It’s the question everyone really wants to ask, but doesn’t dare to. We reveal, finally, the ugly truth about peeing and pooping on Mount Everest.
To pee on Mount Everest, climbers use pee bottles in tents at night and pour the urine into the surrounding snow in the morning. To poop on Everest, you use a travel toilet bag and return it to Base Camp, where they are weighed as part of an 8 kg (18 lbs) Returned Rubbish quota.
That’s the theory. The practice is somewhat different. With nearly a thousand people spending two months on Everest every season, most of them concentrated around four main camps, the situation has become ugly.
Well-organised expeditions have latrines at Base Camp with plastic barrels sunk into the ground which, when full are shipped out. But badly organised climbers poop everywhere, and there have been some hilarious and some tragic accidents….
How Do You Poop on Mount Everest?
You poop on Everest by using toilet or bathroom tents put up by the Sherpas at Base Camp, or, further up the mountain, you have to crouch in the snow and open a built-in flap in your down suit.
At Base Camp the toilet tents (also called bathroom, latrine or charpi) have a plastic toilet seat on top of a barrel. When they’re full these barrels are taken down the mountain and the human waste used as fertilizer.
On the mountain itself you must place the stool in a plastic bag and return it to Base Camp, where it is carefully weighed as part of your returned rubbish quota.
“Where do you go to the lavatory?” or “Where are the bathrooms?” has long been my favourite question from children about pooping on Mount Everest. When I started going to Everest in the 80s there weren’t so many people around.
Even then, though, the 15-day trek from Jiri to Everest’s South base camp was notable for the “Westerner’s prayer flags”: fluttering pieces of toilet paper stuck under every available stone. And under every likely rock lurked a dessicated turd. At the tea houses and lodges along the way there were primitive latrines: noxious wooden privies with unmentionable holes in the rotten wooden floors.
Some Funny Stories About Pooping on Everest
Two friends of mine: (let’s call them Bruce and Rupert to protect the guilty), are high on Mount Everest’s North-East Ridge in 1988, having just become the first climbers ever to traverse the Three Pinnacles, an astoundingly hard climb.
They are lying in their tent in a blizzard waiting to complete their route. After a while, Rupert confesses that he is desperate to go to the loo. ‘Pee in the bottle,’ replies Bruce.
‘No,’ says Rupert, who is a polite man, ‘it’s the other sort.’ ‘
Oh, no. You can’t do it in here.’
‘But it’s a blizzard outside,’ complains Rupert.
‘Get out,’ says Bruce. So Rupert crawls out, sticks his bottom over the Kangshung Face, opens the zipped ‘bomb doors’ on his suit, and strains and grunts for a while over the thousands of feet beneath him.
Eventually satisfied, he crawls back into the tent. After a while Bruce wrinkles his nose. ‘Did you stand in it? There’s a terrible smell in here.’ ‘No, no,’ protests Rupert. “I saw it go”.
After a search, they find the offending object resting in Rupert’s hood. The whirling winds of Everest had whisked it up and returned it to him.
Another unfortunate climber, wearing just slippery camp slippers, crept out of his tent perched high on the Lhotse Face. He was desperate to have a poo. Sadly he didn’t tie into the fixed rope and took a long sliding fall down the 3,000 foot icy slopes. This proved to be fatal.
When I summitted Everest in October 1993 I remember having to poop at that same Camp III on the Lhotse Face. Mindful of the above story I found an empty tent and carefully performed into a plastic food bag. This was carefully wrapped up and later taken down the mountain.
On the North side of Everest in 2011 I unwisely lent my best down suit to a very good friend. On his summit bid, he was overcome by diarrhea and had to swiftly drop the whole suit.
Unfortunately, he failed to notice that between his legs swung the hood, which he proceeded to fill with the contents of his lower bowel. Satisfied, he dragged the suit up and pulled on the hood.
When I met him climbing down the mountain I greeted him with the words: “Doug, why have you got mud all over your face?” He plodded past grimly. “Graham, that ain’t mud.”
On other mountains, with very few other climbers around, it used to be acceptable to dump human poop down a crevasse, well away from camp. I have to admit doing this myself on the Himal Chuli Integrale route in the 1980s, but no one had been there before and no one was likely to want to repeat the climb anytime soon.
The problem with Mount Everest is that there are literally thousands of other people around on over-used routes.
“It is a health hazard and the issue needs to be addressed”Dawa Steven Sherpa, leader of Everest cleanup expeditions since 2008 (source https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/03/too-much-human-poo-on-mount-everest-says-nepal).
The situation became vile, with the campsites resembling the husky dog compounds of Western Greenland: more poop than snow.
“Climbers usually dig holes in the snow for their toilet use and leave the human waste there…it has been piling up for years”Ang Tshering, head of the Nepali Mountaineering Association (source https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-31706131).
On the South, Nepali side of Mount Everest there are now rules in place. Each climber must bring down 8kg (18lb) of rubbish when they return to base camp. Expedition teams also make a $4,000 (£2,600) deposit, which they lose if they don’t stick to the rules. A similar rule applies on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, another of the Seven Summits.
So these days we take all solid waste off the mountain, so at the North Base Camp in Tibet, you sit on a lavatory seat attached to a plastic barrel that is later taken down the valley and emptied into tanks.
Local farmers then use this waste as fertiliser. Perched on top of the barrel in full view of the whole Base Camp, but gazing up at the summit, is to experience the sublime and the ridiculous at the same time.
How Do You Pee on Mount Everest?
To pee on Mount Everest during the day you usually unclip from the rope, walk off the stamped path in the snow and pee out of sight of the other climbers filing past. Be careful not to fall down a crevasse. During the night you use a wide-mouth bottle.
Edmund Hillary admitted in his autobiography “View from the Summit” that when he reached the summit of Everest for the first time on May 29 1953 his bladder was bursting, so he took a pee on the very top of the world.
“We had been warned by expedition doctor Griffith Pugh that dehydration was one of the greatest risks faced by climbers going high. To compensate for this, Tenzing and I had spent a good part of the previous night quaffing copious quantities of hot lemon drink and, as a consequence, we arrived on top with full bladders. Having just paid our respects to the highest mountain in the world, I then had no choice but to urinate on it.”Edmund Hillary, “View from the Summit”
During some of my expeditions on the mountain itself, male climbers just stood in a circle, turned their backs to each other and peed into the snow. There were jokes about not eating yellow snow. Later on in the expeditions I noticed that the climbers stood in the circle facing each other. All inhibitions had gone.
It was tougher for the women: they had to drop their salopettes and crouch behind a rock. One poor woman, wearing skis on another mountain, crouched and still peeing, accidentally started sliding down the mountain, out from behind her rock and gliding slowly past a line of astonished fellow climbers, trailing a yellow line in the snow.
Worse things happened high on the mountain. To help acclimatisation you have to drink far more than you normally would. As a result you have to urinate two or three times at night – but not outside.
To prevent frostbite of vital parts we used a pee-bottle inside the tent. Old hands can do this inside their sleeping bag without waking up properly – or knocking over the bottle. The resulting bottleful mustn’t be mistaken for your orange juice during the night and must be emptied before it freezes.
Women climbers seem to manage all this in a way that seems to involve kneeling and a wide-mouthed bottle. I don’t look too closely.