ountaineering fanatics, old-timers, dignitaries and sections of the international media are heading towards Nepal's capital and the Everest region next month. They will be there to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the successful ascent of Mount Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary.
The Nepal Tourism Board plans to mark the occasion with a month-long programme that it hopes will attract foreign and domestic visitors. Registration will cost US$2,200, but the board hopes that press coverage will inspire anyone on a tighter budget to visit Nepal and consider one of the many commercial trekking routes on offer.
Events will include an environmental conference near Base Camp One, visits by members of the Tenzing and Hillary families, as well as mountaineers who have conquered all 14 of Nepal's highest peaks, and a two-day "extreme ultra marathon" spanning 60 km and passing along the route taken by Tenzing and Hillary.
The pair left their 400-strong team of climbers, porters and Sherpa guides and pushed for the final ascent via a lethal 12 m rock face — since dubbed the "Hillary step" — and reached the 8,848 m summit at around 11.30 a.m. on Friday 29 May 1953.
Their ascendancy did not stop there: both men received international applause, receiving congratulations from the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II and then-US President Dwight Eisenhower. The pair went on to promote trekking, mountaineering, and preservation of the Himalayas.
But all is not well in the Everest region. Reports of environmental degradation caused by tourism are common; some critics have referred to the region as the highest garbage dump on earth.
Attempting to combat the problem, the tourism board is launching its ECCR —Everest: Climb, Clean and Run — model which it calls a "new concept in mountaineering ethics".
Veteran Indian mountaineer Somit Joshi will lead the first ECCR expedition. Joshi has pledged that his six-member Indo-Nepal team will carry all the waste materials it generates, depositing them afterwards at a recycling facility.
Similar approaches have been promoted in the past with unsatisfactory results. Mountaineering agencies taking visitors to the area are often unwilling to compel their clients to carry the extra weight, and previous programmes have lacked the checks and balances necessary to ensure environmentally sustainable expeditions.
Diesel mess: A porter carries a generator towards the Everest base camp. REUTERS
Sarad Pradhan, press officer for the Nepal Tourism Board, claims the ECCR approach will be different. "Climbers will be monitored by their group leaders and guides, who will receive a fine from the authorities if garbage is not returned."
However, he said, the main issue facing the region is climate change. How does Nepal plan to combat melting glaciers and changes to the region's ecology? "There is only so much we can do. Climate change is caused by industrial activities ... it is caused by the Western nations," he countered.
Seasoned mountaineers have complained that the peak's overcrowding, exacerbated by lax permit regulations, is putting tourists themselves at risk.
Last year, Song Wong-bin, a climber from South Korea, was one of four who perished on the mountain after being caught in severe weather conditions. But a friend who accompanied him told the British Telegraph that the deaths were a result of overcrowding, forcing them to wait much longer than recommended.
"There were 300 to 400 people going to the summit and we got stuck in a traffic jam. We had to wait 200 metres frossm the summit and we became snow blind. We waited for four hours."
Such incidents are becoming increasingly common. Three deaths were reported in 2010, 10 in 2011 and 11 in 2012. Mingmar Sherpa, a 47-year-old guide, died after falling into a crevasse earlier this month — the first fatality this year.
With such risks involved, is it wise to organise a marathon event, in which participants will need to run at high altitudes, ascending much more quickly than is normally recommended?
"There will be military doctors stationed at health posts along the route," said Pradhan. "They will conduct checks to make sure it is safe for them to continue."
Considering the expense, effort and adrenalin involved, it seems unlikely that runners would want to cut short their experience, even on doctors' orders. "They will be strongly discouraged from continuing," claimed Pradhan, conceding that the choice would lie with the individual.
A lot has changed since Tenzing and Hillary's time. Mountaineering has become safer through the use of sophisticated climbing apparatus, and mountaineers are beginning to engage with the associated environmental issues.
But none of these issues are likely to deter those bent on conquering Everest, and the region's economic infrastructure is almost entirely dependent on their determination. George Mallory, the mountaineer who may well have beaten Tenzing and Hillary to the summit 29 years earlier, was once asked why he wanted to climb Everest. Aspiring explorers to the region have wistfully echoed his answer ever since: "Because it is there."
Colin Cooper is a journalist based in Kathmandu