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Ken Noguchi: Scaling environmental heights

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(CNN) -- An early attempt to climb the world's highest mountain and a disparaging comment about Japanese climbers were enough to make Japanese mountaineer Ken Noguchi rethink about the world he loves.

"Before going, I always saw images of beautiful Everest on TV. I thought it would be like that. But once I got there, I found litter everywhere," recalls Noguchi.

Then there were the cutting words of the leader of the international team he had joined: "Japan has a first grade economy and third grade morals."

It was then that the 26-year-old son of a Japanese diplomat decided to clean the world's most famous peak and educate others to do the same.

Seven years later and with the help of an international team of like-minded climbers, eight tons of trash -- much of it with Japanese labels -- have been removed, including more than 400 discarded oxygen containers.

"You carry the garbage from 8,000 meters down to 6,000 meters again and again for two months. It's really hard, especially when temperatures are up and there is one avalanche after another. I worried I may become garbage myself," says Noguchi.

He has even brought some of the garbage from Mount Everest back to Japan to help highlight the environmental damage that people are causing to iconic climbing sites, including Japan's own Mount Fuji.

"Mount Fuji is known around the world. Many foreigners visit, especially in the summer. When they come to climb it, they see rubbish like this. It's embarrassing," says Noguchi.

According to the mountain's official Web site more than 200,000 people climb the 3,776 meters to the top of Japan's highest peak each year. About one-third of the climbers are foreigners.

For Noguchi, the garbage they leave is a disgrace.

Noguchi leads regular cleaning trips with volunteers up Mount Fuji and has removed everything from a 27-inch television set and a computer monitor to car batteries.

"I have climbed many mountains in Japan, he says, but this one has the most garbage. Most climbers have good etiquette... but there are many visitors, and some heartless people dump their trash here," says one volunteer.

The volunteers' work is making a difference, and it's starting to show. By all reports, Fuji is a far cleaner place to visit today, particularly in the upper reaches of the mountain. Efforts are under way to make the toilets at all 48 locations on the mountain eco-friendly. There are high hopes the mountain may soon return to a pristine condition.

Noguchi might never have found the urge to climb, let alone clean up his conquests, had he not been suspended from a strict British boarding school when he was 15. It was while he was traveling "to cool off" his raging emotions that he discovered his love of mountains.

Noguchi climbed his first mountain, Mont Blanc, at age 16 before becoming the youngest person to climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

Noguchi has since started Seven Summits Actions for a Sustainable Society, a group that aims to highlight the "importance of a sustainable future through conservation of the global environment and substantial development of human society."

"An alpinist goes into dangerous conditions. But the most important thing is to never give up. It's the same with environmental problems. You can't do it all by yourself, but if you get a group of people together, anything is possible," says Noguchi.

CNN's James MacDonald and journalist Bina Brown contributed to this report.


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