Olympic torch to scale Everest amid tight security

The Chinese have closely guarded their plan to carry the Olympic flame to the top of the world's highest mountain.

Oded Balilty

The Olympic torch tour is scheduled to stop atop Mt. Everest early this month. Following protests that have followed the Beijing Olympic flame in Paris; Canberra, Australia; Seoul, South Korea; and elsewhere, tight security is accompanying the planned trip to the peak.

The flame could reach the summit as early as this weekend or early next week. Already, one American climber, who has been carrying a pro-Tibet flag, was kicked off the mountain and heavy security is reportedly enforcing the no-climb rule in effect from May 1 to May 10 in Nepal, which, like China, controls access to part of the mountain. Nepal's forces have reportedly been urged to shoot at protesters.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that a human rights group had called on Nepal's government for a revocation of those orders to shoot.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it had written to Nepal's Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala asking him "to immediately rescind these orders ... and do not employ unnecessary or excessive use of force against protesters in Nepal."

Mt. Everest, also called Mt. Qomolangma, divides China and Nepal. Nepal has been cautious not to anger China over ongoing protests related to China's crackdown in Tibet that broke out in early March.

Last week, Nepal banned protests and armed Nepalese soldiers were stationed at Mt. Everest's base camp. The soldiers were also stationed at Camp 2, a lower stop for mountaineers preparing to summit the world's highest mountain. The online news site Nepalnews.com said local media reported the orders to shoot.

[The Nepali daily newspaper] Annapurna Post daily quotes a Home Ministry official as saying that security personnel have been deployed to ensure that no one will put obstacle to the torch rally.
Security men with logistics and mountaineering equipment have already been moved to the area.
The soldiers have been given orders to shoot if necessary.

The blog Peak Freaks says that teams coming down from Camp 2 reported a sign saying, "Dear Climbers, Do Not Go Past This Point." Another climber said armed security personnel were posted at Camp 2, according to the blog Explorersweb, which regularly reports on Mt. Everest:

"There is a small police post at 6400m on Everest and the one armed soldier does the rounds each day, with conspicuous sniper rifle, however they mostly give a friendly Namasté [greeting]."

Still, because of what's seen as a threat from protesters, the actual torch route and dates remains shrouded in secrecy. Reuters correspondent Nick Mulvenney, who has been blogging about the Everest trip here, reported that the torch had left the base camp on Tuesday of this week, although the report's veracity was later questioned.

On their way up to base camp, the media passed through a checkpoint and then a large border police encampment outside which stood more than 20 uniformed men armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

Security is also behind the secrecy surrounding the departure date of the climbing team, and large areas of base camp were ruled "out of bounds" to the media on Wednesday and cordoned off by police tape.
One man who has been working at base camp for 10 days, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the climbers and flame left on Tuesday. But officials dismissed a similar report on a Chinese website as "fake".

William Brant Holland, the US climber, who is from Virginia, was ejected from the base camp for having a "Free Tibet" banner, The Washington Post reports.

"I was just joking around. 'Check out the flag I'm going to take to the top,' " Holland said. "If I'd realized it was such a high crime, I wouldn't have advertised it."

The BBC reports that the mountain has been closed to foreigners and that its reporters, who have been blogging an Everest Olympic torch diary, were ordered out.

We knew there were restrictions on satellite phones and video cameras but were now told that even pre-recorded radio material on non-political subjects would not be allowed.
Nor would informal chats with the hundreds of mountaineers currently in the camp, the tourism ministry official, Prabodh Dhakal, said. If any mountaineer talked to the BBC, he or she would be expelled, he added.

But it's not just rogue climbers and media that pose a problem for the planned relay to the top of the world's tallest mountain. Extreme weather fluctuations provide only a small window of opportunity to reach the peak, and 1996 climbing accidents and deaths, chronicled in Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," resulted from the combination of sudden early May storms and a rush to summit during fair weather.

One recent report quoted a Chinese meteorologist who told China's state-controlled Xinhua that high winds would make the summit attempt improbable until May 3. Another Xinhua report today gave no indication of the torch's arrival at the summit and Sun Bin, chief of the Olympic Torch Relay Center Qomolangma Operations Team, said the team of climbers included ethnic Tibetans and several women. Mr. Sun also gave details about the planned route – and how the torch would stay lighted at such heights.

The Olympic torch was designed by a Chinese aerospace company to ensure that it will stay alight at high altitude, and weather monitoring equipment has been set up on the Chinese side of the mountain to help ensure a successful ascent.
Ferocious winds and temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit) at the summit are the major troubles in lighting the torch, but Chinese scientists have finished tests last year to ensure the torch can stay alight in the tough, oxygen-sparse conditions that leave even experienced climbers struggling.
"Wind is the most important factor in climbing and as for Mt. Qomolangma, there are four weather windows in May in which mountaineers can attempt to scale, namely the first week of the month, 10th to 15th, 20th to 25th and at the end of the month, so we stand a great chance of fulfilling the feat for the Beijing Olympics," said an upbeat Sun.
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