China Closes Everest for "Cleanup" in Spring 2009

Posted on: July 26, 2008


New restrictions on the north face of Mt. Everest may be imposed next spring to facilitate cleanup operations on the highest mountain in the world. This news was broken by the Tibetan Environmental Protection Bureau a few days ago, and it comes in the wake of the suspended climbing permits, imposed last May to enable the Olympic Flame to reach the summit undisturbed. However, much of the world's international press believes that this measure has been taken to anticipate and avoid possible pro-Tibet protests. According to Tibet's environmental protection chief, Zhang Yongze, the new restrictions are aimed at safeguarding Everest's fragile ecosystem.

Everest as seen from base camp on the north side, Tibet. [Photo] Francesco Tremolada, courtesy of www.planetmountain.com

"We have a responsibility to ensure the water source of the river flowing from Everest to the sea is clean," said Zhang Yongze, adding "our target is to keep even more people from abusing Mt. Everest." This is obviously a commendable objective. What is clear is that Everest, both on the Tibetan north side and the Nepalese south side, has accumulated vast quantities of waste, abandoned by mountaineers during their fifty-five years of ascents and leading many to describe the mountain as the world's highest rubbish dump. What is equally clear is that up until now China, unlike the Nepalese authorities on the south side, has never worried about this issue nor has it ever considered adopting measures to contain or reduce the problem.

Up until now, the Chinese authorities have never limited access to the mountain—the cost of permits via Tibet are notoriously cheaper compared to those in Nepal—nor has it ever initiated an efficient control system to eliminate expedition waste. On the contrary, it recently designed and constructed the road (better defined as a motorway), which provides direct access to base camp, at a cost of 20 million US dollars. Now there's the new "change in direction," with all the best intentions to clean up Everest and restrict access. Better late than never perhaps?

There can be no doubt that measures are needed to safeguard the environment and regulate the area as a whole. In 2007, an estimated 40,000 people visited the Tibetan side of Everest, and it is common knowledge that tons of rubbish have been left on the mountain (ca. 8 tons were removed by a group of volunteers in 2004). Furthermore, some estimate that there are as many as 120 dead mountaineers on the mountain. The international mountaineering community is responsible for this difficult, negative inheritance, and in the past the problem had been discussed and confronted, but without any tangible, effective solutions.

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What is hard to explain is this sudden change in course, which many, after the ferocious repressions of Tibetan protests last spring and the consequent annulment of Everest permits, interpret as the ultimate act to reaffirm Chinese domination in Tibet. Once again, this new Chinese environmental project has all the makings of a diktat, and this is underlined by the fact that no other parties, international mountaineering associations or environmental protection agencies were summoned to take part in this initiative. And this, unfortunately, does not bode well as to the motivations and the real intentions of this project.

Please visit www.planetmountain.com, where this article was originally published. —Ed.

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