Nepal is a country of exceptional beauty, with the Himalayan mountain range forming its backbone and home to eight of the 10 highest mountains in the world. Unsurprisingly, thousands of visitors come each year, looking to explore its unique landscapes and perhaps trek up to the rocky, high terrain in the shadow of Everest. But as with any popular destination, the same question always arises: at what price?

Is climbing Mount Everest ethical?
The ever-increasing number of tourists visiting the Sagarmatha National Park, home to Everest Base Camp, has definitely boosted the local economy and standard of living, with better health, education and infrastructure facilities now available to local people, but it’s also caused issues that are troubling to any responsible traveller.

This leads to a contradiction; in visiting Nepal we are supporting the local economy but also contributing to regional problems. The more people that plod up the trail to Everest Base Camp, the more litter that is dropped or poorly disposed of. In addition, our need for a hot meal and the human waste we inevitably produce can pressurise often fragile local infrastructure. We may enjoy the teahouses lining the route, and read the area as well set up for tourism, without questioning where our human waste is being dumped, whether the wood our meal was cooked on is contributing to deforestation, or how our litter is discarded.


Porters rights

Most guided treks to Everest Base Camp employ a team of porters to carry bags. For the lucky trekker, that means simply carrying a daypack up the trail, but what does it mean for the porter? It’s tempting to think of porters or guides as heroic individuals who can trek to Base Camp carrying two packs, wearing only flip-flops and an old jumper. Whilst many porters and guides do indeed have incredible strength and stamina, most Nepalese porters are poor farmers from lowland areas, unused to high altitudes and harsh mountain conditions.

Undoubtedly, the income from your trek provides a vital wage for porters and their extended families, but porters can also be taken advantage of and poorly treated. They suffer four times as many accidents as trekkers, and reports of porters being forced to carry more than the recommended maximum load of 25kg are not uncommon. Porters have even been abandoned by tour groups when they fall ill, or left behind in life-threatening blizzards while trekkers were rescued by helicopter. This is unacceptable. It’s easy to forget how fortunate many of us are, with sick pay and incapacity benefit to fall back on; if an overloaded porter in Nepal strains his back or gets frostbite he cannot work – and his family cannot eat.
What you can do

All tourists have a responsibility to make absolutely sure that the porters and guides accompanying them on their trek are being fairly treated. Ask your tour company if they have policies on porters’ rights and working conditions, ensure that your porters have proper clothing and footwear and consider the amount of weight they are carrying. In Nepal, responsible tour companies impose a maximum weight limit for porters of 25kg, including their own luggage. Check that this 25kg weight limit is being enforced. Ask about insurance and the provisions for porters should they fall ill, ensure that sleeping arrangements are comfortable and fair, and always make sure that your porters and guides are paid fairly. Enquire about all this BEFORE you set off to avoid uncomfortable conversations at the end of your trek. Find out more in our porters' rights when high altitude trekking article. If you see or experience something that you feel uncomfortable about then flag this up with your tour company, email us at Responsible Travel, and shout about it on social media. It's important to report any incidents of neglect or abuse, noting the date, place, time and group trekking, with information about what happened, too.

Sherpa's safety on Everest

In addition to the porters that serve the route to Base Camp, many Sherpa people form the region work on the expeditions that attempt to summit Everest. Known for their strength and kindness, the Sherpa people have lived on the rugged south shoulders of Everest for centuries, after crossing the Himalayas from Tibet ('Sherpa' means 'Easterner' in Tibetan). An ancient legend said that the first man to climb the world’s highest mountain would be a Sherpa and on May 29, 1953 that came true, when Tenzing Norgay stood with Sir Edmund Hillary at the top of the world.

That achievement, though, paved the way for hundreds of climbing expeditions, always supported and made possible by teams of hardy, brave Sherpas. Although raised in its shadow, Sherpas are just as likely to fall foul of the mountain as anyone and from 1924 to June 2016, 114 Sherpas died on Everest, while the first casualties recorded on the mountain were the deaths of seven Sherpas during Britain’s first reconnaissance expedition in 1922. In 2014, 16 Sherpas died during an avalanche, working as so-called ‘ice doctors’ to make the Khumbu Icefall safe.

