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Everest jubilee tinged with warnings

Everest's allure is drawing increasing numbers of climbers.
Everest's allure is drawing increasing numbers of climbers.

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Are there too many people on Everest?

KATHMANDU, Nepal (CNN) -- In the 50 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first stood on the summit of Mount Everest, more than 1,300 people have made the arduous climb to stand on the roof of the world.

Few spend anything more than moments at the summit, gasping for breath at an altitude normally restricted to cruising airliners before heading back down again.

Of those who have set out for the summit about 175 have paid the ultimate price, succumbing to the fierce weather and thin air in what climbers call the "death zone" enveloping the mountain's peak.

For all but a few of those who died trying to climb it, the mountain has become their cemetery.

Undeterred, in the week leading up to the anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing's first ascent more than 100 climbers have set out to make the peak and Everest records have been tumbling.

But some purists are complaining that Everest is no longer an adventure, arguing that instead of real climbers the mountain is attracting a tide of rich tourists who buy their way to the top.

Rheinhold Messner, who in 1978 became the first to climb Everest without oxygen, says today many climbers are just the rich clients of companies looking to market the mountain.

"They get nothing from Mount Everest," he says. "You cannot buy the adventure, you cannot buy the experience you have up there."

Summit highway

Messner says the huge number of climbers heading for Everest are turning the path to the summit into a highway.

Others say the roof of the world is being turned into the highest garbage dump in the world by inconsiderate climbers.

In recent years several clean-up expeditions have been sent to the area and pulled out tonnes of rubbish, including dozens of oxygen tanks, gas cylinders and abandoned tents.

Another measure that has had some impact is a requirement by the Nepalese government that climbers pay a $4,000 deposit, returnable when they prove they have brought all their trash back with them.

Clean-up expeditions have returned with tonnes of abandoned equipment from Everest's slopes.
Clean-up expeditions have returned with tonnes of abandoned equipment from Everest's slopes.

Messner, who climbed Everest without a team of sherpas and without prepared ropes and ladders to show him the way, says the growing tide of visitors is disrespectful to the mountain he and Hillary once pitted their wits against.

He argues that the only way to save the mountain is for the Nepalese government to restrict the number of climbers allowed to climb Everest each year -- or even close the mountain altogether for a few years.

At present, the only restriction on the number of climbers is a financial one, imposed by the average $65,000 that each would-be summiteer is required to pay for an Everest license.

"It's so important that we encounter real mountains, not mountains in chains," Messner says.

"This mountain is losing its appeal, it's losing its power and in the long term it will not attract any more people from outside."

-- CNN correspondent Satinder Bindra contributed to this report

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