Everest climbers prepare for ban

Climbers are being told by Nepalese officials that Mount Everest's summit will be put off-limits to the public from all sides during the first 10 days of May, so the Chinese can carry an Olympic torch to the summit without risking a high-altitude confrontation over Tibet's future.
China hopes to put climbers on the 29,035-foot summit of Everest, the world's highest peak, by May 10 possibly using live television to broadcast it and doesn't want Tibetan activists to ruin that Olympic spectacle.

It plans to use the North Col and Northeast Ridge that was first climbed in 1960 — ironically by a Chinese and Tibetan team of more than 200 men and women.

Everest straddles the border of Chinese-controlled Tibet and Nepal, home to many Tibetan exiles and activists. May is considered the best time to climb Everest, but climbers have to be on the mountain weeks before to acclimatize to the harsh weather and high altitude.

"We're holding out hopes that it's a tentative decision, because we've got so many things in place," said Mark Gunlogson, president and owner of Seattle-based Mountain Madness, which has three clients preparing to climb Everest before the start of monsoon season, which is generally during the summer months.

"The May 10 date just doesn't work for anybody," he said. "That doesn't let people acclimatize, and the problem is if the Chinese are slow to get up there, or if they get held back with bad weather, that date just gets pushed back. But it's hard to say how many days past May 10 is acceptable. It's a bind for sure."

Expedition leaders and tour operators say they have been told by Nepalese associates who deal with the government that it intends to keep climbers off Nepal's summit via south side routes from May 1 to 10, while China closes its northern side.

But they say Nepal is still negotiating with interested parties on whether the lower elevations can be accessed, and the final word is expected to come within the next day or two.

On Friday, Nepalese officials said China had asked Nepal to not allow climbers to scale Mount Everest during the popular spring season. The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said China had made the request last month.

China, which provides Nepal with crucial development aid and loans that far overshadow the millions of dollars a year from Nepal's climbing industry. Activists critical of Chinese policy in Tibet have unfurled banners at Everest Base Camp in the past.

"My hope/expectation is some compromise where we can start climbing, build some camps, acclimatize ... then pull down for a break while the Chinese are up high May 1 to 10," Eric Simonson, director of International Mountain Guides in Ashburn, Wash., said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

"Who knows, maybe the Chinese will summit April 25 and surprise everyone, and this will all be a non-issue!" said Simonson, one of the leading guides on Everest.

Last year, organizers for the Beijing Summer Olympics announced ambitious plans for the longest torch relay in Olympic history — an 85,000-mile, 130-day route that would cross five continents and reach Everest's summit.

The Olympic organizers have not released an exact date for the planned ascent. Expeditions from the Chinese side of Everest and around Cho Oyu — one of the most popular of the world's 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters, or approximately 26,000 feet — already have been banned until May 10.

The China Tibet Mountaineering Association issued a notice about the closing on March 10 because of "concern of heavy climbing activities, crowded climbing routes and increasing environmental pressures will cause potential safety problems."

China has stepped up security along its border with Nepal and has asked Nepalese officials to be on the lookout for pro-Tibet protests, officials said Sunday.

Every year thousands of Tibetan refugees cross into Nepal, avoiding the highly guarded border point at Tatopani and instead walking for days across the Himalaya. Most of the refugees eventually move to India, where Tibet's government-in-exile and the Tibetans' spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, are based.

Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club based in Golden, Colo., said his organization planned to draft a letter appealing to Nepalese authorities to lift restrictions on climbers going up to Camp IV at 26,000 feet at the South Col.

That would let climbers using the route of Everest's first ascent in 1953 gain acclimatization for reaching the summit later in May, the month when most recent successful ascents during the pre-Monsoon climbing season have been made.

Other veteran climbers who have been up Everest suggested to the AP that Sherpa climbers who are certified as liaison officers could effectively monitor people who are conditioning themselves below the Everest summit on the Nepalese side.

Powers said the club, which publishes a journal of the world's most significant climbs, said a compromise would allow climbers to safely go up Everest and China to accomplish its public relations goals.

"It's sort of a pity that the celebration of Olympic sports is actually inhibiting the accomplishment of the climbers' craft," he said. "One of the great things about climbing is that because of their apolitical approach to their craft, they end up being great ambassadors across these political lines."

SOLUS: Hoedl's Haven