Known for its intense beauty but also the harsh unforgiveness of its landscapes, the second-highest peak in the world after Everest is today struggling with the problem of garbage and human waste piling up on its 8,611-metre-high summit.
While K2’s majestic allure continues to attract mountaineers worldwide, the environmental repercussions of these expeditions are becoming increasingly evident.
The accumulation of waste, coupled with the Pakistani authorities’ introduction of a garbage fee, raises questions about the sustainability of these adventures and the climbers’ awareness and responsibility towards this pressing issue.
In addition to the risks that surround K2 – a peak that claimed the lives of 22.8% of its climbers in 2023 (Statista, 2023) – there is an acute environmental crisis associated with such an expedition. Abandoned tents, oxygen cylinders, and human waste are an all-too-common sight on the Savage Mountain .
Since the presence of waste at the peak of K2 is already reflecting on the alpine ecosystem, accelerating glacier melting and water pollution for the populations in the area, the Pakistani authorities have imposed a $200 garbage fee for all international expeditions, increasing the overall costs of the K2 adventurer.
Our case study analyzes how the increased costs of climbing K2 in 2023 affect the climbers who were planning to explore it in the next two years while also focusing on the levels of awareness climbers have about the K2 garbage situation.
- Data Collection: Developed a survey form and disseminated it to active members of various hiking and climbing groups, as well as through social media platforms.
- Sample: Surveyed a total of 56 climbers, selected based on their recent or planned expeditions to K2.
- Data Analysis: Responses were analyzed to gauge awareness levels, attitudes toward environmental challenges, and willingness to pay additional fees for conservation efforts.
We hypothesize that dedicated climbers will accommodate the new financial burden while being ready to comply with the Leave No Trace policy and that the new garbage fee will help filter expeditions, favoring the more responsible ones.
European surveyor Thomas Montgomerie first measured this peak from the Karakoram range in 1856, earning it its ‘K2’ title. Despite being a popular objective, the mountain withheld its summit from climbers until July 31, 1954, challenging them with an extraordinarily high fatality rate.
It was the heroic Italian climbers Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli who first tasted victory. Even today, K2, also revered as the “Savage Mountain,” continues its high death toll.
However, the Nepali climbers’ groundbreaking winter ascent in 2021 pushed the boundaries of human abilities in mountaineering, introducing an unprecedented chapter in K2’s history (Ko, 2021) .
Simultaneously, the surge in adventurists over the years brought along a threat to K2’s landscape – the proliferation of garbage. The once-pristine mountain trails and camps started acting as dumping grounds for solid wastes and human excreta.
Moreover, it’s impossible to ignore the escalating environmental apprehensions surrounding K2. Unattended trail wastes amplify glacier melt while also compromising the ecology.
Dark waste materials, by absorbing sunlight, lead to quicker ice melting – a phenomenon bearing an adverse effect on downstream habitats and human precincts. The disruption stems beyond the rapid diminution of essential water reserves.
The Pakistani government, in its efforts to fight environmental degradation, has consistently raised the climbing fees.
Consequently, the financial burden on climbers has seen a significant increase, reflecting the intricate relationship between environmental conservation efforts and the cost of adventure tourism.
What Are the Financial Costs of Climbing K2 in 2023
The overall cost of reaching the summit of K2 from the Pakistani side consists of a series of permit fees, equipment costs, and accommodation and transportation expenses. However, if a tour guide company is involved, the costs can increase considerably.
Prior to the preceding year, the permit fee was termed the royalty fee, as it constituted the sole expense. However, commencing in 2023, the permit fee encompasses both the royalty fee and an augmented garbage fee introduced that year.
In 2023, international expeditions of up to 7 members that are aiming for the summit of K2 are charged a steep royalty fee of $12,000 plus $3,000 for every extra member, highlighting a substantial contribution to the country’s revenue from foreign adventure tourism.
On the other hand, Pakistani expeditions are charged only $130.43, a figure significantly lower than that for international ones. (Statista, 2023a) 
With the decline of the targeted altitude on K2, the associated fees follow a similar trajectory. For an expedition targeting altitudes of 8,001 to 8,500 meters, a charge of $9,500 falls on a team of seven, with each extra team member contributing an additional $3,000.
For climbers setting their sights slightly lower, between 7,501 and 8,000 meters, the financial commitment lightens. A group of seven embarking on this goal is required to contribute $4,000, with each extra mountaineer resulting in a $1,000 increase.
As the target shrinks to between 7,001 and 7,500 meters, so too does the toll, as the basic charge slides to $2,500 for a seven-person team, and an additional half a thousand per extra climber.
Finally, for those choosing not to challenge themselves beyond 6,501 to 7,000 meters, the charge rests at $1,500 for a seven-person team. In this case, every extra individual adds a smaller load of $300 to the collective financial burden. 
This disparity aims to encourage domestic adventure tourism and make K2 accessible to Pakistani nationals.
