Dan McDougall

Conservationists condemn the tourism turning the world's highest peak into a rubbish dump and are pressing for controls on climbing.

IT HAS been described as the highest junkyard in the world. Covered in mountaineering detritus and suffering thousands of tourists' boots every year, environmentalists are to launch a push for a radical solution the temporary closure of the world's highest mountain.

Warnings that an ecological disaster is imminent around the mountain have largely been ignored amid years of turmoil in Nepal. But conservationists think growing political stability in the Himalayan kingdom means the time has come and that the damage caused every year by thousands of climbers and tourists can no longer be ignored.

Maoists declared a ceasefire with Nepal's Government in April after a decade-long insurgency and are negotiating to join an interim government with the mainstream political parties. The Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP) has said that the relative calm has removed an obstacle in its efforts to persuade the authorities that a temporary closure of the mountain is the only solution to help it repair itself.

Says P.T. Sherpa, a spokesman for KEEP: "The Maoist insurgency presented conservation organisations in Nepal with serious challenges constraining programmes, damaging infrastructure and threatening the security of staff. Now we are hoping for a more open dialogue on conservation with the government, and resting Mount Everest for a number of years is at the top of our list."

Campaigners warn that the price of tourism is discarded rubbish and medical waste, and the colonisation of the area by restaurants and Internet cafés. The KEEP spokesman spelt out the strain being placed on the indigenous population. "Providing enough electricity and water for the small communities surrounding Everest and the other Himalayan mountains becomes very challenging when there are tens of thousands of additional tourists and climbers in the region competing for these same resources," he said. "Nepal is ravaged by water and air pollution caused by industrialisation and increased tourism. Water supplies for local villages, delivered through irrigation systems in the mountains, are being critically depleted and urgent action needs to be taken."

Changed landscape

This year, a United Nations Environment Programme-sponsored geological team found signs that the landscape of Mount Everest has changed significantly since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first conquered the peak in 1953. A primary cause is the warming global climate, but the research party concluded that the growing effect of tourism was also critically taxing the region surrounding the planet's tallest mountain.

According to the survey, the glacier that once came close to Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay's first base camp has retreated three miles in the past two decades. Sir Edmund himself has become outspoken on a situation he believes is turning into an ecological scandal. "I have suggested to the Nepal Government that they should stop giving permission and give the mountain a rest for a few years," he has said.

Elizabeth Hawley, a Kathmandu-based patron of The Himalaya Trust, an environmental charity founded and still run by Sir Edmund, said on October 6 that the pioneer remained utterly "appalled" at the tourism around Everest and the Khumba Valley.

"When Sir Edmund has said he wanted the mountain closed or visits limited, the last thing he wants is for the sherpas to lose their livelihoods, but we in the Trust strongly believe that not just Everest but the whole of the Khumba Valley needs a sustained rest. These villages have become enormously wealthy by local standards, but along the trail towards Everest there are now restaurants and cyber cafes and bars, and this just doesn't seem right."

She added: "Climate change and the receding glacial waters are global issues and not within localised control, but we are particularly worried about the deforestation of the area, much of it to sustain tourism, and our campaigning has helped improve the situation, but it still isn't enough. We feel that we have to start from the beginning in order for the region to recuperate and recycle itself."

Junko Tabei, 66, of Japan, the first woman to reach the summit, said: "Everest has become too crowded. It needs a rest. Only two or three teams should be allowed in a season to climb Everest, and tourist trips to base camp should be banned altogether. Along the trail to the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal, deforestation is getting worse as locals cut down trees to heat meals and to provide hot showers for foreign eco-trekkers. The local environment is in danger and the dignity of the mountain is being undermined."

There are also fears that even "eco-tourism" is doing more harm than good. The WWF estimates that "only 20 pence of every £2 spent by an average trekker each day reaches village economies."

Prakash Sharma, director of Friends of the Earth, Nepal, believes that, while many of the Western charity groups who trek to the foot of the mountain may be doing so for honourable causes, they are not considering the environmental consequences. "The exponential increase in pollution and other negative environmental situations on Mount Everest is a direct result of the massive increase in visitors to the region," he said. "The Khumbu region and the city of Kathmandu can comfortably hold about 40,000 people. In the coming months, during the peak tourist season in the lower valley, there will be as many as 700,000. "Twenty to forty thousand of these people attempt, at some altitude, to ascend the mountains of the Himalayas, including thousands who will at least trek to the foot of Everest. There is no infrastructure in this region to cope with the pollution this many people generate, and as a result the Nepali Himalayas have become the highest junkyard in the world."

Mr. Sharma claims that the tonnes of rubbish on Everest include climbing equipment, foods, plastics, tins, aluminium cans, glass, clothes, papers, tents and even discarded electronic equipment such as satellite dishes. Some climbers have reported finding bloody syringes and vials of unlabelled medications. Other campaigners claim the dead body count on the mountain, 188 according to varying estimates, is enough reason to temporarily close it.

Sherpas' opposition

But the sherpas who earn their living from the perilous work of guiding adventurers to the summit vociferously oppose any reduction in climbing permits. Ang Dawa, a Sherpa guide in Kathmandu, said: "For us it is simple. There are tens of thousands of people in the region who solely depend on the trekkers and mountaineers for their income. If they don't come, these people and their families will starve. A sherpa who summits on Everest is looking at making a minimum of £1,600 for 60 days' work. That's a lot of money in Nepal it can support an entire village."

Nepalese officials claim, despite the U.N. report and environmentalist warnings, that they have no immediate plans to close down the mountain. "All climbers are welcome as long as they are willing to pay," a government spokesman said. Critics say it is no surprise that the Nepali authorities have no plans to scale back tourism in the region. To even set foot on the slopes of Everest, each team of seven climbers must pay a royalty of £50,000 to the Nepalese Government.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006