Clean-up for Everest rubbish dump: Michael Durham reports on removal of bodies and 20 tons of refuse

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The Independent Online
THE MOST ambitious attempt yet to clean up Everest - and remove the bodies of its victims - has begun 40 years after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay left their empties behind on the world's highest mountain.

Four French climbers and a team of 40 Sherpas will spend the next two months clearing 20 tons of refuse scattered about the South Col at a camp 3,000 feet (914 metres) below the summit.

At 26,000 feet it is the highest and most unsavoury rubbish dump in the world. Most of the Everest junk is abandoned oxygen cylinders, tents, sleeping bags, ropes, tin cans and cameras. But there are also the bodies of many who did not make it.

At least 100 people have died on the mountain since it was first scaled in 1953. Most bodies have been brought down or pushed into crevasses. But conditions at the South Col are too severe for climbers to give any thought to burying the dead. Most simply lie where they died.

Up to 23 bodies are scattered about the campsite, according to some estimates. Five - three Nepalese, an Indian and a Yugoslav - are plainly visible lying among the abandoned tents. One, a Sherpa, is still lying in his sleeping bag, perfectly preserved in the cold. Two more Sherpas are visible on the slopes above and four Indians who perished in 1985 are thought to be behind a boulder somewhere on the plateau. Most died from exposure, exhaustion or altitude sickness.

'I am told there are bodies all over the place, as well as litter,' said Geoff Birtles, editor of High Mountain Sports magazine. 'It is like a war zone. People just walk past dead bodies on their way to what is, after all, a vain goal. Their aim is to climb the mountain and then get out as quickly as possible. Is this really acceptable? Unless they start shifting them soon the bodies are really going to start piling up.'

Dolma, a French organisation, aims to spend three weeks clearing the campsite, during the pounds 500,000 operation funded by Unesco and the Nepalese government. It will be the first attempt to clear debris so far up the mountain in the so-called 'Death Zone'.

Mountain junk will be loaded on to specially designed sledges attached to a pulley system and winched down the mountainside.

When it arrives in West Comb at 21,000 feet it will be carried to the Everest base camp by Sherpas. From there it will be loaded on to yak caravans, and finally taken by air to Kathmandu for dumping. Helicopters cannot be used at the high altitudes of the South Col.

Some mountaineers are sceptical about the logic of spending huge sums to clear rubbish from an area so remote that few people will ever see it. 'A bit of litter at the top of Everest is of no great importance,' said Steve Venables, who climbed Everest in 1988.

'If people were really interested in ecology they would worry about other things. How much damage will be done by all the equipment they will bring in?'

The latest British expedition to Everest, a team of nine, has reached base camp and expects to be at the summit next week. Its sponsors, DHL, said: 'We will be bringing back everything we take up, and a bit more besides.'

(Photographs omitted)