Helicopter crash at Everest base camp fuels concern that 'Goddess Mother of the World' is over-exploited

It has 1,000 inhabitants, showers, toilets, a wireless internet café, the most magnificent views and a helicopter landing pad. Some, however, are starting to wonder whether life is too comfortable at Everest base camp - the place that used to be the starting point for the toughest adventure on Earth.

The questions deepened yesterday after a helicopter crashed when it came in to land at base camp, killing two people, both Nepalis, and injuring a crewman and a German trekker on the ground. The calamity, on a day that was meant to be part of the celebrations of 50 years since the first ascent of Everest, has left some - including the man who was the the first to stand atop the world - wondering whether familiarity has not soured into contempt for the 8,850m-high (29,035ft) mountain known by the locals as the "Goddess Mother of the World".

Sir Edmund Hillary, now 83, is not impressed. "I have always felt the great moments on Everest were the moments when one was meeting challenges - climbing by yourself over the Lhotse icefall, up on the south-east ridge, battling against wind and weather," he said at a news conference in Khatmandu, Nepal's capital.

"Just sitting around in a big base camp, knocking back cans of beer, I don't particularly regard as mountaineering," he added. Sir Edmund even accused modern-day mountaineers of holding drunken base-camp parties, and scrambling to the summit on fixed ropes and ladders - conveniences that he and Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa with whom he climbed, obviously could not rely on in their groundbreaking effort, especially up the 10 metres of the "Hillary Step" at 8,790m, a famous stretch of steep rock and ice that few climbers today can climb unaided.

Stephen Venables, the British climber who reached the peak of Everest without supplementary oxygen in 1988, agreed with Sir Edmund's sentiments yesterday. As he prepared with other Everest climbers for a series of talks today at the Odeon in London's Leicester Square, he said: "I feel nostalgic for the days when only one expedition would be on the mountain at a time. In the 1970s, it was still tiny figures in a huge landscape. When I reached the top on 12 May, we didn't have radio or satellite phones or e-mail. Nobody even found out until 2 June. We were just gloriously isolated."

But now, you cannot feel alone on the mountain at the end of May. There are 1,000 people at base camp this year, including dozens of journalists reporting on the 50th anniversary, all with access to satellite dishes and the internet; it may be the best-connected "remote" spot in the world.

Yesterday, the internet company Yahoo! announced it had enabled a wireless internet café, the brainchild of Tsering Gyaltzen Sherpa, whose grandfather took part in the original 1953 ascent of Everest with Sir Edmund. "In addition to being able to keep in touch with loved ones back home, having internet access at base camp will also make it easy to summon emergency assistance or check on the latest weather conditions," it said. Once upon a time, people would have looked out of their tents, or headed down the mountain for help, said Mr Venables.

Nor is there any chance of feeling properly alone higher up. This year, 137 people have reached the top, some more than once; records have been set for age, youth, race (the first black climber reached the top earlier this month), and speed of ascent. Nor have the 175 who have died trying to reach the top, or return to the bottom, been forgotten; yesterday a team of 100 climbers travelled (by bus) to plant saplings at the International Mountaineers' Memorial Park in the mountain town of Kakani.

While the first ascent was a monumental, rigorously organised team effort - whose success its organiser, Lord Hunt, put down to "everyone believing he had a vital part to play in getting at least two members of the team on top" - modern teams have come to recognise the biggest hazard on the mountain is other climbers.

Slow ones can delay you, fatally; the inexperienced ones can be hazardous. In 1996, the actor Brian Blessed raged that people were acting "like human lemmings" in their desire to reach the top

But the Nepali government is unlikely ever to restrict access. "It's too good a milch cow for the economy," said Mr Venables. The country of 26 million people still relies heavily on agriculture, which generates 41 per cent of its economic output, But "services" for visiting trekkers and climbers is a close second, generating 37 per cent of national revenues. Every year, 50,000 trekkers visit; without Everest and the excitement it generates, Nepal might be even further behind.