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Mountaineers Gear Up For Summit

International climbers `rope up' together for world peace and a clean environment

By Laura Van TuylStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 1990



BOSTON

SOMETIME on April 22 - Earth Day, 1990 - the top leaders of the Soviet Union, the United States, and China will receive an unusual phone call. Crackling over the radio-to-satellite connection will come the voices of a Soviet, a Chinese, and an American mountain climber perched atop the world's highest peak - Mt. Everest.

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Their message? Only by international friendship and cooperation can the highest goals on Earth be reached: world peace and a clean environment.

If the weather stays clear and the climbers' strength holds out, Jim Whittaker's dream will come true. After five years of planning, the world will witness the first international ``Peace Climb,'' coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.

``We'd be lucky if we could do it, but it's a good goal,'' says Mr. Whittaker with an air of modesty. The world-renowned mountaineer, and leader of the expedition, admits the extreme dangers of such a feat. He climbed to the summit in 1963 - the first American to do so. But the very fact that these citizens will ``rope up'' together and form a team of people whose lives depend on one another is a symbolic act worth striving for, he says.

Under Whittaker's guidance, five teams will each have a chance to reach the 29,000-foot summit. Each three-person team will consist of one Soviet, one Chinese, and one American climber.

The 50-member, 2 1/2-month expedition will also ``clean the world from the highest point down,'' says the ruddy Whittaker in an interview. ``We've got big duffle bags we're going to fill with garbage that's been left there by previous expeditions - I left it there in 1963! That was the ethic back then - we didn't care about the environment.''

Mt. Everest, on the border of Nepal and Tibet, is a veritable ``junkyard,'' he says, with over two tons of debris - old tents, cooking gear, empty oxygen bottles - scattered across its snowy slopes. Workers will load the refuse on yaks and haul it down to about 17,000 feet, where the Chinese have given them permission to bury it in specified areas.

Whittaker shuns the idea that the Peace Climb has lost any of its relevance due to perestroika and the sudden crumbling of communism in the East bloc.

``I think the timing is turning out to be fantastic,'' he says excitedly. ``What about China? Everyone's still terrified about what's happening over there. My feeling is we don't want to have another Cold War with them like we've had with the Soviets.''

Last summer, a practice climb on Mt. Rainier in Washington was almost canceled because of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The shakedown climb was crucial to test equipment, build teamwork, and train the Chinese, who are less experienced in climbing technique than the Soviets and Americans.

Fortunately, the climbers (some from Beijing, some from Tibet) were able to leave, though the delay cut one week off the shakedown. A few months later, a second climb on Mt. Elbrus in the Soviet Caucasus went ahead as planned.

During training, an important lesson was overcoming language barriers. It was decided that English would be used for climbing commands and words such as ``avalanche'' and ``falling.''

``One of the Soviet climbers had a English translation book,'' says Whittaker, laughing, ``but it was all nautical terms, so he said things like, `Where do we drop anchor?'''

While communication is key, ``on a mountain, you've got high winds, and you're 100 feet away from each other on a rope, so it's mostly grunts and signals. ... If there's any really technical thing, they can radio down to an interpreter.''

THE shakedowns also let climbers sort out what food to bring. Tibetans live on yak-butter tea and a gruel-like substance made from wheat and legumes, says Whittaker. ``They'll eat some of our food, but they prefer their own, which will be provided for them.'' The Soviets, however, ``are more in tune with our style of eating,'' he adds. The 15,600 meals provided by the American contingent for the three-month expedition include potatoes and rice, dried fruit and nuts, fish, beef stew (in aluminum pouches), and 2,000 pounds of Kool-Aid.

Organizing the Peace Climb was not easy for Whittaker, who donned the robes of a diplomat to persuade the Soviet and Chinese governments to go along with the idea. Initially, the Chinese thought the project had merit, explains Whittaker, ``but they said, `We haven't had Soviets here for 30 years! We don't want to invite them if they don't want to come.'''

The Soviets didn't want to lose face either, he adds. ``They said, `We don't want to invite ourselves unless we're sure the Chinese will have us.''' After months of shuttle diplomacy, Whittaker finally persuaded each country of the other's good faith.

Engendering enthusiasm and cooperation are among Whittaker's strong points, says Dr. Barry Bishop, who ascended Mt. Everest with Whittaker in 1963, and now heads the committee for research and exploration at the National Geographic Society. In addition, he says, ``he has a dynamic personality to go with sound physical and technical abilities.''

While the Peace Climb has already prompted good feelings among its participants, there have been practical benefits as well:

The Americans have educated the Soviet and Chinese teams about the ethic of ``leaving only your footprints behind,'' says Whittaker, including throwing paper and wrappers inside one's tent rather than on the ground. And in meetings with Chinese officials, it was agreed that all future expeditions to Mt. Everest will leave a ``damage deposit'' for the mountain. ``If they don't clean up their debris, then the monies they've put down will be used to pay the Tibetans to clean up,'' he says.

With the political conflict between China and Tibet, it was significant that Chinese officials asked the Tibetans to climb and worked with them to carry the project forward, Whittaker says.

The Peace Climb demonstrates grass-roots activism. ``Any good political movement starts with the citizens,'' says Whittaker. ``That's how the Berlin Wall came down.''