Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Olympic Torch

The whole China thing was frustrating as hell but I have to admit that I liked the down days for sure. From the get-go, no one had any ideas on what would happen with regard to the torch when it related to climbers on the Nepal side of Everest.

Even in Kathmandu, our team flew for Lukla without anything more than a tacit green light from the Nepali Government, so it wasn’t until we reached EBC that we even received a climbing permit for Everest 2008. Throughout this season of uncertainty, we walked the high wire on climbing as Nepal went back and forth on playing favorites to the community assembling on the Khumbu Glacier and then to China, it’s neighbors to the north.

Several times, the Nepalis announced changes to it’s plan of what would / would not be allowed of climbers. These changes were usually met with grumbling and quiet agreement.. what else was there to do? China itself had shut off climbing on their side of the mountain to all but a small number of torch bearers this year, and it was no secret that they were heavily pressuring the Nepalis to do the same thing. $180 million in soft loans has a way of making governments agree to things that they might not normally do, and we were well aware of China’s strong influence over it’s little, poor neighbor to the south. Imagine the United States imposing it’s will on Haiti over something for comparison.

What China cannot control though, is Nepal’s thirst for money and understanding that any decisions not allowing climbers to continue in the Himalaya would have long-term effects, and not all of them positive. While China couldn’t care less about whether climbers are on it’s side of the mountain for the next ten years, Nepal does- it needs the money.

So climb on was the decision coming out of Kathmandu, albeit in a monitored and cautious fashion. The Chinese went along with this so long as the Nepalis kept a short leash on us climbers- traditionally a headache for the Chinese in that mountaineers in the Himalaya had a way of exposing some of China’s dirty little secrets- and as we all know, the Chinese hate things that are outside of their firm control.

A few weeks into our climb, we were told that Nepal Army climbing soldiers would be stationed in Base Camp and at Camp II. There were rumors about them going as high as the South Col, but we all knew this could not be a sustained event, and even being positioned at Camp II wouldn’t be healthy for soldiers long-term. And so it began.

On an acclimatization trip to Kala Patthar one day, I passed the Nepal Army unit enroute to EBC. They were led by a Major, there were two Captains and several communication specialists. Some carried rifles, and from what I saw, not one had ammunition. This was a relief given that in my experience ammo and rifles in the hands of individuals thrown into an already explosive scenario can lead to unfortunate outcomes.

The Nepali Army Major immediately exposed himself as a Kathmandu flunky, and those in-turn exposed themselves as Beijing flunkies. Timelines began to be imposed: Icefall Doctors began dragging their feet in roping the Icefall. We were delayed in being allowed to Camp II. No “western” climbers were allowed to assist in roping to Camp III outside of Willie, who had a proven track record and wasn’t considered a threat to Chinese interests.

Rumors abounded as to Chinese progress on their side of the mountain. From Pumori Base Camp, the north side of Everest is clearly visible and it was from here that stories started to trickle in to our Base Camp about how slowly the Chinese were progressing. This had a predictable result in our little microcosm.

Nothing changed in regards to Nepal’s "official policy" surrounding dispatches (the policy, as was made clear, is that none are allowed). No sat comms or sat phones were allowed either, but many existed in Base Camp and were actively used (ours included). But enforcement all of a sudden did pick up. The Government sent in Liaison Officers- one to each camp and/or team. Fortunately, many of these officers- not mountaineers, but political appointees- had zero interest in being parked at EBC. Several became deathly ill with HAPE, and were sent home. Several more then saw this, and feigned illness to be sent home. Which worked.

The Chinese Ambassador to Nepal and his cronies made several grand appearances into EBC, swooping in on Nepal HIND helos that struggled for air but somehow managed to fly in and out. The Army Major did a fantastic job of butt snorkeling these folks as they behaved like people clearly out of touch with the climbing community. For example, reports we receive from some westerners who were involved in these visits told us fascinating tales of diplomats concerned about guards being responsible for monitoring thousand foot tall cliff faces.

Because of this, and mainly because some people were under the belief that we were actually monitoring ourselves more than the Nepali Government, etc were monitoring ourselves, the dispatches began again. Heck, the Nepali Army were actually using Morse Code to communicate daily with Kathmandu, so how much monitoring could actually be happening.

In a collective approach, several teams decide to resume dispatches on the same day. Keep them from being political and focus more on the climb or human nature of the climb and team itself, it would then be seen as completely benign.

Finally the Chinese get close. And it shows. Nepali Army soldiers begin monitoring the Icefall and search packs. For what is beyond me, but there is a team stationed at the trailhead 24/7, we pass through this checkpoint at 4am and it’s fully manned. Five soldiers rotate in and out of Camp II, right next to a sign that clearly instructs climbers not to attempt move higher. For aesthetics, soldiers armed with scoped SKS rifles will appear whenever anyone even walks up to the sign.

On several mornings, a plane appears around the summit. Circling for an hour, it is so close to the summit that it is clearly there for the Chinese. But what is taking this team so long to get up there with their blessed torch? They have over a billion people to get up there, the weather has been fantastic, and the north side is technically easier than our side. On two occasions we hear that they actually did summit, only to hear that it’s a rumor.

The Nepal Army instructs us of a climbing freeze. Teams parked at Camp II will have to stay, teams at Base Camp will face the same. No movement through the Icefall, no one beyond Camp II. The Icefall turns into one giant ant trail with everyone racing to become acclimatized before the hammer drops. The blackout takes on new meaning as dispatches are frozen again, and we head to Camp II for one last altitude gain.

Finally, on the morning of May 8th, we hear the plane again. The summit looks cloudy, but winds aren’t extreme. The plane circles and circles. On and on. Word reaches us that the Chinese have summited, and within 30 minutes the Nepal Army detachment has pulled stakes from it’s tent and were on their way down to EBC. Two days later, they left Base Camp and were trekking out to Lukla. Finally, our mountain opened up for us and the race for the summit was on.

Back to Top Ten Stories: http://landtarget.blogspot.com/2009/01/everest-top-ten-stories.html

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