Garry Porter remembers being at Mount Everest’s south base camp in 2003, watching Sherpa porters haul down blue barrels filled to the brim with human feces.
“What they do is, they have a poop barrel, and they haul it to a teahouse village,” Porter said, explaining how Sherpas in Nepal deal with the waste left behind by the estimated 700 climbers and guides who spend two months on Everest every climbing season. “When they get it off the mountain, they dig a hole, and dump it.”
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Mount Everest’s poop problem. In March, the chief of Nepal’s mountaineering association said so much waste had accumulated that it’s threatening to spread disease. Right now, it’s estimated that climbers leave behind up to 26,500 pounds of human feces every year.
It’s a huge issue for the Sherpa guides, and others who live and work around the mountain. “It has a serious effect to our environment,” said Kami Diki Sherpa, who runs a shelter for the Everest porters, in a 2013 interview. “It has polluted our water source.”
But with all this talk about the problem, there hasn’t been much mention of proposed solutions. And that’s because as of now, there really aren’t any — except for one. To build an anaerobic digester in a small village near Everest’s base, and convert all that human poop to biogas, which can then be used by the Sherpas as an energy source.
If and when the digester becomes fully operational, it would prevent the nearly 14 tons of solid waste dumped in pits every year, with some additional growth capability for the waste already on the mountain. It would not address the excrement from the current tea houses, where thousands of trekkers arrive annually — but if it’s successful, a secondary digester could be built.
“It is kind of crazy,” said Porter. “But we’re doing it.”
Before he retired, Porter was a lead engineer at Boeing, where he managed a fleet of aircraft for NATO. But he was and is also a climber — he scaled Mount Everest back in 2003, making it all the way to the South Summit (that’s less than a mile away from the true summit, but he says he was forced down due to high winds).
When he returned to base camp, he noticed the porters carrying down the blue barrels of human excrement. He didn’t like it — it was “unceremonious,” he said. And when he talked to the Sherpas down in the small village of Gorak Shep at the base of the mountain, where the waste was dumped, he felt even worse.
“This mountain is sacred to them,” Porter said. “Us Westerners leave our crap on their mountain, and it just didn’t seem right.”
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Kami Diki Sherpa, who works in Gorak Shep and was interviewed by Porter’s team about the biogas project, agreed. “We Sherpa people believe this entire mountain as abode for our deities,” she said. “We worship our mountains. We don’t even go to climb just by ourselves for fun as respect to our deity. Such pollutions are very offensive for our deities.”
After that experience, Porter said he wanted to spend his time giving back to the Nepalese people. Lucky for him, he was retired. “I was looking for something that really challenged me,” he said. “And this was it.”
Us Westerners leave our crap on their mountain, and it just didn’t seem right.
So he contacted his friend Dan Mazur, an urban planner and Everest guide who’s lived half his life in Nepal, and they agreed: they’d build an anaerobic digester, a big metal vat full of water and microorganisms that break down waste and produce biogas.
These systems are pretty widely used. In Washington D.C., for example, the Water and Sewer Authority has an on-site digester that processes 1,600 tons of excrement into biogas every day. The gas produced there provides enough energy to keep parts of the city’s water treatment plant running if extreme weather knocks out power to the area.
Digesters are arguably even better, though, when they’re in poor or developing countries. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, small-scale anaerobic digesters like the one Porter and Mazur want to build on Everest are commonly used in rural communities to meet heating and cooking needs. China, for example, has an estimated 8 million anaerobic digesters. Nepal — where the one in question would be built — already has 50,000.
But building a digester on Mount Everest would be uniquely difficult. To do it, Porter and Mazur would have to figure out how to keep it running without access to power lines. They’d have to figure out how to keep it warm and functional in Everest’s frigid, harsh environment. They’d need to find a way to use local materials to build it, and local workers to monitor and operate it. And they’d do it all via volunteer work, without being paid a dime.
It’s been 12 years since that decision, which began what is now called the Mount Everest Biogas Project. But, Porter says, the end result is finally on the horizon.
After more than a decade, partnering with a 12-person all-volunteer staff mostly based in Seattle, Washington, Porter says he’s finally figured out the solution to his biggest problem — how do you keep a digester running at a warm temperature at the base of one of the coldest, windiest places in the world?
