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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Torching mountains good will

May 4, 2008

By Bill Stall
Los Angeles Times
May 2, 2008

The tarnished symbolism of the Olympic torch relays in London, Paris and
San Francisco might seem tame beside the potential fallout of the
Chinese plan to carry the torch to the worlds highest peak, 29,035-foot
Mount Everest, on the border of Tibet and Nepal.

A century ago, John Muir, the prophet of the Sierra Nevada, wrote, “Walk
away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer”.
But there is no freedom on Mount Everest right now, as the Chinese, with
the complicity of a newly elected Maoist government in Nepal, have
clamped severe restrictions and censorship on the usual spring rush to
climb Everest and claim the ultimate prize of mountaineering.

The Chinese are promoting the torch climb as a symbol of sportsmanship
and international goodwill, not to mention China’s own vaulting
ambitions. They devised a special torch to keep the flame burning at low
oxygen levels, built a blacktop road through a wilderness to get it —
and the media — to the base camp in Tibet, at 16,800 feet, and banned
all other Everest attempts from the Tibet side of the mountain until the
torch gets its chance between May 1 and May 10, usually a window of calm
offering the best climbing weather. Once anti-Beijing protests broke out
in Tibet in March, they requested that Nepal shut down the south side of
the mountain as well.

Sketchy website postings and occasional news reports indicate that as
many as 500 climbers, Sherpas and others are on hold in the Nepal
Everest base camp, at the foot of the Khumbu icefall at 17,500 feet. The
camp is being overseen by a Nepalese army major under orders to
confiscate all satellite telephones, computers and still and video
cameras at least until May 10. Nepal has allowed climbing teams to carry
food and supplies as high as Camp 2, at 21,000 feet, but until the torch
climb is completed, they are prohibited from staying overnight there or
climbing any farther.

What do the Chinese fear? Obviously they do not want to reach the summit
only to be greeted by a Tibetan flag or some other form of protest. And
obviously they want to prevent any possible effort to keep their torch
climbers from reaching the summit.

Protests farther down the mountain are another matter. Nepal has ordered
climbers to play it cool: No flying of Tibetan flags, no mention of
Tibet or China on a blog post or a YouTube feed. But mountaineers are a
notoriously independent bunch who chafe at regulation. One unidentified
American climber was expelled from base camp for possessing a pro-Tibet

There is no assurance that the Chinese can stick to their May 1-10
schedule. Climbing on Everest is always subject to shifts in the
weather, high winds, heavy snow and avalanche danger. Such was the case
in 1996 when a sudden storm — on May 10 — temporarily stranded many
climbers near the summit. Eight died.

Any delay in the Chinese climb would complicate logistics severely for
those banned from climbing now in Nepal. One danger is that hundreds of
climbers might be rushing for the summit all at once, once the south
routes are reopened. Bottlenecks were another cause of the 1996 disaster.

With soldiers patrolling the climbing routes, communications blocked and
all other climbs on hold, the Olympic torch climb is less a triumph of
athleticism than a symbol of unsportsmanlike conduct — an ill-considered
stunt that scorns the spirit of freedom inherent in the quest for any
mountain summit.

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