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Meanwhile, on the south side of the mountain in Nepal, climbers weren't faring much better. Faced with anti-China protests of its own, the Nepalese government notified guides in late March that expeditions would not be permitted beyond Base Camp until May 10. (After pressure from climbers, teams were later allowed as high as Camp II.) "This is to prevent some people who could infiltrate and cause trouble during the time when [the Chinese] take the torch to the top," Tourism Minister Prithvi Subba Gurung told the New York Times.

In a typical year some 60 expeditions arrive at the base camps in Nepal and Tibet in early April, hoping to summit in late May, before monsoons engulf the peak. Within days of the climbing bans, as many as half of those groups canceled, forgoing their season rather than chancing a logjam instigated by the Chinese.

The climb got even more complicated for groups that decided to press on in Nepal. Only Everest's popular Southeast Ridge Route, the most crowded artery on the Nepal side, would remain open. Satellite phones and all other communications would be under the supervision of liaison officers appointed by the Nepalese Army. And the display of "flags, banners, stickers, pamphlets, or any audiovisual devices that may harm the bilateral relationship between Nepal and China" were forbidden. Climbing Everest—an arduous enough task—was becoming a logistical nightmare.

"We can take our clients elsewhere to acclimatize," said a longtime climbing guide headed to Nepal. "But before the climb we have to put the route in, fix ropes, and stock camps. We can't do that unless they let Sherpas up there. And then the question is, what happens if the Chinese don't reach the top before May 10? In a decade leading expeditions here, I've only managed that once."

The guide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his company's climbing permit, said the Chinese had offered to compensate Nepal for peak fees lost due to the relay. "Everest has been bought and paid for," said Luis Benitez, a guide with Outward Bound Professional. But while the People's Republic may have rented the top of the world, the people who depend on the mountain had been left holding the bag.

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