Celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt Everest have been subdued on the north side of the mountain because of the SARS epidemic, and the closing of the Nepal-China border.
But this should not detract us from the realisation that the two sides of the world's highest mountain are one. Mt Everest straddles the international boundary between Nepal and China's Tibet Autonomous Region. The 50th anniversary is a good opportunity to look beyond the physical and political divide and look at Sagarmatha/Chomolungma as one whole. People on either side know only their side: very few have an overview of the entire mountain and its surroundings.
Despite the formidable mountain barrier in between, the Sherpas and Tibetans have traded for centuries, primarily in Tibetan rock salt, supplemented by agricultural produce, livestock, iron ore, and medicinal and aromatic plants. Pastures were shared through cross-border grazing agreements. Strong cultural links developed over generations of economic exchanges.
In recent times tourism has supplanted traditional cross-border trade. Exploration and climbing in the Everest region began from the north side of Everest in the early 1920s, while the south side of the mountain remained off-limits to foreign visitors until 1950 because of the isolationist policies of the Rana regime. When Nepal opened its borders to foreign visitors in 1951, this coincided with the closing of Tibet to foreigners that followed the Cultural Revolution. The south side experienced a rapid growth in mountaineering activities, with expeditions from different nations competing for the summit of Everest.
On 29 May 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, climbing from the south slope, became the first to reach the summit of Everest. From the north, a Chinese expedition placed three climbers, including a local Tibetan at the top for the first time in 1960. These successes attracted global attention to the region and the number of visitors increased rapidly. Visitor numbers to the south side peaked in 2001 with more than 25,500 trekkers and mountaineers. In comparison, visitors to the north side that year numbered nearly 10,000.
Access is easier from the north now because there are roads on the plateau that go nearly to the base of the mountain. But whether tourists come by road or foot, mass tourism is bound to have an impact on the fragile mountain ecosystem. Thankfully, the governments of Nepal and China appear to be aware of the dangers and have cooperated to form a transboundary national park the size of Switzerland by combining the Sagarmatha and Makalu Barun National parks in Nepal and the Qomolangma Nature Preserve of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Regular exchanges are held between conservationists from Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region to promote transboundary conservation collaboration.
The slopes below the mountain have a wide variety of ecological niches that support diverse flora and fauna at extreme elevations and complex mountain topography: musk deer, snow leopard, brown bear, blue sheep, kiang and Himalayan tahr roam the lofty highlands. The moisture-rich valleys support valuable medicinal and aromatic plants.
Interestingly, the communities in the mountain valleys on the Nepali side in Khumbu, Makalu, Rolwaling, Kharta and Rongshar believed their homelands were the sacred beyul (hidden valleys) shared by people and deities of mountains, water, forests and trees. People refrain from hunting, killing and polluting land and water to remain in harmony with the gods. So, in essence, the Everest and its surroundings have long been culturally protected. While formalised conservation measures such as national parks and preserves are necessary, the importance of a conservation system rooted in traditional culture must also be preserved.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, the respective governments, people and friends of Sagarmtha/Chomolungma should make a commitment to:
1. Treat Everest as a whole by developing cross-border cooperation and understanding through exchanges and consultations.
2. Realise that nature does not recognise political boundaries, and promote cooperative working relations between professionals, communities and scientists across the border to protect the environment at the ecosystem level.
3. Continue to protect the mountain and its environs through coordinated and improved management of adjacent protected areas.
4. Respect the mountain as the sacred abode of Jomo Langma, and provide opportunities for education, recreation and research.
5. Provide sustainable livelihood programs to local communities, including cross-border tourism, trade, agriculture, animal husbandry, education and health, so that the mountain people can continue to live here.
6. Limit large infrastructure that could harm the integrity of the region, such as the construction of major tourist complexes, highways, dams and airfields too close to the mountain.
7. Declare the mountain a joint heritage site between Nepal and China, and as a natural and cultural property of global importance.
(Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, PhD, is manager of The Mountain Institute's Qomolangma Conservation Program in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.)