KATHMANDU (AFP) - Google launched a virtual tour of Nepal's Everest region on Thursday, allowing armchair tourists a rare glimpse of life in one of the toughest and most inaccessible places on earth, home to the world's highest mountain.
The Street View project takes viewers into the heart of the stunning Sagarmatha national park, where icy blue rivers run below snow-capped peaks, monks play music and yak-herders navigate precipitous stone-strewn trails.
Armed with two single-lens tripod cameras and a 15-lens custom-built "Trekker" unit designed for backpacks, teams travelled on foot to capture more than 45,000 panoramic images of the remote eastern Himalayan villages inhabited by the ethnic Sherpa community.
Google worked on the project with Kathmandu-based start-up Story Cycle and Nepalese climber Apa Sherpa, who scaled Mount Everest a record 21 times before he retired from climbing and set up an educational charity. "Everyone in the world knows Mount Everest but very few people know how hard life is in these villages," said Mr Apa Sherpa, who was forced to drop out of school at 12 and work as a porter after his father died. "Thanks to Google Street View, everyone can see these villages and understand that people here need help. Hopefully we can then raise funds to build more schools and hospitals for them."
Nepal's Sherpa community, who have long laboured as guides and porters on mountaineering expeditions, hope the project will promote the region and raise funds to improve access to education, offering future generations a way out of the high-risk climbing industry.
"Googlers, Story Cycle employees and Apa Sherpa spent about 11 days on the move last March, using the tripod cameras and fisheye lenses to shoot inside monasteries, schools, clinics," said Mr Raleigh Seamster, programme manager for Google Earth Outreach.
"We used the Trekker unit to capture outdoor imagery."
Mr Apa Sherpa, now 55, first climbed the 8,848m-high peak as a porter, and described the feat as "a dream that had never been mine".
"My dream is that one day, young kids in Nepal won't have to risk working on the mountain as porters or guides, they will be able to get an education and build better lives for themselves," Mr Sherpa told AFP.
Sixteen Nepalese guides, including 14 members of the Sherpa community, died last April in an avalanche, marking the deadliest accident to hit the world's highest peak.