Nepal marks 60 years since Everest summit victory

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Nepal on Wednesday marked 60 years since the first ascent of Everest, celebrating the pioneering climbers whose bravery spawned an industry that many mountaineers fear is now ruining the world's highest peak.

Four days of ceremonies dubbed the Everest Diamond Jubilee concluded on Wednesday with family members of Sir Edmund Hillary and Mr Tenzing Norgay, the first summiteers, laying garlands on statues of the now legendary pair.

Sir Hillary's granddaughter and niece joined Italian climbing celebrity Reinhold Messner, Mr Norgay's grandson Tashi Tenzing and the last surviving member of the 1953 expedition, Mr Kancha Sherpa, in a horse-drawn chariot procession through Kathmandu.

The British-funded trip to the highest point on earth - 8,848m above sea level - changed mountaineering forever and turned New Zealander Hillary and Nepalese guide Norgay into household names in many parts of the world.

"Hillary and Tenzing were rock stars of the 1950s and into the 1960s," Sir Hillary's son Peter told AFP in an interview. "The biggest thing about 1953 is that they were going into the unknown.

"People didn't know what was up there, they didn't know whether or not you could remain conscious, they didn't know whether they could climb that final summit knife-edged ridge and get up what is now called the Hillary Step," he added.

A host of famous mountaineering figures will attend a gala on Wednesday night at the palace of Nepal's former royal family in the capital.

But while the Nepalese government is keen to promote the anniversary - Everest is a key revenue-earner for the impoverished country - many in the climbing community reflected on the dangers of over-commercialisation.

Recent photographs showing queues of climbers waiting their turn to reach the summit, as well as gathering mounds of rubbish and even a brawl between climbers and porters this year, have highlighted problems on the "roof of the world".

"Everest has turned into a playground for people with all sorts of interests," veteran climber Temba Tsheri Sherpa, who now runs an expedition company, lamented in an interview with AFP.

"All they want is to set new records and they seem to be willing to pay thousands of dollars in order to fulfil their dreams," he added.

More than 3,500 people have so far reached the peak, according to government figures.

This season alone, 540 people made it to the summit, including a Japanese octogenarian, the first female amputee, the first women from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and the first armless man.

Mr Kancha Sherpa, now 81, worked as a porter on the maiden expedition, which he remembers as an arduous but ultimately joyous affair - although he regrets that the glory is not more equally shared among the team.

"Everyone knew Tenzing and Hillary climbed Everest but nobody knows how hard we worked along the way," Mr Kancha told AFP.

"One thousand two hundred coolies (porters) were gathered together at Bhaktapur near Kathmandu...

"Everyone walked from there because there weren't any roads, no motor vehicles, no planes. It took us 16 days to reach Namche," which is today the start of the Everest route, he added.

Mr Kancha said that he and fellow porters cut down 20 trees and carried logs up the mountain which were then used as make-shift ladders to pass the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, just above the Everest base camp.

Sir Hillary's son Peter, and Mr Norgay's son Jamling, both now mountaineers, will join Queen Elizabeth II at a diamond jubilee event at the Royal Geographical Society in London later on Wednesday.

In New Zealand, Auckland Museum staged an exhibition to mark the anniversary, featuring photos, medals and equipment used during the expedition and highlighting Sir Hillary's charity work in Nepal after the historic ascent.

Mr Norgay's grandson Tenzing called on the Nepalese government to protect the unique qualities of the mythical peak.

"Our leaders should understand the value of the mountains," he said. "We should not sell Nepal as a cheap destination."

Everest was named in 1852 by the British colonial-era Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, which singled out the peak in the eastern Himalayas as the tallest mountain in the world.