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The Highest Litter Brigade

In March 2000 I accepted the job of my dreams with a "convergent media" environmental website that was going to promote and explain all things green. I was the outdoor and travel editor for Verde Media and before I even had a desk of my own Verde management told me they had become sponsors of a major expedition to both climb and clean off Mount Everest.

"That's great," I said. "We should send somebody." Within a week I was on my way to Nepal.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit Everest in 1953, although the British had been mounting expeditions since 1922. Many Everest campaigns resembled military assaults, and decades of climbing attempts had left the mountain littered with uncountable tons of discarded equipment, spoiled food, human waste and bodies.

In Tibet, Everest is known as Chomolungma?the Goddess Mother of Earth. In Nepal its name is Sagarmatha?Mother of the Universe. Whatever you call it, Everest is sacred to millions of people. And yet the world's highest mountain had become the world's highest garbage dump, an insult to the mountain and those who love her.

In the early 1990s things began to change. Environmental policies were established, and some expeditions even began to bring out more garbage than they took in. Bob Hoffman, a climber from Belmont, California, had already done a couple of Everest clean-ups when he decided to make 2000 the big push: to clear off all the trash, including some 700 discarded oxygen bottles and tons of smaller debris. My job was to document the effort for Verde while spending nearly two months at Everest base camp, 17,600 feet up on the Khumbu glacier. Using dual satellite uplinks I sent back daily video reports and an email journal of the expedition's progress. I also reported on my own progress as a wannabe mountaineer who had never been above 15,000 feet.

Measured in objective terms, the expedition was a major success. Three Western climbers and ten Sherpas made it to the summit. A small army of clean-up Sherpas, working all the way up to Camp IV at 26,000 feet, brought down 632 old oxygen bottles, some dating back to the Hillary/Tenzing expedition, and about 300 kilos of trash.

Surviving Garbage Collection at 17,600 feet

At a subtler, more subjective level, the expedition was a lesson in physical and emotional survival in one of the harshest atmospheres on earth. Some of my more obvious conclusions were these:

When you're hiking to Everest, hike slowly. Altitude sickness can kill you?more people have died on the way to the mountain than climbing it. From the usual staging area in the village of Lukla at 9,000 feet, it should take at least nine days to reach Everest Base Camp. While I was there, two people?lowland porters who ascended too quickly?died on the trail.

If you spend a long time at Base Camp you will slowly waste away. Your oxygen-starved body will consume 5,000 calories a day, or more, but you can't eat that much because at times you'll be sick, at other times you won't be hungry, and the food is often unappetizing. You'll suffer from malabsorption, indigestion, and diarrhea; you'll have a continuous cough; you'll always be out of breath; and your weight will just drop away. I lost twenty-five pounds, and I calculated that, had I stayed until September 16, I would have simply disappeared.

Because Base Camp has roughly half the oxygen of sea level, everything is harder to do, including sleeping. The thinner air tricks your body into thinking it is suffocating, and so you wake up periodically gasping desperately for breath. The solution is a diuretic drug that makes you wake up periodically desperately having to pee.

Yaks are wonderful animals, capable of carrying heavy loads to high altitudes while producing milk, butter, and wool. But don't get in the way of a yak on a high Himalayan trail. One of you will go over the edge, and it won't be the yak.

Diamox

The brand name for acetazolimide, the drug that transforms periodic breathing into periodic peeing. Get the 250 mg tablets; see your doctor for a prescription. Prices vary.

Smartwool socks

Unlike polypro, wool doesn't stink after the first good sweat. I wore these socks exclusively and sometimes kept the same pair on, day and night, for a week (laundry is a luxury). They felt great?and didn't smell for at least four days. The heavy duty Mountaineering style are $19.50 a pair and worth every dime. REI.

Polypro underpants

Notwithstanding the comments above, polypro underwear dries quickly, even while you're wearing it, doesn't soil easily and will stink less than cotton. I wore the same underwear for four or five days. $15 at REI.

Lozenges for the Khumbu cough

The air is so dry on Everest that everyone gets a cough that lasts pretty much as long as they're there. I tore chest muscles coughing; broken ribs are common. Suck on something to lubricate your throat. Almost anything will work, including hard candies. I like Ricola cough drops, available at any drug store.

