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When you think of the great mountains of Nepal and Tibet, you think of a ferocious wilderness—barren, windswept, yet starkly beautiful and pristine in its isolation. The facts are more mundane. The Himalayan high country has become a relatively well-trod place in mountaineering terms. Since Sir Edmund Hillary and the late Tenzing Norgay first climbed Mount Everest in 1953, no fewer than 170 people have successfully ascended the 29,028-foot peak, and thousands of others have climbed at least partway to the top. They've also skied the mountain's slopes and hang-glided off its ridges. Because Everest is the most famous of the world's mountain peaks, the traffic on its slopes has received the most attention, but K2, Lhotse and other Himalayan peaks have also gotten their share of activity.
Perhaps more than their share, because Himalayan expeditions have been delinquent in protecting the fragile environment. Hikers in the Sierras, the Appalachians and the Adirondacks usually realize that communal use of the wilderness requires cooperation. For the most part, they obey antilitter rules by packing out whatever they have packed in. Not so in Asia. Whether Himalayan climbers feel the landscape is so rugged that it can absorb their trash or just figure they won't get caught by any rangers up there on "the roof of the world," they have shamelessly abused the back-country code.
"Those mountains have become something of a garbage heap," says Karen Fellerhoff, 27, a climber from Montana who worked as a guide in Nepal for four years. "It's awful. Ropes, axes, oxygen cannisters, even food—nothing breaks down at that altitude, so it's all still there. The Nepalese don't have canned foods, so when you see all the empty cans near the base of Everest, you know they've been left by Western expeditions. Some of the crevasses are clogged with stuff."
Fellerhoff is hoping to do something about it. She is coleader of a 10-member Everest expedition that will be packing in a heavy burden of earthly and symbolic goals. The primary object of the 1987 Snowbird Everest Expedition—which hopes to make the summit sometime in early October—is to place the first American woman on what is generally accepted as the world's highest peak. "Only six women have successfully climbed Everest," says Fellerhoff. "Junko Tabei from Japan was first in 1975. Others have come from Poland, Germany, Tibet and India. Last year Sharon Wood of Canada summited via the West Ridge. We hope to add at least one American to the list."
Three other women will climb alongside Fellerhoff on the Snowbird trek: Mary Kay Brewster, who came up short of the summit on a 1986 expedition, is an outstanding technical climber from Boulder, Colo.; Kellie Rhoades has taught in the Outward Bound program for 10 years in Idaho; and Sally McCoy of Berkeley, Calif., has made numerous ascents in Nepal, China and Thailand.
While the first-U.S.-woman aspect of the expedition will undoubtedly get the most attention, a secondary purpose may prove to be more significant over the long run. "We plan to take out twice as much debris as we take in," says Fellerhoff. "We've employed special Sherpas who will oversee and help us execute the plan." The expedition will take the popular South Col route, pioneered by Hillary and Tenzing, so there will be no shortage of litter to retrieve.
"We would like to leave a legacy different from the legacy of previous Western expeditions in Asia," says McCoy. "It's really a shame what's happened over there, because it's something the Sherpa culture would never have caused on its own. Maybe if we do this and succeed in the climb, future expeditions will be more attentive to the environment."
In an age when major expeditions must find hooks to attract corporate sponsorship—this effort will cost some $200,000—the other angle seized upon by Fellerhoff & Co. seems to be particularly worthwhile.