The tarnished symbolism of the Olympic torch relays in London, Paris and San Francisco may seem tame beside the potential fallout of the Chinese plan to carry the torch to the world's highest peak, 29,035-foot Mt. 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 Mt. 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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 01, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 23 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Torch climb: A photograph published Saturday with an Op-Ed article critical of the Chinese attempt to climb Mt. Everest with the Olympic flame was not a picture of Everest. It was Nuptse, a peak west-southwest of Everest.
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 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. (There are four camps altogether on the South Col route, the route to the summit pioneered by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in the first ascent, in 1953; teams acclimate at each one before attempting the next leg of the climb.)
The Associated Press reported late last week that as many as 25 Nepalese soldiers might be patrolling the bleak rock and ice of the South Col route. The report said the soldiers were given authority to squelch any protests of the torch relay or the Chinese oppression of the Tibetan culture. A Nepalese Home Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying the use of deadly force was authorized, but only as a last resort.
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. Not that that would require the Nepalese army. Getting to the summit is iffy under the best of circumstances, and a James Bond attempt to waylay the Chinese team is almost impossible to imagine: Just breathing and putting one foot in front of the other at such heights is grimly arduous, even with bottled oxygen.
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 banner. (It's uncertain whether he displayed it or it was confiscated from his baggage.)
The Explorersweb Internet site, a go-to site for all kinds of mountaineering news, was suggesting last week that "climbers and explorers wishing to stage a protest for Tibet ... fly a Tibetan flag or write 'Free Tibet' on any feature in their surrounding (such as in the snow, on rocks, in the sand, etc.)" and send it in for posting. Commercial guiding companies, which get as much as $65,000 a person to attempt the peak, also post reports, but don't say much about the China/Tibet situation. China and Nepal together control commercial access to Everest, so the guides could risk future business if they were implicated in any action that angered the Chinese.
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 severely complicate logistics 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.