June 24, 2008

Why Everest is No Longer the Climbers’ Pinnacle

By Stephen McGinty

IT HAS been called the roof of the world and it is, by many accounts, quite filthy. Mount Everest, the highest peak on the planet, is a junkyard of oxygen cylinders, tinned food, abandoned tents, plastic bags of human waste, ladders, ropes, jackets, even bloody syringes and vials of unlabelled medication.

The trail of detritus runs from the base camp in Tibet at 16,995ft and continues all the way to the summit at 29,035ft. The collective weight is estimated at 600 tonnes and its most emotional markers are the frozen corpses. Almost 200 climbers, rigid on rocky perches or lying stiff in caves, continue to this day to mark the fate of those who luck left behind.

Over the years a number of small clean-up campaigns have attempted to tackle the growing clutter. In 2003, a Japanese mountaineer, Ken Noguchi, at 25 the youngest person to reach the summit, gathered up more than 8 tonnes of rubbish, including 423 empty oxygen canisters, which he put on display in Tokyo to highlight the problem. In 2006 the International Clean Everest Expedition returned with 1.3 tonnes of rubbish, and that same year, Rob the Rubbish, a retired social worker from Llanwrtyd in Wales, who acquired his moniker by cleaning up the slopes of the Lake District, also travelled to Tibet to lend a hand.

Now the Chinese government has decided to pull on the Marigolds. Yesterday the head of environmental protection in Tibet announced plans for a massive clean-up operation which could lead to strict limits on visitors to the area and the number of climbers who each year attempt to reach the summit.

According to the China Daily newspaper, last year, more than 40,000 people visited the mountain from the Chinese side, which is located in Tibet. Although that was less than 10 per cent of those who went to the mountain on the Nepal side in 2000, the paper said environmentalists estimate they could have left behind as much as 120 tons of rubbish or an average of 6.5 pounds (3kg) per tourist.

In the past 20 years the number of climbers on Everest's slopes has shot up. In 1994 just 51 people reached the summit, ten years later it was estimated that 330 people planted their personal flag while a few thousand more made an attempt, made easier by the growth in professional expeditions who will offer places to relative novices, providing they are willing to pay the standard fee of GBP 30,000.

At the same time the lustre the mountain once had has been tarnished. While it still remains an arduous challenge, for many serious climbers the mountain has become in the words of David Gibson, of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, "another part of the tourist trail". He explained that the mountain will forever hold a place in the heart of British mountaineers through the loss, on 8 June, 1924, of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who attempted the summit via the north ridge route and never returned. Mallory famously replied to the "Why do you want to climb Everest?" with the retort: "Because it is there". His remains were found and buried in 1999

However, Mr Gibson said that the real challenges remain mountains such as K2 and the north face of the Eiger which are impossible to "dumb down".

It is a sentiment shared by Tina Gardner of the British Mountaineering Council who said that "the cutting edge of technical climbing" is now being explored on a variety of peaks in Peru, South America and others in the Himalayas.

"Everest is still an incredibly difficult climb but it's no longer at the cutting edge," said Ms Gardner who said she was not keen to see access to mountains being restricted, but said that it was "important that the impact people make on each mountain must be kept to a minimum."

Restricting access to Everest will be a simple matter of limiting permission. Before embarking, each expedition must obtain a permit which costs around GBP 50,000 for each team of seven climbers. However, as many climbers enter through Nepal, the Chinese government must encourage their neighbours onboard. Yesterday Mr Zhang Yongze, head of Tibet's environmental protection agency said: "Our target is to keep even more people from abusing Mount Everest."

China has already enacted some restrictions, including forbidding vehicles from driving directly to the base camp. That was necessary to preserve the fragile Himalayan environment and melting Rongbuk glacier at the base of Everest, which has retreated 490ft (150m) in the past decade. He added further management was needed, including possibly limiting visitor numbers, but gave no details.

Everest, which lies on the Chinese-Nepali border, featured most recently as the backdrop for the Beijing Olympic torch relay, in which a team of Chinese and Tibetan climbers carried the torch to the summit and back down again. Chinese authorities enraged climbers by convincing Nepal's government to agree to shutting down the mountain for several days during peak climbing season.

However, Mr Zhang defended the Olympic expedition, saying climbers, support crews and media had carted away large amounts of rubbish and relied on a pair of "environmental toilets" while on the mountain.

How such a mammoth clean-up operation will be carried out remains unknown other than that it is expected to take place in the mid- 2009.

Yet the decision to clean up the mountain will be applauded by supporters of the late Sir Edmund Hillary, who first conquered the peak, with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. He believed the area had been turned into an ecological scandal.

There are those unhappy with hanging "Everest closed until further notice" on earth's highest peak.

Yesterday a climbing official in Nepal said he had not received any information from China on its plans to restrict access to the mountain next year.

Ramesh Chetri, of the mountaineering department said Nepal planned to keep Everest open for the 2009 spring climbing season.

Ang Tshering, chairman of the expedition company Asian Trekking responded: "I did not hear anything about this," then added that he did not think closing Mount Everest or limiting climbers was a good solution.

It was, in fact, rubbish.

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