From conquering to cleaning up Mt. Everest

Tourists are now paying to preserve Everest's greatest asset - the mountain environment.

It's been called the world's highest garbage dump, scattered with five decades' worth of mountain climbing gear, kerosene canisters, oxygen bottles, and the occasional human corpse.

But today, mountaineers on the world's tallest peak, Mt. Everest, are trying to undo some of the damage. In this Golden Jubilee season - 50 years after the first successful ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay - three teams (two from the US, one from Japan) are paying top dollar to help bring down tons of trash.

"They are doing something good for the earth, on their own, without taking a penny from the government," says S.P. Koirala, Nepal's top tourism official. "When they conduct this kind of mission, we recognize their efforts."

The cleanup efforts of foreign climbers come at a crucial time for the Nepalese mountaineering industry, which draws nearly 30 percent of all tourists to this country.

Gone are the days when mountaineers, trekkers, and Nepali guides alike would shed whatever excess weight they could on their risky expeditions. Today's environmental spirit is part legislative toughness, part environmental awareness, and part realization that a spoiled mountaintop gathers fewer tourists.

"We feel that our biggest asset is our mountain environment," says Ang Tshering Sherpa, chairman of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a private organization that regulates and organizes expeditions on 30 peaks in Nepal.

"As it is, we don't have enough tourism. But if our mountains are polluted, if our water is polluted, if our flora and fauna are dying, then nobody would want to come here."

To reinforce this view, the Nepalese government enacted tough new environmental laws in 1993, requiring trekking and mountaineering expeditions to register all their equipment and make a $5,000 deposit prior to their trips. Before leaving the country, each expedition must check back with Nepalese authorities to be sure that non-biodegradable items such as oxygen bottles, rope, or cans of Spam have been brought back down the mountain.

In addition, the Nepalese government has begun biannual cleanup expeditions, manned by native Sherpa porters and climbers, to carry down some of the garbage that has piled up at the nine semi-permanent camps along the southern slope of Mt. Everest. In 1996, 3,750 pounds of garbage were removed; in 2001, 5,400 pounds were hauled down. Much of the material was from the 1950s, when environmentalism was still in its infancy. "We have conducted two Everest cleanups so far, and most of what we've found dates back to the 1950s, some from the 1970s or '80s, but almost nothing from the '90s," says Mr. Koirala, the tourism official. "That shows that the policy is effective."

Still, the damage is enough that Sir Edmund has suggested giving the mountain - which hosts an average of 12 teams each spring - a complete rest for a few years. Other veteran mountaineers have said the number of climbers should be sharply limited, to two or three teams per season. But Sherpas, who depend on the revenues brought in by visitors, protest any reduction in permits.

In the meantime, Mr. Ang Tshering says, governmental programs to change the attitudes of local Nepalis are crucial.

"When I was growing up in the Khumbu region (around Mt. Everest), our elders used to tell us that it was no good to bring anything down from the mountains, not even garbage; the gods will get angry at us and will send an avalanche down on us," says Ang Tshering, with a chuckle. "But now, people insist that outsiders bring their garbage with them. The key is education."

Yet while Nepal is working harder to keep its most popular peaks clean, it is also opening up additional areas to tourism, thus increasing the list of places it must scour.

Last year, Nepal opened up 125 "virgin" peaks - spots that have never before been climbed - to foreign expeditions, giving Nepali trekking companies a total of 276 peaks for exploration.

To further generate interest, Nepal has offered to waive all royalty fees for 20 peaks in the far-western section of the country and reduce by 75 percent the royalties on 40 more peaks in other parts of the country.

But trekking operators say that promoting expeditions in certain parts of Nepal will be difficult, since a seven-year-long Maoist insurgency has killed some 8,000 Nepalis and scared off an untold number of potential tourists.

The government's own figures on visitors paint a dark picture: in 2001, the year that the government imposed a brutal state of emergency, 361,237 tourists came to Nepal, down more than 100,000 from the previous year.

Despite these difficulties, Koirala says Nepal will continue to push mountaineering to the tourist masses.

At present, Nepalese ge- ologists are being dispatched around the country in search of other peaks that rise above the 6,000-meter mark. The current number of such peaks is 1,310 - more than anywhere else in the world - but some geologists say the actual number could be greater than 2,000.

Getting tourists onto all these mountains would be a windfall for local villagers, says Ang Tshering. But keeping the tourists coming back will require keeping those mountains clean, he adds.

"We can't keep the mountains clean unless the local people who are involved in the trekking business help us keep them clean."

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