BEIJING -- With the debris of more than 50 years of climbing -- oxygen canisters, tents, backpacks and even some bodies -- Mount Everest has been called the world's highest garbage dump.
Now China is moving to clean up its northern side of the mountain and protect its fragile Himalayan environment, announcing a trash collection campaign that could limit the number of climbers and other visitors in 2009.
"Our target is to keep even more people from abusing Mount Everest," Zhang Yongze, Tibet's environmental protection chief was quoted Monday as saying by the Xinhua News Agency.
Everest's 29,035-foot peak -- the world's tallest -- lies on the border between China and Nepal, with climbers providing a large source of income for both countries.
However, overcrowded routes and the accumulation of debris have led to some calls for the mountain to be closed to climbers temporarily.
Last year, more than 40,000 people visited the mountain from the Chinese side, which is located in Tibet, the China Daily newspaper said. Although that number was less than 10 percent of those who went to the mountain on the southern, or Nepali, side in 2000, the paper said environmentalists estimate they could have left behind as much as 120 tons of garbage, or about 6 pounds per tourist.
There is no definitive figure on how much trash has been left on Everest in 54 years of climbing since Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first conquered the mountain May 29, 1953.
The high altitude, deep snow, icy slopes and thin air make it difficult for climbers to carry anything other than the necessities down the mountain once they reach the summit.
The Nepalese government has tightened its laws, and climbers and their guides are now required to carry out gear and trash or forfeit a $4,000 deposit.
While China isn't known to have a similar rule, it has enacted other restrictions, including forbidding vehicles from driving directly to the base camp.