Everest base camp becoming wild-west town; Chinese attempt Olympic torch to summit

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Base camp on the Chinese side of Mount Everest has come to resemble a wild-west frontier town, according to the author of a forthcoming book. Drugs and prostitutes are available in the camp village that has grown up to serve mountaineers climbing the peak, according to US author and mountaineer Michael Kodas.

And there are worries that Chinese plans to build a permanent road to the camp could lead to further problems.

But China denies allegations it is spoiling the world's highest peak.

In his book High Crimes - the Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, Mr Kodas details the lawlessness that has developed in the camp.

"You stand back when you first see this frontier town, and mentally take a deep breath," he says.

"Tibetans and Chinese sell anything you can imagine, and there's a certain amount of prostitution and drugs."

Doctors, he says, now treat venereal disease and wounds from base camp brawls, as well as the ailments more associated with climbing Everest, such as frostbite and altitude sickness.

Crime and disease

The camp, 5,200m ( 17,000 feet) above sea level on the north side of Mount Everest, is located near Rongbuk Monastery - the world's highest.

It is mostly made up of tents, but there are a few more permanent structures, such as a recently built Chinese military barracks.

During the main climbing season, which runs from April to June, there are scores of tents that serve mountaineers looking to climb Everest.

Mr Kodas, from Connecticut, says theft is a major problem.

"Elsewhere this is considered a petty crime, but on the mountain it is more important. For want of a $2 canister of stove fuel, a climber can die," he says.

Polish mountaineer Marcin Miotk had equipment stolen from him on three separate occasions on a successful ascent made without oxygen in 2005.

The third incident occurred following his return from the summit. He got to his tent to discover his sleeping bag, stove and medicines had gone.

"If I had been a little more tired, I would have probably died," the climber wrote angrily on EverestNews.com.

There is less of a problem on the Nepalese, or south side, of Mount Everest, says Mr Kodas, who has twice climbed on the mountain.

Climbers ascending the peak through Nepal have to walk a week to get to base camp.

That arduous journey, plus Nepal's more expensive climbing licence, deters all but the most determined climbers.

New road

Mr Kodas believes the problem in China stems from the fact that there are well-off climbers in an area where there are many poor people, and few enforceable laws.

One oxygen tank costs five times as much as the average Tibetan earns in a year, the author estimates.

And the problems could become even worse when China completes a 108km (67 mile) paved road - there's already a dirt one - to the Chinese base camp.

At a cost of nearly $20m (£10m), the road will assist Chinese climbers who hope to take the Olympic torch to the top of Mount Everest next year.

The road could also lead to greater commercialisation, warns Mr Kodas.

China defends itself against allegations that it is contributing to despoiling the area surrounding the mountain, which it calls Qomolangma.

Yu Xiaoxuan, an official with the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, points out that as most climbers are foreigners, they should shoulder most of the blame.

Each expedition leaves about 10 tons of waste, he says, which China has been collecting, sometimes from very high altitudes, since 2000.

Answering criticism about the road, he adds: "We will minimize the environmental impact to ensure the torch reaches Mount Everest."

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