The poop on Everest – and how to clean it up

I was reading a story from Vermont about a company that is reinventing PortaPotties to produce organic material for farmers, when it turned into a gateway into learning about the huge problems of human waste on Mount Everest and North American national parks.

For a few decades after the 1953 British ascent, there weren’t enough climbers to make the human waste problem a huge one. But then, as climbing Everest began to look like the Chilkoot Trail during the Yukon gold rush, the problem grew…and grew. These days, porters and yaks have to haul down about 26,000 pounds of human waste, in plastic lined blue pails, to a flat glaciated area at about 17,000 feet. That’s the weight of two fully-grown elephants.

In a way, it is a problem much bigger than Everest. Yet solutions for remote places also offer hope for improved sanitation in parts of the world that are not so remote, high and cold. Many entrepreneurs point out that solid human waste can be a source of energy and an agricultural supplement, if properly treated, as well as a source of resources we otherwise dig into the ground to obtain.

Summit Climb

Wasted, the Vermont company launching the ‘green’ portapotties, thinks we need a circular sanitation system because severe weather can be hard on centralized wastewater treatment facilities. It can knock them out of operation, cause them to leak sewage, and won’t be much use if climate disasters turn a great many people into climate migrants.

But Wasted is used to tackling really big problems. Seeing the scale of the Everest human waste problem while filming there in 2018, the founders created the nonprofit Do Good Shit in 2019 to develop and install sustainable waste management systems in backcountry regions from Tahoe to Patagonia.

A key to such systems is the separation of urine and feces, which DGS learned from the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. It has worked for the past decade on converting urine into fertilizer. (You might be familiar with Elephant Toilets, a low-tech solution popular in some parts of Africa, which does the same thing.) 

And thanks to the work of Geoff Hill, who founded Toilet Tech Solutions in British Columbia in 2013 (in 2016, it moved to Seattle), it is key to eco-friendly outhouses now installed in many BC parks and some US parks. In 2009, when Hill asked park managers across North America what problems they needed solved, all of them said human waste. Finding a solution became the focus of his doctoral research, and he found the key in a French design. He has five peer-reviewed publications on waterless toilet systems, has developed two mechanical urine diversion systems and has some toilet systems at various stages of demonstration, commissioning, and procurement. Since the first one was installed in Squamish, BC in 2014, more have been installed in BC parks.

A similar dedicated research process led to the project that could be built on Mount Everest one of these days. The solution to human waste on the mountain essentially has two approaches – one, to build a unique kind of anaerobic treatment facility on Everest, and two, to build coin-operated public washrooms along the Khumbu Valley that leads to base camp. Two men who lived in Seattle and had both climbed in Nepal – Garry Porter and Dan Mazur – worked with Engineers Without Borders and Architects Without Borders to found the Mount Everest Biogas Project in 2010.

Seven years later, it won the 2017 Mountain Protection Award for designing the first solar-powered human waste biogas system of its kind. The innovative, sustainable solution will convert the waste into methane fuel for the local community to use for cooking and lighting; lessen the risk of contaminating drinking water; curtail deforestation; reduce use of wood or yak dung for heating; and create dozens of construction jobs and long-term employment opportunities for residents of the local village for ongoing system maintenance. This video explains the plan.

The problem it was designed to fix is just as challenging as designing a solution proved to be. Human waste is hauled in plastic-lined blue barrels from Everest Base Camp down to Gorak Shep, a frozen lakebed 17,000 feet above sea level. Nestled in Mount Everest Sagarmāthā National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Gorak Shep is a six-day hike from the trailhead and nearest airport with no electrical, sanitation or water supply systems. Yaks or porters carry supplies, food, and fuel. Until 2014, the waste from Everest Base Camp was dumped, untreated, into open pits.

Anaerobic digesters are ubiquitous in central Asia. China alone has an estimated eight million anaerobic digesters in operations. But the Mount Everest Biogas Project was designed to operate at a very high altitude in very cold temperatures, using only human waste, and so much research has gone into making sure the process would work.

The Project also will introduce new energy-efficient and seismic-resistant building techniques to local builders. Unfortunately, the project was busy planning the construction when the COVID pandemic struck, which appears to have delayed construction plans.

The second part of the Everest sanitation solution is coming out of Golden, Colorado, where many Sherpas have settled in recent years. The impetus is Lhakpa Sherpa, who – as a guide on Everest – met a couple from Golden. They invited him to visit them and in 1997, sponsored his university education. He has since started a restaurant, a brewery and a landscaping business, and through his nonprofit, Hike for Help, works with the Colorado School of Mines to help people and schools in the Khumbu Valley, including installing public restrooms along the Everest Base Camp trail. 

“Public restrooms aren’t readily available in the area, and by constructing coin-accessible facilities, Nepali communities are able to generate additional income while keeping the valley clean and promoting tourism,” the Mines News reported in 2017, when a group of students went to Nepal to begin constructing a second coin-accessible public restroom in the Khumbu Valley. Hike for Help partners with communities in Nepal, collaborating directly with Nepali leaders to create projects such as workshops, constructing school buildings, beehives, and compostable toilets, that will directly benefit the people.

A footnote: In the course of researching this story, I was fascinated to discover some more waterless toilets designed for remote places that have grown out of the desire to find sustainable sanitation solutions worldwide. 

Climber and environmentalist Zuraina Zaharin partnered with Imad Agi, inventor of a waterless sanitation system using microbes to turn human waste into fertilizer, to launch EcoLoo which is now installing systems in remote locations, including several at UNESCO World Heritage site Petra, and is planning to make units available for disaster response. Loowatt is doing something similar, installing waterless toilets in Madagascar and aiming to install them at festivals and similar events in the UK.