False Summit: China, the Olympic Torch, and the Politics of Climbing Everest

This spring, the world watched as the Olympic torch made its way on an 85,000 mile journey from Athens to Beijing. The event was a PR nightmare from the start: the flame began its 130 day “Journey of Harmony” only weeks after Tibet erupted in the most violent political crackdown seen in a generation. In Paris, London, and San Francisco, the fabled flame was met with angry demonstrations over China’s human right record in general and its forty-nine year old occupation of Tibet in particular. The ensuing global drama made for what must have been some awkward moments for the Chinese delegation and great evening news footage for everyone else. It’s ironic then, that one of the very few locations the flame visited without incident also happens to be the most difficult to reach: the summit of Mount Everest.

The flame’s ascent to the 29,028 foot apex of the world’s highest mountain on May 8th was a singular triumph for the Communist Party of China’s propaganda machine. Spring is the traditional season to climb Everest, and typically the mountain’s northern (Tibetan) and southern (Nepali) sides swarm with an international mix of expeditions vying for the top. Would-be summiteers pay peak fees of 5,000 – 10,000 per person to each respective government for the right to climb Everest. Moreover, they are a vital source of money for the local economy, through the hiring of cooks, porters, and logistical services. This spring, however, the rules of the game changed. Citing several reasons, including “increased environmental pressures”, the Chinese Tibet Mountaineering Association issued a ban on all expeditions until after May 10th. The CTMA “requested” that their Nepali neighbors to the south do the same.

Poor Nepal. It’s not easy being a landlocked country in Asia — especially when you’re sandwiched between two aspiring hegemons like China and India, and have to deal with the public humiliation of being the only country in the twenty-first century to undergo a communist revolution. How embarrassing. The Nepali government appeared to waffle for several weeks in March, during which time the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Tourism made conflicting statements and as many as thirty different expeditions waited in Katmandu for a definitive decision. By early April, the Ministry of Tourism announced that it would be issuing permits for Everest, but with a few strings attached. All expedition leaders were forced to sign a document stating that “the team shall not carry and exhibit any things like flags, banners, stickers, pamphlets or any audio visual devices that may harm bilateral relationship between Nepal and China.” It went on to specify that until after May 10th, all electronic equipment – satellite phones, computers, and video cameras – was to be temporarily held by the police in base camp and no climbers would be allowed beyond Camp 2 at 21,000 feet onto the upper mountain. All news reports broadcast from base camp first had to be approved by the Ministry of Tourism. To enforce these rules, a garrison of soldiers was dispatched to the mountain.

As spring progressed, rumors of censorship and escalating tension on Everest flew through the global mountaineering community: Nepali soldiers were cleared to use deadly force on any climber interfering with the torch’s ascent, Chinese security guards and plain clothes policemen were flooding base camp, snipers were stationed at Camp 2. A few voices in the mountaineering community criticized the media censorship surrounding the Olympic torch’s Everest climb and China’s blatant meddling in Nepal. Reinhold Messner, the grandfather of modern Himalayan climbing and a former member of the EU Parliament decried the ascent as an insult to the people of Tibet. The prestigious French organization, the Groupe de Haute Montagne issued a statement calling on all mountaineers to condemn the ascent.

What’s truly remarkable, however, is the degree to which Everest climbers willingly submitted to these strong arm tactics. Hardly any major expeditions voluntarily canceled their plans to climb Everest from Nepal on moral grounds, and there was virtually no talk of boycotts or organized protest in the Everest climbing community. So far there’s only been a single report of a climber being arrested for civil disobedience: a twenty-six year old from Virginia was forced to leave the mountain and given a two year ban on climbing in Nepal for carrying a small flag that reportedly read: “Free Tibet / fuck China”.

The Himalayan climbing community’s tacit acquiescence to the will of corrupt Asian regimes is nothing new. In 2006, a young Tibetan nun attempting to flee into Nepal was murdered by Chinese soldiers at advance base camp on nearby Cho Oyu, the eighth highest mountain in the world. Despite the fact that tens of Western climbers were on hand to witness the murder in broad daylight, it took days before the story was reported to the international media.

The changing demographics of Himalayan climbing has something to do with this appalling sort of abdication of moral responsibility. Once the domain of a few iconoclast, counter-culture adventurers, the Himalayas of today are overrun by commercial expeditions, with wealthy cliental paying a premium to be escorted all the way to the summit by a small army of high altitude Sherpas and western guides. Expedition leaders, anxious for a smooth, hassle-free climb, are highly conscious that they are obliged to cooperate with the government’s demands. Today Mount Everest means big business, and few appear willing to put their livelihoods on the line for political conviction.

Others are quick to point out that the dollars they bring to the local economy are the best possible thing for the impoverished people of the region. After all, Nepal isn’t hosting the Olympics and it isn’t occupying Tibet, so why should it be punished for the actions of its bullying neighbor? The essential point here – engagement over isolation – parallels wider western attitudes towards the Olympics this summer. With the Games only ten weeks away, talk of boycotting the event has been largely deflected by those scheduled to compete or attend. Many athletes have publicly stated that they are against a boycott and will compete in the Games, not as any endorsement of China’s policies, but as a statement that athletic excellence and global unity should transcend politics.

But this argument does little to absolve those climbing on Everest this spring of some small share of complicity in China’s human rights violations, and its systematic attempts to cover up those abuses. The Olympics are a chance for global athletes to come together and compete on an even playing field regardless of their race, nationality, or background. These principles stand in rank contrast to current cost of doing business on Mount Everest, where enough money, and a willingness to sacrifice a few ideals along the way, can buy you a place at the top.

Originally published on the Huffington Post on May 27th, 2008.

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