Capturing Mount Everest cleanup on film

Former Juneau man makes documentary of climb to rid the world's highest mountain of trash

Posted: Monday, May 08, 2000

As a boy in Juneau, Bill Marchese never dreamed his hikes on the Mendenhall Glacier would be training for one of the most unusual expeditions ever to climb Mount Everest.

But this week the documentary filmmaker is thinking of his boyhood adventures as he waits in Nepal to summit the world's highest mountain. Marchese is part of a group cleaning up the tons of trash left behind by 80 years of climbing expeditions. His party is poised in the rarified air waiting for the weather to clear atop the 29,035-foot peak and planning a summit bid on Thursday or Friday.

``Bill had done a lot of climbing on the Mendenhall Glacier, and he was reminded of that when they crossed the Khumba Glacier,'' said Marchese's father. Both men are named Bill but don't use junior and senior because they have different middle names.

``Mount Everest has the distinction of being the world's highest garbage dump,'' said the elder Marchese.

The trails and camps leading to the summit are littered with used oxygen and fuel bottles, broken gear and shredded tents, food cartons and cans, batteries, and medical and human waste. Trash from several of the mountain's high camps is contaminating runoff and polluting the drinking water of villages down below, Marchese said.

The Marchese family lived in Juneau from 1976 to 1988, and Bill graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1985. The elder Marchese now lives in Palm Springs, and has been in close contact with his 33-year-old son during the expedition.

``It's amazing, we can talk by e-mail there, from base camp. He says everyone there gets a little bit sick from lack of oxygen. The air is really dry, and he's coughing a lot,'' he said.

At the base camp at 17,600 feet, air has less than half the oxygen it holds at sea level.

The younger Bill lives in Venice, Calif., with his wife and business partner, Lisa Tauscher. He's a film director and cinematographer, and she's a producer. Their bread-and-butter work is television commercials, but they produced a documentary on the Russian Ballet, and Marchese has filmed on volcanos and mountain peaks, including Mount Rainier.

The two will celebrate their second wedding anniversary on Mount Everest this month as they lead a five-member film crew up the mountain, documenting the cleanup project.

Since British climbers first set foot on Everest in 1921, debris has been piling up. Cleanups have been attempted before but never on this scale, the elder Marchese said.

``There's all kind of debris that's been collecting up there. It's a real trash pit. You never see that in that in the National Geographic specials,'' Marchese said.

The government of Tibet now requires that climbers account for everything they bring up and down the mountain, and dumping gear is no longer permitted. Between 100 and 400 climbers attempt to summit Everest, on the border between Nepal and Tibet, each year.

``The climbing fee is about $65,000 for a party of five to climb to the top,'' Marchese said. ``Some of that fee funds a bounty on oxygen bottles to encourage Sherpas to bring out more than they bring up.''

Sherpas are a Tibetan people who live on the high southern slopes of the Himalayas in eastern Nepal, known for providing support for mountain climbers.

Inventa, an American Internet consulting firm, is the leading sponsor of the cleanup, but many of the climbers involved are paying their own way. That includes the documentarians, Marchese said.

Three teams are involved. The lead team is headed up by veteran climber Bob Hoffman of California, who has climbed the highest peaks on each of the world's seven continents, including Everest in 1992, 1995 and 1998. According to the expedition's Web site,, Hoffman hauled out more than 300 discarded oxygen bottles and a ton of debris on his last two trips. The experience inspired him to mount the current cleanup effort.

Hoffman's team of eight will establish the climbing route, set up camps and fix lines for themselves and the second team. The second team consists of 50 mountaineering Sherpas with 100 yaks, making trips up and down the mountain, hauling out tons of waste.

The climbers will help with the cleanup, but the Sherpas' greater strength and acclimatization allows them to work much more efficiently.

Marchese and Tauscher lead the third team, which includes veteran high-altitude cameraman Jeff Rhoads, who has climbed Everest twice before.

The documentary, called ``Everest Extreme,'' is scheduled to air on public television sometime this fall. Tauscher and Marchese plan to be home in California around June 1.

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