Discarded oxygen tanks litter the slopes of Mount Everest.

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Everest and the Environment

The Mount Everest rush started after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it to the top in 1953. Before that, Khumbu's environmental state was far healthier. But with thousands of pairs of feet pounding its footpaths for decades, many believe that Sagarmatha needs a rest.

Global climate change alone has affected Everest's geography, as some of its glaciers have retreated as much as three miles (4.8 km) in the past 20 years [source: McDougall]. If the glaciers continue to recede, it could endanger the local Sherpas who have already experienced flooding from the melting ice. For more detailed information about this, read Is global warming destroying Mount Everest?.

Human activity is the source for the most visible damage being done to the area. Although Khumbu is protected as the Sagarmatha National Park, challenges remain for curbing waste left behind on the trials, especially disposable water bottles and food cans. Literally tons of trash has been cleared from the Everest Base Camp, but groups such as Kathmandu Environmental Education Project remain hard at work teaching climbers about low-impact trekking.

While trash remains problematic, energy sources for feeding and housing thousands of tourists each year are growing scarce. When Sherpas first settled in the Khumbu valley in the 1500s, the forests were lush with plant life. Today, the tree line continues to descend to lower altitudes, as firewood is burned for heating, cooking and hot showers. Environmental groups have urged villagers, business owners and climbers to use kerosene instead of firewood, but the conversion is a slow process. The rate that tourists consume energy is also far higher than Sherpas since they are more accustomed to it in their more industrialized nations.

Although the late Edmund Hillary and others have urged the Nepalese government to ban Everest access for a while to allow for cleanup and more reforestation efforts, there are no signs of government compliance. In fact, the Nepal tourism board furiously refuted an international news story that Nepal was shutting off base camp access for 10 days during the spring of 2008 to allow for a torch run for the 2009 Summer Olympics in Beijing. And the plan for offering lowered rates during the off-season indicates its determination to not only keep the mountain open to the public but actually attract more tourists.

As you can see, Mount Everest tourism has created a difficult puzzle for Nepal. While it's a reliable source of income for some of the poorest people in the world, its very success could also be paving a path to its destruction. For more information about Mount Everest and Nepal, go to the links on the next page.