As mountain climbers throng Nepal's Mount Everest for the 50th anniversary of the first ascent, environmental activists are using the Golden Jubilee to raise awareness of how Everest tourism is inundating the mountain with trash.
It was not long after Sir Edmund Hillary's and Tenzing Norgay's first Everest ascent in 1953 that the mountain earned the nickname "the highest dumping ground in the world."
More than 1,200 climbers have fueled an Everest industry. At a recent conference in New Delhi, Mr. Hillary spoke out on the negative effects of a phenomenon he helped create. "With an enormous increase in expedition, Everest is becoming littered with empty oxygen bottles and other rubbish," complained the explorer.
Mr. Hillary said mountaineering has become far too commercial and may be too easily available to the inexperienced amateur. He contrasted today's guided expedition, with its ladders and fixed ropes, to his own climb.
"We had to cross the difficult crevasses ourselves ... cut steps on icy slopes ourselves ... and never walk in anybody else's footsteps. There were no steps but our own," he recalled.
It is not the first time Mr. Hillary has spoken out about the problem. In 1989, he began advocating Mount Everest be closed to the public for five years.
That has not happened, but Nepal's government has started paying more attention to the problem.
Basant Mishra runs an adventure-tour company and is also a trustee with the Trust for Nature Conservation, established by Nepal's King Mahendra. He says the Nepal government makes climbers deposit about $4,000 before they start their expedition. "If you go on an expedition you have to deposit the money, and when you bring all your wastes back, you can get your money back," he explained.
Mr. Mishra is typical of many tour operators who have connections to conservation efforts. The government has taken an active role in re-investing proceeds from state-run resort areas. "Whatever income or royalties the government gets out of these resorts, 50 percent are actually invested back into the community," he said. A growing number of non-governmental cleanup expeditions are helping to improve the situation, as well. Together, they have brought down more than 10 tons of garbage since the early 1990s.
The most recent team, a group of Japanese, Korean, and Nepalese climbers, collected almost 2.5 tons of trash on Everest this month, including 51 oxygen cylinders.
The massive haul will be divided between Kathmandu, Korea, and Japan. Team members from all three places say they will put it on display to create awareness of the problem.
The Korean, Japanese, and Nepalese team also brought down an unidentified body, which they buried in a crevasse at the base.
One hundred seventy-five people have died climbing Everest, and many other corpses remain on the mountain along with the garbage.
With such stark reminders of Everest's danger, some climbers may be more focused on survival than on conservation. Edmund Hillary says safeguarding the mountain demands the proper respect. "It is vital, I believe, that all expeditions have a sense of responsibility if the mountain environment is to be protected," he said.
Environmental groups say its not just what climbers leave on Everest that does damage, but also what they take. They say over harvesting of wood and shrubs for campfires kills wildlife and makes erosion more likely.