BEIJING – The world's highest garbage dump is set for a major clean up next year.
The operation, part of ongoing efforts to spruce up Mount Everest and protect its fragile Himalayan environment, will involve a garbage collection campaign and a possible limit on the number of climbers and other visitors, state media reported Monday.
"Our target is to keep even more people from abusing Mount Everest," Zhang Yongze, Tibet's environmental protection chief was quoted 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 people on both sides.
However, overcrowded routes and accumulations of garbage and human waste have led to some calls for the mountain to be temporarily closed to climbers.
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 Nepal side in 2000, the paper said environmentalists estimate they could have left behind as much as 120 tons of garbage or an average of 6.5 pounds per tourist.
There is no definitive figure on how much trash has been left on Everest in 55 years of climbing since New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first conquered the mountain on May 29, 1953.
The high altitude, deep snow, icy slopes and low level of oxygen make it difficult for climbers to carry anything other than the necessities down the mountain once they summit the peak, which has been nicknamed the world's highest garbage dump.
The Nepalese government has tightened its laws, and climbers and their guides are now required to carry out gear — tents, ropes, sleeping bags, oxygen tanks — 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 at the base of Everest, which has retreated 490 feet in the past decade, he said.
Zhang said his bureau is planning on launching a garbage collecting campaign in the first half of 2009 and is urging that the number of tourists and mountaineers be restricted.
The Xinhua report did not give any more details and calls to Zhang's agency rang unanswered on Monday.
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.
Mountaineering department official Ramesh Chetri said Nepal planned to keep Everest open for the 2009 spring climbing season.
"I did not hear anything about this," Ang Tshering, chairman of expedition company Asian Trekking, said by telephone from Katmandu. He said he would contact Chinese officials on Tuesday for details, and added that he did not think closing Mount Everest or limiting climbers was a good solution.
China began cleanup efforts in 2004, when 24 volunteers removed 8 tons of garbage from the slopes.
In 2005, the number of people helping out increased to 100 in hopes of making a a dent in the litter, which includes abandoned tents, oxygen tanks, boxes, cans, and plastic wrappers.
Ken Noguchi, an acclaimed Japanese mountaineer, has said he has collected an estimated 19,800 pounds of garbage from both sides of the mountain in five trips, beginning in 2000.
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 again.
Chinese authorities enraged climbers by convincing Nepal's government to join it in completely shutting down the mountain for several days during peak climbing season to prevent any possible disruption to the sensitive Everest leg of the relay.
Tibetan activists accuse 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.
Zhang described the Olympic expedition as a model of environmental responsibility, saying climbers, support crews and media had carted away large amounts of garbage and relied on a pair of "environmental toilets" to avoid fouling the mountain.