Princeton Tec headlamp

Princeton Tec has set a new standard for headlamps. Theirs are waterproof far below any depth you'll ever dive; the four-battery version I took to Everest will light up a mountain; they're guaranteed for life; they fit comfortably on your head; and you can pop out the incandescent bulb for a long-lasting LED bulb module good for scores of hours of nighttime reading. The four-battery Princeton Tec Vortec, with one high-output halogen bulb and one long-term bulb is $36 at REI. The Matrix LED lamp (with interchangeable incandescent bulb) is $39.95 at REI.

A really good sleeping bag

Rated to at least zero degrees F. I took a zero-degree Marmot Couloir, extra long. From Marmot, www.marmot.com, for $439.

Baby wipes

For the same reason you need ciprofloxacin. At Rite-Aid drugs for $2.99.

Trekking poles

I used to scoff at people who used these things, but the trail to Everest made me a believer. They're invaluable on steep terrain, like acquiring an extra set of legs. The best poles, hands down, are made by Leki; they're adjustable, spring-loaded, lightweight and exemplify German engineering. $89.95 to $119.95 at REI.

A personal water filter

I like the HealthShield Safe Water antimicrobial water bottle which you can dip into any stream and then instantly suck clean water through a protected rubber spout. It's 99.98 percent safe for giardia, cryptosporidium, and all other nasties except viruses. For that you can drop in some iodine, and the filter will remove the taste. 25 oz. bottle $39.95 at REI.

A pee bottle

It's 3 a.m. and you're awake for the third time having to pee. It's two degrees outside, with six inches of snow on your tent. What to do? Keep a Nalgene, wide-mouth water bottle in your tent. Women can buy anatomically fitted funnels to improve their aim. Everyone has a pee bottle. Don't go to Everest without one. At any outdoor supply store. 32 oz. HDPE wide-mouth loop-top bottle, $5.75.

A Frisbee

For the same reasons you take a Frisbee anywhere. Available just about anywhere for a couple of bucks.

Ciprofloxacin

Cipro is the drug of choice to nuke the microorganisms that cause diarrhea and other inevitable intestinal ailments in an environment where hygiene is more a loose concept than a reality. Of course, when you come back from Everest your intestines will be a dead zone where no friendly flora survive. Available by prescription. Prices vary.

Zithromax

This miracle antibiotic will knock out the chronic bronchitis you get from coughing twenty-four hours a day. Its five-day, single-pill regime is the equivalent of the traditional two-week multi-pill dose and you'll feel a lot better by day three. Available by prescription. Expensive; typically $50 or more for one five-day treatment.

A camp chair

I've been carrying Crazy Creek chairs all over the world for about twenty years, and I wouldn't want to go to Everest without one. Their foam construction is good insulation for sitting on a glacier; you can stuff one in your backpack or lay it flat for extra comfort under your sleeping pad. $38.50 at most outdoor stores.

A large stash of emergency food

(For when you can't survive another meal of yak steak and boiled potatoes.)

I like Balance Bars, but they don't travel very well. For a real meal I'll take Alpineaire freeze-dried gourmet meals, which offer the best taste and variety of any camping meals and which are even available in a self-heating pouch. (They're used by Navy SEALS and US Forest Service fire crews.) Full meals vary from about $5.25 to $7.50 from www.alpineaire.com/ or at many outdoor stores.

Good sunglasses are essential

I used Julbo wrap-around glacier glasses, from REI at $59. An altimeter is essential. I used the Suunto Vector altimeter watch with built-in compass, thermometer, and barometer, available at almost any outdoor store for $199. Also, a hat (mine is a polypro skull cap from North Face, www.thenorthface.com, for $19, along with a variety of baseball caps) and a good knife or multi-tool (I carry a Kershaw Blizzard spring-loaded folding knife, $69.95 at REI, and a Leatherman, $59).

Some CDs and a disc player

No one should travel to Nepal without taking Rain of Blessings , a Real World Records CD featuring the Tibetan Buddhist chants of Lama Gyurme with the keyboard arrangements of French musician Jean-Phillipe Rykiel. A seamless integration of Tibetan chants and haunting contemporary composition. $26.99 from www.towerrecords.com