With the debris of more than 50 years of climbing – oxygen canisters, tents, backpacks and even some bodies – Mount Everest has been called the world's highest garbage dump.
Now China is moving to clean up its northern side of the mountain and protect its fragile Himalayan environment, announcing a trash collection campaign that could limit the number of climbers and other visitors in 2009.
“Our target is to keep even more people from abusing Mount Everest,” Zhang Yongze, Tibet's environmental protection chief was quoted Monday as saying by the Xinhua News Agency.
Everest's 29,035-foot peak – the world's tallest – lies on the border between China and Nepal, with climbers providing a large source of income for both countries.
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However, overcrowded routes and the accumulation of debris have led to some calls for the mountain to be closed to climbers temporarily.
Last year, more than 40,000 people visited the mountain from the Chinese side, which is located in Tibet, the China Daily newspaper said. Although that number was less than 10 percent of those who went to the mountain on the southern, or Nepali, side in 2000, the paper said environmentalists estimate they could have left behind as much as 120 tons of garbage, or about 6 pounds per tourist.
There is no definitive figure on how much trash has been left on Everest in 54 years of climbing since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first conquered the mountain on May 29, 1953.
The high altitude, deep snow, icy slopes and thin air make it difficult for climbers to carry anything other than the necessities down the mountain once they reach the summit.
The Nepalese government has tightened its laws, and climbers and their guides are now required to carry out gear and trash or forfeit a $4,000 deposit.
While China isn't known to have a similar rule, it has enacted other restrictions, including forbidding vehicles from driving directly to the base camp at 16,995 feet, Zhang said. The move also was aimed at preserving the melting Rongbuk glacier, which has retreated 490 feet at the base of Everest in the past decade, he said.
Zhang said his bureau is planning on launching a refuse collecting campaign in the first half of 2009 and is urging that the number of tourists and mountaineers be restricted.
Everest featured most recently as the backdrop for the Beijing Olympic torch relay, in which a team of Chinese and Tibetan climbers carried the flame to the summit and back down. Chinese authorities enraged climbers by convincing Nepal's government to join it in completely shutting down the mountain for several days at the height of the climbing season to prevent any possible disruption of the Everest leg.
Tibetan activists accused Beijing of using the climb to symbolize its control over Tibet. China says it has ruled the Himalayan region for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially independent for much of that time.
The 2009 date may also be politically sensitive because it falls on the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. The exiled spiritual leader has long been reviled by Beijing, which recently accused his supporters for inciting bloody anti-Chinese riots in Tibet's capital of Lhasa and other Tibetan communities in neighboring provinces in March.