KATHMANDU, Jan 21, 2010 (AFP) - A group of top Nepalese climbers is planning a high-risk expedition to clean up Everest, concerned at the toll that decades of mountaineering has taken on the world's highest peak.
The 20 climbers, led by seven-time Everest summiteer Namgyal Sherpa, will brave thin oxygen and temperatures well below freezing to clear more than two tonnes of rubbish discarded by mountaineers.
Environmental activists say Everest is littered with the detritus of past expeditions, including human waste and mountaineers' corpses, which do not decompose because of the extreme cold.
"Everest is losing her beauty," Sherpa, 30, told AFP. "The top of the mountain is now littered with oxygen bottles, old prayer flags, ropes, and old tents. At least two dead bodies have been lying there for years now."
Almost 4,000 people have climbed Mount Everest since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to conquer the world's highest peak in 1953.
Sherpa's team will begin their ascent in late April, when a small window between spring and the summer monsoon offers the best conditions for climbing the 8,848-metre (29,028-foot) peak.
There have been other attempts before to clean up parts of Everest, but Sherpa said his would be the first to penetrate into the so-called "death zone" above 8,000 metres, where there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life.
"We are taking a big risk. Nobody has ever tried to clean up Everest at that height," he said, describing it as a "daring and heroic mission".
"Coping with extreme weather conditions like freezing temperatures, strong winds and blizzards will make our task difficult. But we are confident that we will rise to the challenge."
In all, 31 people will take part, including cooks and porters.
But only the 20 most experienced climbers - all of whom have reached the summit before - will go above 7,000 metres.
Each will have to make repeated journeys into the death zone, carrying down 15 kilogrammes of rubbish at a time.
Climbers spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to reach the summit, but Sherpa said few paid much attention to the rubbish they left behind.
Nepal's Sherpa people, who are Buddhists and believed to be of Tibetan origin, make up most of the population in the harsh Everest region and have long revered the world's highest peak as sacred.
Government officials said Everest expeditions were expected to bring down all their rubbish themselves, but the rules were impossible to enforce.
"Our officers accompany the expedition teams but they cannot go to the top, so our monitoring is weak," said Jitendra Giri, a mountaineering specialist at the tourism ministry.
"We receive lots of complaints about mountaineers discarding tins, bottles and used batteries, but there's nothing we can do."
Sherpa's clean-up campaign has won the support of Nepal's prime minister, and now the team are trying to raise 15 million rupees (200,000 dollars) to fund the expedition.
"We hope that our effort will open the eyes of the government and mountaineering fraternity to the need to preserve Everest," he said.
"Everest has given fame to lots of mountaineers. Sadly, very little has been done to preserve the sanctity of the mountain.
"There is only one Everest and we must preserve it. We need the mountain for our future generations.