To understand that, it’s good to know the basics of how digesters work. With a digester, instead of dumping collected waste it in a pit, it would be put in a big tank. In this case, the tank would be about the size of a small car. There, microbacteria would feed on mixture of organic waste and water, producing biogas. But in order to keep the microorganisms processing the waste, the digester must maintain a temperature of between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. It cannot dip under that temperature, because if it does, “it will shut down,” Porter said. “Then you’ve either got to clean it out and start over, or get it warm again.” Not a very pleasant process for a vat of liquid feces.
Fortunately, there is a power source already established at Gorak Shep that Porter says can keep the digester running: solar power. According to Porter, a solar array will charge up a bank of batteries; the batteries will drive a resistance coil — the same type of inductor that powers home water — and the coil will heat up the digester.
… there’s a good chance you get a touch of altitude sickness …
“It’s not a high-tech solution,” Porter said.
It really can’t be high-tech if it’s going to work on or around Mount Everest. Gorak Shep, a village consisting of only six or so teahouses (where climbers rest and get food), is extremely remote. Any material that the digester needs must be able to be sourced from there, or must be brought up by humans, or by yaks.
“It’s a five to six day hike, 17,000 feet,” Porter said. “You’re gonna feel it, and there’s a good chance you get a touch of altitude sickness doing it.”
But Porter says he’s figured it out. He and his team have run their data by consulting firms EcoTope and OutBack Power Technologies to confirm their calculations — that a digester can, in fact, run consistently in such a high altitude and harsh weather. And now, they’re teaming up with Architects Without Borders to find the best way to build a shelter around the digester, to keep it from being directly exposed to the elements.
When that’s done — sometime this year, Porter says — the Mount Everest Biogas Project will begin fundraising. In 2016, they’ll start construction of the digester at Gorak Shep. For a year, they’ll run it solely with water, to prove it can stay heated, and train the Sherpas how to operate it. And if all goes well, Porter says the digester should be processing human poop into energy by 2017.
For what it’s worth, Sherpas interviewed in 2013 enthusiastically welcomed the possibility of a digester on the mountain. But Pasang Chhering Sherpa, owner of the Himalayan Lodge, was skeptical it could be done.
“I liked the concept very much but it has been few years that you have been doing the survey but we did not see any results, I hope it won’t disappear,” he said. “There are so many researchers come here with different subject but they never come back with the result.”
One of the managers of D.C.’s anaerobic digester system, however, said the idea should work if Porter’s heating system is consistent, and if there is enough waste to keep the system running at all times.
“Digesters are very fickle, and they crave consistency … You have to have enough mass to keep the heat,” said Chris Peot, the director of resource recovery at D.C. Water. “But in theory, it certainly should work.”
Aside from keeping the system heated, another potential obstacle is that human feces is not a great fuel for a digester — compared to animal excrement, it does not produce a ton of methane. “It will work,” Porter said, “it just won’t produce as much gas for a given volume of waste.” In other words, a lot of poop will be needed to make a little bit of fuel.
Fortunately, Mount Everest has no shortage. If the digester processes all the waste it can, it would produce approximately 35,000 cubic feet of biogas every year. That’s not enough to totally power Gorak Shep, but Porter says it could much-needed nearly sustainable fuel.
Whether the digester works or doesn’t, though, it’s clear something has to be done soon. As tourism only stands to increase on the mountain, so does the waste problem — and the waste problem only stands to get worse with climate change, which is expected to cause thawing that unearths waste that’s been frozen for decades.
“Yes, climate change makes the shit problem much worse,” John All, director of the American Climber Science Program, told ThinkProgress. “Throughout history, we have dumped waste into crevasses and it disappeared. Now the glaciers are what is disappearing, and there is nowhere for the waste to go.”
“Additionally, because it is far warmer then it used to be, the waste doesn’t stay frozen and the smell becomes quite potent in the heat of the day,” he added.
One thing that’s clear is who should pay for cleaning it up: the climbers. Though Porter estimates the digester could be costly — anywhere up to $100,000, he said — an extra charge within the now-$25,000 climbing fee is small price to pay for getting to scale the highest mountain in the world.
“It’s climbers’ poop, so guess who’s going to pay to keep this thing going,” he said. “ You! It’s your poop.”