Everest Base Camp, 2003

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of his historic ascent of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary scolded the legions of climbers partying at base camp, saying he doesn't consider "knocking back cans of beer" as mountaineering.

Hillary, the star of this week's anniversary celebrations, said he sometimes doubted whether his climb was a good thing, opening up the mountain to Western climbers.

There were about 1,000 people at base camp with "a booze place for drinks and all the other comforts," Hillary said at a news conference Wednesday.

"Just sitting around in a big base camp, knocking back cans of beer, I don't particularly regard as mountaineering," he said.

As he spoke in Katmandu, a helicopter with nine people aboard crashed near the main Everest base camp at 17,380 feet. Two Nepalese on board were killed, officials said.

The helicopter crashed as it tried to land near where hundreds of climbers had gathered to mark Thursday's golden jubilee of the first known ascent of the 29,035-foot summit by Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay.

Also marring anniversary celebrations was a clash between police and anti-government protesters in Katmandu, the capital.

Officers used tear gas and batons to disperse 5,000 opposition supporters angered that the nation's king last year dissolved the elected Parliament and set up a royally appointed Cabinet.

In the past few days Hillary, 83, has been lauded as a hero in Katmandu. At his news conference he said he appreciated his warm welcome in Nepal as well as the interest in his feat.

However, the famed mountaineer from New Zealand expressed concerns about the future of Everest, which he wants closed to new expeditions.

Many of those at the celebration arrived at an airfield that Hillary built to bring materials for hospitals and schools for the Sherpa community after his ascent on May 29, 1953.

"For a while," Hillary said, "I wondered whether I had done a bad thing, made it too easy for foreigners to come up." But he felt the Sherpas' culture was strong enough to withstand the outside influences, "although they are tempted by our Western money, as we are."

He acknowledged that Nepal had changed during the past half century, with bustling streets and cars in the capital. Some Sherpas earn enough money to send their children abroad for education.

The lives of the Sherpas in the Khumbu region around Everest had improved with schools and health centers built by his Himalayan Trust, Hillary said.

Hillary refused to comment on the Nepal political situation, saying he preferred to avoid discussion of politics and religion.

The anniversary festivities culminate Thursday with a ceremonial gathering of Everest climbers hosted by Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who is the king's appointee; a tea attended by King Gyanendra and Queen Komal; and a banquet with the crown prince and princess.

All those who have climbed the summit of Everest are guests of the government. That number has increased by 137 in the past week alone, although some of those may still be descending the mountain or may attend a party hosted by Hillary's son, Peter.

Sometime during all those feasts, Edmund Hillary said he would slip out for a separate dinner with members of the Sherpa community who were part of his 1953 British-sponsored expedition.

About 100 mountaineers traveled two hours by bus Wednesday to attend a ceremony to honor the more than 175 people who have died on the mountain. They planting saplings at the International Mountaineers' Memorial Park in the mountain town of Kakani.

Norgay died in 1986 and is being represented by his son, Jamling, also an Everest climber, who said Tuesday that the first Everest climb benefited mankind.

"They took a step farther into the unknown. They made known that it was possible for us to climb this mountain," he said.

By Laurinda Keys