Mount Everest Closed
Both sides of world's tallest mountain shut down until after May 10
KATHMANDU (March 13, 2008) — Nepal has effectively closed Mount Everest to climbers until after May 10 to allow the Olympic flame to be carried to the top without being troubled by Tibetan protesters, a senior minister said on March 14.
The move came as pro-independence protests spread within Tibet. It was made at the urging of China, Pritivi Subba Gurung, the tourism minister, told Reuters news service. Beijing will host the Olympic Games in Beijing beginning Aug. 8.
“Climbers will be allowed to go up to the Sagarmatha base camp but will not be permitted to move above until May 10,” Gurung said. (Sagarmatha is the Nepali name for Everest.)
“This is to prevent some people who could infiltrate and cause trouble during the time when they take the torch to the top.”
On March 13, it was announced in Beijing that China is denying mountaineers permission to climb its side of Everest this spring. The Associated Press called it a move that reflects concerns by the communist government that Tibet activists may try to disrupt its plans to carry the Olympic torch up the world's tallest peak.
The Everest restrictions were contained in a letter the government's mountaineering association sent to expedition companies. It came as China's much criticized rule of Tibet, long a hot-button issue, was heating up.
China's Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, testily chastised critics trying to leverage the Olympics to draw attention to human rights violations and other issues. Those who “want to tarnish the image of China,” Yang said in a rare televised news conference, “they will never get their way.”
With less than five months to go to the Olympic Games — and three weeks before the Olympic flame was to arrive in Beijing — events were taking on a harder political tone, and the criticism put the government on the defensive at a time it hoped to be basking in praise.
“They see this as somewhat hostile and mainly because it's pressure to change, and that provokes a hostile reaction from them,” said Susan Brownell, an American expert on China sports scene who is spending a year at Beijing Sports University.
Annexed by Chinese troops 58 years ago, but with a resilient exile community led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate the Dalai Lama, Tibet has been a concern for Beijing Olympic security planners and crisis managers for months. In the past year, Tibet activists have unfurled banners at Everest Base Camp and the Great Wall, calling for Tibet's independence.
Bringing the Olympic flame to the summit of Everest is shaping up to be one of the grandest — and most politicized — feats of the already politicized Beijing games.
The 29,035-foot peak is battered by harsh weather and wreathed in thin oxygen, presenting a physical and technical challenge to the torch crews. The mountain also straddles the political border between Chinese-controlled Tibet and Nepal, home to Tibetan exiles and activists.
Activist groups have criticized the Everest run as an attempt by Beijing to lend legitimacy to Chinese rule. “Beijing is using the Olympics torch ceremony, which should stand for human freedoms and dignity, to bolster its territorial claim over Tibet,” John Ackerly, president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has said that the Everest relay would be a show of international sportsmanship, as well as a point of national pride.
“The torch relay to Mount Everest is a highlight of the whole relay, and it also represents the idea of green Olympics, high-tech Olympics and people's Olympics,” Beijing Vice Mayor Liu Jingming told reporters in Beijing. He promised a successful ascent even if the weather was bad, saying a test-run went well last year.
Beijing has been secretive about the Everest leg of the symbol-freighted, popular Olympic relay. The Everest run is a side spur of the main event, a second torch that will be carried up the mountain while the relay is in Southeast Asia or elsewhere in China.
Beijing Olympic organizers have not released an exact date of the ascent, but preparations point to late April or early May.
The north side of Everest, which is in Chinese territory, contains some of the most difficult routes to the summit. The south side, through Nepal, is the most popular way to the top. China had tried to pressure Nepal to close the south side as well, according to Web site everest.net. This apparently has succeeded.
A letter sent to expedition companies by the government's China Tibet Mountaineering Association, which issues permits for Everest, said climbs of Everest and Cho Oyu should be postponed until after May 10.
The letter, which was posted on a foreign mountaineering Web site MountEverest.net and verified by the association, cites “heavy climbing activities” as among the reasons,but does not mention the torch.
Zhang Mingxing, general secretary of the association, said his group would still welcome several hundred climbers, but suggested that most would be in the August-to-October climbing season. Besides, he said, “the climate in Tibet this year is a bit unusual. It is still snowing here and the wind is pretty big, so it is better to postpone the climbing.”
Mountaineering groups, incensed by the decision, said they had been told that the relay was the main reason for the postponements.
Despite the torch controversy, a record number of climbing teams moved into Base Camp on the Nepal side of Everest this season.
Posted March 13, 2008; updated May 3, 2008