hydrated hikers across the Grand Canyons trails, it seems we are determined to leave our mark not only in record books but literally on the areas that made it possible.
From its majestic peaks in the Himalayan mountains, Mount Everest looms, white and pristine, reaching high into the clouds as one of the most impressive feats that nature has produced. But up close, the revered peaks resemble little more than the world’s tallest garbage dump. Old equipment, tents, canvas bags, beer bottles and utensils make up the swathes of trash that plague the camps leading up to the summit. An estimated 100 tonnes of waste are left strewn across the mountain every year by climbers too tired to pick up after themselves. It’s almost understandable – at such high altitude, climbers are probably more preoccupied with keeping their toes and staying alive than packing up an empty oxygen tank to take back with them. But such an attitude is simply cherry-picking the type of nature that deserves their respect; the lofty heights of the summit over the land at their feet that forms it.
This problem has grown not only as the site has become more popular, but as less experienced climbers with enough money to fund it have started taking on the challenge. The grandeur of scaling the largest mountain in the world is calling to less experienced climbers with cash, turning one of the most remote areas on earth into an overcrowded congregation of people all with pockets weighed down by rubbish. Once, most climbers taking on Everest would be skilled enough to manage the trek carrying their own equipment as well as their excess, but this new flock of climbers instead rely on their local guides to carry their gear rather than collecting the waste along the trails that have had to be drafted into the sherpas responsibilities.
Every season, sherpas mountaineer and helicopter down up to 12 tonnes of waste jettisoned from intrepid explorers after each season. A few years ago, Nepal made the waste collection a responsibility of all climbers, returning a $4000 deposit per team only once each climber brings down at least eight kilos of trash with them. On the Tibetan side of the mountain climbers are fined $100 for each kilo not returned. But with a $20,000-$100,000 price tag for the experience, many climbers see the fine as preferable to actually being responsible for their waste.
The same mark of the human touch can be found in many other places once thought as unspoiled and wild. The management team of the Grand Canyon National Park have had to implement strict waste management systems over the last couple of years to deal with the mountains of disposable packaging that were plaguing the area. Along with more bins and recycling facilities, they were forced to fit water fountains across the popular trails as hydrated hikers were scorning the immaculate environment by chucking bottles along the route.
Even one of the places most seen as untouched by human civilisation, Antartica, has developed a waste problem. Beyond the flawless frozen landscape, the continent is plagued by the remnants of visitors. Though most see it as a place reserved for scientific research, with an average of 4000 people living on international research bases, the frozen continent saw 44’000 tourists between 2016 and 2017. With all of these people comes the detriment of human civilisation. From frozen car batteries to vast tonnes of rubbish cast off into the ocean where the low temperatures don’t allow it to degrade.
Outdoor recreation, particularly that which uses nature as the means, seems determined to take the concept of conquering natures splendour literally, subjugating the vistas that create the arena for their achievements as monumental landfills. We are proving ourselves incapable of stopping the spread of our sanitised lifestyles into the natural environment. From our sprawling cities to our neatly arranged and manicured segments of nature designated as recreation grounds, our determination as a species to mark our territory doesn’t stop at base camp. We’ve become so disconnected from our waste, as it’s neatly taken away from our homes in its respective receptacles. And for some reason, even in the midst of natures splendour, our spoiled attitude to having trash taken away from us doesn’t end. Short of developing waste collection facilities capable of operating at 8000 ft above sea level or at -20 degrees Celcius, nature’s only hope from our sprawling touch is that we suddenly develop a conscience to the world that forms these serene spaces.
Rather than the innocent clay pots from our forebearers that are dug up today, our time as resurrected from the future will instead be demonstrated by extensive excavations of natures wonders, consisting of sleeping bags and plastic packets. What is today seen as great triumphs of man versus nature, will instead be characteristic of our disregard for anything but our own egos.