However, it underscores the heavy dependence on international expeditions for revenue generation to cover the costs of maintaining, managing, and conserving K2, including waste management initiatives.
The high cost for international climbers may also introduce a self-selecting mechanism, encouraging only the most committed and potentially more environmentally-conscious climbers to undertake the expedition.
In 2023, a notable advancement in the conservation efforts at K2 was the introduction of a waste management fee for climbers. It is mandated by the Pakistani government and varies by the zone that mountaineers intend to traverse.
Specifically, mountaineers intending to climb K2 through restricted trekking zones are required to pay a waste management fee of $200 per person. This figure is double the cost of the waste disposal fee in the open trekking zones. (Statista, 2023c) 
This indicates an effort to control and reduce the human impact on sensitive and critical areas of the mountain since these fees contribute to the total cost of the expedition, constituting an additional expense for climbers.
They are utilized for activities such as waste collection, garbage disposal, and other waste management initiatives, aiming to reduce the negative environmental impacts of mountaineering.
Equipment and Gear Expenses
Ascending K2 necessitates the utilization of specialized equipment beyond merely appropriate footwear, owing to the formidable environmental conditions it presents. This involves climbing gear like mountaineering boots, ice axes, ropes, harnesses, and carabiners.
Climbers also need to invest in appropriate clothing, navigation devices, oxygen equipment, as well as a first aid kit. Overall, we calculated that the costs could reach $10,000 or more.
For the accommodation costs a climber would pay per night before and after the expedition, we analyzed 10 hotels in the Skardu area, which is the starting point for most expeditions.
The average cost would be $18 per night. For example, Eden Rock Skardu and Hotel Dewanekhas Skardu charge $28 per night and $18 respectively, being some of the most popular accommodation options in the area.
Guided Tours and Expedition Expenses
While experienced climbers can do without a guided tour, those who don’t have enough experience and can afford it enroll in guided expeditions. In general, a company like Summit Club or Adventure Peak includes the gear in their price, which can reach a whopping $40,450.
How Climbing Impacts the Environment on K2
Climbing on the K2 Mountain has significant environmental implications. According to a worldwide survey headed by Björn Alfthan and Laurent Fouinat of GRID-Arendal, both hard and soft plastic wastes are frequently encountered by climbers at high altitudes.
The survey gathered data from 74 nations and discovered that waste pollution is a widespread concern affecting mountainous areas globally. (Björn and Laurent, 2021) 
Approximately half of those surveyed reported noticing sufficient waste to fill the top compartment of a backpack during their visits. In some cases (5%), the amount of waste noticed was high enough to fill several 60-liter backpacks.
The majority of the participants (60%) have seen an increase in discarded items over the previous five years, and more than 75% have noticed recently disposed of litter pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Observations of decreasing waste were reported by a mere 14%, while 23% believed the waste levels remained constant.
Secondary Effects on the Environment
However, the effects of climbing K2 go beyond local environmental issues. They intersect with global factors like climate change, which could drive temperature increases, increase precipitation, or contribute to bizarre glacier behavior in the Karakoram range, affecting water resources downstream in Pakistan’s agriculture-dependent regions.
New data indicate a trend of glacier expansion in contrast to the overall glacial recession due to climate change. Projections suggest potential floods due to increased rainfall before 2040 and then dwindling water resources due to glacial melt in subsequent decades. (Piracha and Majeed, 2014) 
An Old Problem
The problem is far from being recent. The United Nations performed a study in the Karakoram range, where K2 is situated, in 1993. During the research phase, over 80% of the locations studied showed significant environmental impact.
It’s clear from the survey that hiking and climbing activities contribute to the littering problem, with both hard and soft plastics being the predominant types of waste found.
There were several key peaks within the Karakoram range evaluated by the study for environmental impact, including K2, with an average score of 18, indicating high levels of pollution on its routes. (UN.ESCAP, 1993) 
Furthermore, the number of climbers who reach the K2 summit has increased considerably over the years, ranging from 16 in 1993 to 200* in 2022 (Statista, 2023c), and is expected to continue to grow, which announces a deeper garbage crisis and possibly the need for harsher measures in the future. 
* The study was performed in July 2022, so it doesn’t reflect the real number of climbers in 2022, which proved to be 200.
Measures to Mitigate Environmental Damage
A management plan for the Central Karakoram National Park was established in 2015, with a system put in place to regulate tourist access and manage waste.
Strategies include dividing the park into zones, launching waste management programs, involving local communities, and creating guidelines for various sectors, including mining and tourism.
Also, the Ev-K2-CNR Project, launched in 1986 in collaboration with the Italian National Research Council, started waste management activities in the Baltoro Glacier region in 2006 with the support of the Alpine Club of Pakistan.
