KATHMANDU (REUTERS) - Nepal said on Tuesday it was investigating whether a Chinese woman, this season's sole climber of Mount Everest from the Nepalese side, used a helicopter to reach a high camp after a deadly avalanche last month washed away part of the route.
Using a helicopter would constitute a serious moral violation of tradition in climbing the world's highest peak.
But Ms Wang Jing, 40, who completed the climb last Friday, denied she had used the aircraft to advance up the mountain.
The April 18 avalanche killed 16 Nepali guides, who were fixing ropes and ferrying supplies for their foreign clients to scale the 8,850-metre peak. Guides then refused to accompany foreign climbers out of respect for their dead colleagues and hundreds had to abandon their expeditions.
Ms Wang completed her climb with five Sherpa guides arranged privately to become the first to go up from the Southeast Ridge route after the deadliest accident in the mountain's history.
Authorities said they were looking into reports that Ms Wang took the helicopter and flew over the route damaged by the avalanche to the site of Camp II at 6,400 metres.
"We have asked the helicopter company whether they flew Wang to Camp II as reported," Mr Madhusudan Burlakoti, a senior official at the Tourism Ministry, told Reuters.
Nepal normally allows helicopters above Everest base camp located at about 5,400 metres to rescue climbers in distress or to drop climbing equipment and supplies.
Climbers must walk on ropes and aluminium ladders fixed on snow, including over the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, known for crevasses and avalanches.
Mr Burlakoti said Ms Wang, who returned from the summit at the weekend, had denied using any helicopter for climbing, but acknowledged having one drop her cook and a porter at Camp II with supplies. He declined to say what action Ms Wang faced if she was found to have flown to Camp II.
Ms Wang could not be reached for comment.
She told The Himalayan Times daily that helicopters had brought logistic and support staff. "Being a professional mountaineer, I have walked through Khumbu Icefall several times," the paper quoted her as saying.
"You can also ask Sherpas how I made it to the summit this time... It is not the time to make any controversy. I have nothing more to say about chopper use."
Expedition operator Russell Brice, who originally included Ms Wang in his team, says she was climbing with another company after he decided to withdraw his members following the avalanche.
Mountain climbing in an important adventure sport for foreign climbers in Nepal, home to eight of the world's 14 mountains taller than 8,000 metres.
Permit fees are a key source of income for the desperately poor country.
The route Ms Wang used to the top was pioneered by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay during their historic ascent in 1953 that popularised Nepal as a destination for climbers.
More than 4,000 people have climbed Everest so far and about 250 have died during their expedition.