This is dangerous, difficult work. The Sherpas aren’t simply climbing the mountain alongside expedition teams; they are making those expeditions safe and possible by fixing lines, shuttling supplies and escorting paid clients to the summit. They are exposed to the worst dangers on the mountain—rockfalls, crevasses, frostbite, exhaustion and, due to the blood-thickening effects of altitude, clots and strokes, all of which can kill or cause lasting disabilities and health issues. Even the relatively safe Base Camp has proved treacherous; after the April 2015 earthquake, an avalanche ripped through the camp, and 10 of the 22 deaths were Sherpas.

A Sherpa working above Base Camp on Everest is more than three and a half times as likely to perish as an infantryman was during the first four years of the Iraq war. For someone making a once-in-a-lifetime attempt to reach the summit, the dangers of climbing can perhaps be rationalised; but as a workplace safety statistic, 1.2 percent mortality for Sherpas is a horrific figure. There’s no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.

* Source: a research article by Grayson Schaffer for Outside magazine in 2013, entitled The Disposable Man.

What you can do
Even those of us who will never attempt to summit Mount Everest can support the region’s Sherpa communities while in Nepal by spending time in Namche Bazaar, the seat of Sherpa culture. Shop and eat here, visit the Sherpa museum and simply take time to chat with local people and guides, to find out more about the sacrifice Sherpas have made, and continue to make, in servicing climbing parties. You might also like to donate to the Himalayan Trust UK, a sister organisation to Sir Edmund Hillary’s original Himalayan Trust NZ. Since Hillary summitted Everest, this organisation has supported the Solukhumbu region, building hospitals, health clinics and over 300 schools, planting over two million trees, building bridges and repairing Buddhist monasteries.

Everest overcrowding

Many people from around the world want to climb Everest and, by and large, the Nepalese government is keen for this to happen, not least because climbing groups supply useful revenue (this industry brings more than US $3million into Nepal each year from permit fees alone). However, the increasing numbers of climbers allowed onto Everest each year is a source of regular controversy. Many experienced climbers complain that the mountain is overcrowded, with the limited windows for a peak bid leading to bottlenecks at certain points with climbers literally queuing up to ascend. As every moment spent in the so-called “death zone” above 8,000m increases the chance of serious sickness, hypothermia and – yes – death, queues up here are more than just an inconvenience.
In 2014, the Nepalese authorities slashed the cost of climbing for individuals, to reduce the financial barrier to climbing, and they also abolished discounted fees for groups of climbers, in a bid to reduce tension and climber traffic jams on the mountain during peak months. Not everyone was reassured by these changes, since they opened up the possibility of individuals going up without being part of a big team, with all the safety and backup that includes. In addition, reduced solo fees could open the mountain to individuals who lack the proper experience.
Increasing competition among guiding companies, including some with less experience, also threatens safety on the mountain, with some teams hiring novice guides who lack experience in dealing with emergency situations. It means the dangers of climbing Mount Everest are not simply related to the extreme physical challenge, weather and altitude, but to the sheer quantities of mountaineers up there.


Post earthquake

The huge earthquake that shook the heart of the Himalayas on the 25th April 2015 claimed almost 9,000 lives and triggered an avalanche that ripped through Everest Base Camp, killing 22 people. Most of the damage to villages and property, though, occurred in the Gorkha district and Kathmandu, with only trekking routes in the Langtang Valley and Manaslu badly affected. Despite the avalanche, the trek to Everest Base Camp was open and ready for trekkers for the autumn season of 2015. Building projects are still underway to repair the damage in the worst affected regions, but by simply visiting Nepal you’re adding tourist revenue to the country at a time when it still very much needs it.

Human waste & litter

Humans produce waste, and not just of the dropped crisp packet variety. The more than 700 climbers and guides who spend nearly two months on Everest's slopes each climbing season leave huge quantities of faeces and urine, a problem that is causing pollution and threatening to spread disease around the world's highest peak. A hole in the snow stands in for any proper toilet facilities once climbers head beyond Base Camp, and around the four camps positioned on the ascent, waste has been piling up for years, with the high altitude and freezing temperatures preventing decomposition.

At Base Camp, porters, cooks and support staff gather during climbing season and, combined with climbers and trekkers, produce around 5,500kg of waste a year*. There are toilet tents set up here, with drums to store the waste, which are carried to a lower area and emptied once full. Sadly, though, some of this waste ends up in the waterways that nearby villages rely upon, causing local people to become ill from water contaminated by dumped human waste.

So far, the Nepalese government has not come up with a plan for tackling this unpleasant issue.

