Published: June/July 2008 Special Report: Everest
Everest Gets Torched
How the Olympics ruined a peaceful spring at the top of the world.
Text by Ed Douglas

For all the controversy surrounding the Olympic torch's journey to Beijing this spring, perhaps the greatest relay-related hullabaloo happened in relative obscurity. It all started when the host country released plans to send the torch to the summit of Mount Everest as a high-altitude coup de théâtre for the Summer Games. The all-Chinese climbing team, whose identities were a closely guarded secret, would follow a newly expanded $21 million highway to Base Camp in Tibet, then begin their ascent. To further pave the way, on March 10 the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) announced that it would close the peak to foreign expeditions, ending almost three decades of unfettered access to the north side of Everest and wiping out a climbing industry worth millions.

In most years, the CTMA ban would surely have set off a firestorm of protests. But coincidentally, on the day of the announcement, another confrontation stole the spotlight when, to commemorate the 1959 uprising against China, monks in Lhasa staged a peaceful protest that quickly turned violent. As Chinese troops flooded the region to restore order, Tibet's 50-year struggle for independence overshadowed a season-long climbing ban.

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.

The Sherpa Effect

"This peak ban may mean a loss of income for me, but for the Sherpas it's an absolute disaster," said Victor Saunders, a guide for New Zealand outfitter Adventure Consultants. "This is their main income for the year and it's been taken away."

According to the Nepal Mountaineering Association, expeditions spend $6 million each season on the Nepal side—not an insignificant sum in a country with a per capita gross national income of just $290. U.S.-based International Mountain Guides (IMG) employs some 50 Sherpas during a typical spring. Its local climbing guides clear over $4,000 a season, with which they often support an extended family. "I don't think any hardship can be greater than the one the Sherpa community is facing," said IMG trip coordinator Erin Simonson.

Veteran outfitter Russell Brice has been fixing rope on the North Ridge for more than a decade. He expected to do so again in 2008. But a week after the announcement from Nepal, he canceled his expedition and pledged to support his unemployed workers himself. "Russell looks after his Sherpas," said Chhuldim Temba Sherpa, co-owner of Kathmandu-based Mountain Experience. "This won't be as much money as normal, but it's a help."

Even those outfitters that anticipated trouble ran into roadblocks. IMG added a trip to Tibet's 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, only to discover that the Chinese had included it in their ban. The peak is located near Nangpa La, the high pass used by Tibetan refugees crossing into India. (It was here in October 2006 that a 17-year-old nun named Kelsang Namtso was shot dead by Chinese soldiers in front of climbers.) "Our hedge failed completely," said Simonson. "[The government] threw the net wider than we expected."

Despite such setbacks, Yin Xunping, a Chinese official supervising the torch expedition, told press in Beijing that putting the Olympic flame on the summit was his only priority. "We shall go all out to ensure the smooth movement of the torch relay. We must strengthen ethnic unity while hostile forces try to drive a wedge between ethnic groups."

Smells Like Olympic Spirit

No matter the outcome of the 2008 Everest season, the chaos has begged several questions. Not least, how does the closure of the highest mountain on Earth jibe with the Olympic spirit? The Olympic Charter states: "The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) partners with the International Federation of Climbing Organizations (UIAA), which has members in 62 countries. The IOC declined to comment on the ban, while the UIAA said it "regrets the decision by the government of China to close the north side of Everest" but supports its aim "to carry the Olympic Torch to the summit."

Guides, for their part, reported feeling misled by the Chinese from the start. Last October, Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, tried to reassure nervous outfitters that Everest would be open following a meeting in Lhasa with the CTMA. "There are many rumors circulating in [the] media that Mount Everest will be closed to climb from the Tibet side," he said. "These rumors are false."

Perhaps sensing trouble brewing, China changed its mind after the meeting. But one UIAA commission member told ADVENTURE that the ban was "more than a little convenient for the Chinese," since it made it difficult for pro-Tibet demonstrators to alter their plans and disrupt the torch relay. It also left outfitters scrambling to manage the dangers of a shortened season and a single, crowded route to the top. "Everest," according to Benitez, "is a tea kettle waiting to boil over."