Between 2015 and 2019, almost 29 tons of waste, including solid waste and human excrement, were removed, segregated, and disposed of. (World Bank, 2021) 
Climber Attitudes and Willingness to Pay
To evaluate the awareness of climbers about the situation on K2 and their willingness to pay the garbage fee, we applied the survey from the Appendix section on 56 hikers and climbers with medium and advanced experience who climbed and/or were planning to climb K2 in the following two years, and we obtained the following results:
- Awareness of Environmental Challenges: 45 out of 56 respondents (80%) were aware of the environmental challenges associated with climbing K2. This suggests a high level of environmental consciousness among the surveyed climbers.
- Encountered Environmental Issues: 30 respondents (54%) reported encountering specific environmental issues like garbage accumulation or glacier melting during their hike. This highlights the severity and tangible impact of these issues.
- Importance of Environmental Conservation: 51 respondents (91%) considered environmental conservation important to their hiking experience. This may imply that most climbers would be willing to comply with measures that protect the environment.
- Responsibility to Protect the Environment: 48 respondents (86%) affirmed climbers have a substantial role in environment protection. Their responsibility awareness signifies potential cooperation with conservation efforts.
- Sustainable Hiking Practices: 52 respondents (93%) were willing to follow sustainable hiking practices. Their willingness might translate into real actions that reduce environmental impact.
- Willingness to Pay an Additional Fee: 31 respondents (55%) were willing to pay an additional fee to support environmental conservation efforts. While this implies potential financial support, almost half of the respondents are not willing to bear extra costs.
The results of our study indicate that most climbers are aware of the environmental challenges in K2 and feel responsible for its conservation. Many are even prepared to engage in sustainable hiking practices.
However, despite this environmental consciousness, approximately half of the climbers showed resistance to additional fees for environmental efforts.
This suggests that the financial burden is an important consideration in environmental initiatives, emphasizing the need for economically viable solutions.
Concerning the issue of garbage piling up on K2, with the number of climbers on the rise, it is expected to persist in the foreseeable future.
While the new garbage tax may act as a filter against less ecological climbers and help raise money for cleaning actions, a preferable plan might be to establish a refund system in the future.
This system would enable mountaineers to reclaim their money if they demonstrate that they returned with all their gear and waste, motivating them to minimize their environmental footprint.
This case study was collaboratively developed by our dedicated team. We owe our gratitude to Christina, an esteemed colleague and passionate climber, whose upcoming expedition to K2 at the end of this month inspired the idea for this research.
Her firsthand experiences and insights were invaluable in shaping the direction and depth of our analysis. We also extend our appreciation to all team members for their relentless efforts and contributions in bringing this study to fruition.
For similar facts and data, see our hiking statistics article.
- Statista. (2023a, June 13). Share of deaths compared to number of summits of selected mountains globally 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1387436/death-rates-selected-mountains-globally/
- Ko, L. (2021). All-Nepali team makes history with first successful winter ascent of K2. State of the Planet. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/02/18/nepali-team-winter-ascent-k2/
- Statista. (2023b, June 19). Fee collected by the government for climbing K2 in Pakistan 2022, by nationality. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1388458/nationality-climbing-fees-k2-pakistan/
- Royalty Fee (2023). https://visa.nadra.gov.pk/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Royalty_Fee.pdf
- Statista. (2023c, June 9). Garbage disposal fees paid by climbers of K2 in Pakistan 2023, by zone. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1388522/waste-management-fees-k2-pakistan/
- Björn, A., & Fouinat, L. (2021). 2021 Mountain Waste Survey reveals staggering extent of plastic pollution across the world’s peaks |GRID-Arendal. https://www.grida.no/press_releases/87
- Piracha, A. (2014). Water Use in Pakistan’s Agricultural Sector: Water Conservation under the Changed Climatic Conditions. Westernsydney. https://www.academia.edu/2982309/Water_Use_in_Pakistan_s_Agricultural_Sector_Water_Conservation_under_the_Changed_Climatic_Conditions
- United Nations. (1993). Environmental impact of tourism in the mountainous areas of Pakistan. https://repository.unescap.org/handle/20.500.12870/2837
- Statista. (2023d, June 12). Number of climbers to have scaled K2’s summit globally 1993-2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1388389/climbing-rates-k2-global/
- World Bank. (2021). Good practice options for sustainable solid waste management in mountain areas of India, Nepal, and Pakistan. ideas.repec.org. https://ideas.repec.org/p/wbk/wboper/35502.html
- Are you aware of the environmental challenges associated with climbing K2? (Yes/No/I am not sure)
- Have you encountered any specific environmental issues, such as garbage accumulation or glacier melting, during your hike on K2 in 2023? (Yes/No/I am not sure)
- Is environmental conservation important to your overall climbing experience at K2? (Yes/No/I am not sure)
- Do you believe that climbers have a responsibility to protect and conserve the environment in the areas they visit? (Yes/No/I am not sure)
- Are you willing to follow sustainable climbing practices, such as Leave No Trace principles, to minimize your environmental impact while climbing on K2? (Yes/No/I am not sure)
- Would you be willing to pay an additional fee to support environmental conservation efforts at K2? (Yes/No/I am not sure)