Waste disposal is also a challenging problem on the route up to Base Camp, because of the remote terrain and inadequate infrastructure of this area. Teahouse owners sometimes use septic tanks that can leak, polluting the water, and may also dispose of solid waste in huge, open-air landfill pits.

Proper rubbish disposal is another challenge facing Sagarmatha National Park and Everest itself. On the mountain, litter is a huge issue. Discarded oxygen cylinders, tents, plastics and climbing kit, and even dead bodies, which don't decompose because of the altitude, litter the mountain's sides. In 2014, the Nepalese government imposed new rules which require each climber to bring down 8kg of rubbish to Base Camp after attempting the summit; this is the amount it estimates that a single climber discards along the route. Climbing teams lose their deposit of $4,000 if they don't comply.

Around and below Base Camp, the Sagarmatha National Park Pollution Control Community, an NGO based in Namche Bazaar, is doing valuable work with local people, educating them about rubbish and correct disposal and organising litter clearance. The National Park has also banned things like glass bottles of beer.

* Source: US geographer Alton Byers quoted in Vice News.

What you can do
Disposing of litter responsibly is something anyone visiting Everest Base Camp should do. Any waste you produce should be stored and taken back to Kathmandu, where it can be disposed of safely. If you leave it up in the Himalaya, the locals will bury it or burn it, neither of which is good for the environment. If you have space in your backpack, pick up any extra litter you spot on the trail as you descend, especially harmful waste such as batteries. Try not to accept plastic bags from shops, reuse the ones you have, and buy food from markets to avoid packaging when possible. Don't buy bottled water; instead, bring your own bottle and invest in a LifeStraw or purification tablets and use them to safely treat the water supplied at teahouses.


Think twice before you buy souvenirs. Beautiful shahtoosh shawls are woven in the Himalayas from the wool of the Tibetan Antelope, or chiru. The chiru is now endangered as a result of hunting for its precious wool - don't buy anything made from it. Many Nepali taboos are to do with food. Once you've touched something to your lips, it's considered polluted for everyone else. If you take a sip from someone else's water bottle, try not to let it touch your lips and don't eat from someone else's plate or offer anyone food you've taken a bite of. If eating with your hands, use the right one only. The left hand is reserved for washing after defecating. You can use it to hold a drink or cutlery while you eat, but don't wipe your mouth, or pass food with it. It's also considered good manners to give and receive everything with the right hand. To show respect, offer money, food or gifts with both hands, or with the right hand while the left touches the wrist. Think before you take pictures. This may be your trip of a lifetime, but it's their reality, so introduce yourself and ask permission before snapping away. Nepal is a conservative country, and both men and women should cover their legs and shoulders, preferably with long sleeves. Girls in Kathmandu and Pokhara do wear shorts or short skirts, but this is new to Nepal - so play it safe and cover up. The forehead is regarded as the most sacred part of the body and it's impolite to touch an adult Nepali's head. Do not stretch your legs in public or point your feet at anyone as feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Never show affection in public. Although some younger couples hold hands in public, this is relatively new and it is still frowned upon. If you are invited into a private home for a meal, you can bring fruit or sweets, but don't expect thanks - it is considered offensive to make a fuss in these situations. Take your shoes off when entering, unless shown otherwise. When the food is served you may be expected to eat first, so you won't be able to follow your host's lead. Take less than you can eat, as asking for seconds is the best compliment you can give. Don't give pens, money, or sweets to the local people you encounter on visits to villages. It can encourage begging and may be seen to establish a non-equal relationship, with tourists being seen as simply 'givers' giving to 'the poor'. Instead, buy local handicrafts directly from villagers and show an interest in their skills. Dealing with beggars is par for the course in Nepal. Adjust to the pathos quickly - few beggars are bona fide and helping those that are will only encourage those that aren't. Do not give away medicines either; instead donate them to the destitute at Kathmandu's Bir Hospital, or at the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre in Kathmandu. There are opportunities to volunteer in Nepal, on a trip that contributes to rebuilding the villages devastated by the earthquake of April 2015. Typically, these volunteering trips last a week, and focus on the Gorkha region, to the west of Kathmandu, which was at the epicentre of the quake. Combining this with a trekking expedition is a great way to give something back, beyond a few tourist dollars, while in Nepal.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christopher Michel] [Porters: Bo Jorgensen] [Namche bazaar: Dylan Steinberg] [Earthquake: Bureau of Land Management]