Environment: Everest climbers urged to join Tibet boycott

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The Independent Online
Climbers and trekkers to the Everest region have been urged to pay more heed to the communities whose backyard has become a mountaineers' playground.

Should Chinese-occupied Tibet be boycotted altogether? Stephen Goodwin reports on an ethical debate.

Everest, according to the writer Ed Douglas, is a mirror in which climbers see themselves and society sees the preoccupying issues of the day.

In colonial times, the 8,848m peak, the world's highest mountain, was a place to plant the national flag; as the West's green conscience grew, Everest was paraded as "the highest garbage dump in the world"; and as we became disgusted at our own commercialism

Everest was the backdrop for sneering accounts of $64,000-a-head (pounds 40,000) trips to the top, complete with high-tech phone links to your stockbroker.

The missing element in these stories is that whatever the motive or method, the Everest adventure elbows its way through other cultures while relying heavily on their labour and hospitality.

More than 150 people have died on the mountain since its first ascent in 1953, almost a third of them Sherpas who live in the Khumbu region on the Nepal side of Everest.

Mr Douglas believes sensational reporting of the tragic events of last May, when five people from two commercial expeditions - including the leaders - perished in a storm has "diverted people's attention from the real issues".

Everest straddles a national boundary, with Nepal to the south and Chinese- occupied Tibet on the north. The "issues" are different on either side.

In Nepal, it is a complex matter of more respect for local cultures and pressure on the authorities to ensure more of the millions poured in by tourists and aid agencies reaches desperately poor areas away from the main trekking trails.

The issue in Tibet is brutally simple. Climbers and other visitors are helping to finance an occupying regime accused of genocide.

"It is arguable that climbing expeditions to Everest are actually the chief source of income for the Chinese in Tibet," Mr Douglas said in a lively debate on Everest ethics at the 11th International Festival of Mountaineering Literature at University College Bretton Hall, near Wakefield. "You have to wonder about the morality of that."

A boycott is favoured by some climbers. However, while it was no great loss for liberal-inclined climbers to boycott South African apples during the anti-apartheid campaign, cutting off the option of the challenging routes up Everest's Tibetan side - plus hundreds of other unclimbed peaks - would require genuine sacrifice.

Everest's north side has been described as a "drive-in movie". Expeditions arrive by truck at a base camp parking lot below the Rongbuk glacier, with the great bulk of the mountain beyond.

When Mr Douglas visited in 1995 there were 11 expeditions camped there, contributing "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to the regime.

Though the peak fee on the Tibetan side is less than the $70,000 per group charged by Nepal, the authorities take a bigger cut from the transport and other services - even from the yak herders who ferry supplies up the glacier.

When Mr Douglas prodded those in the expensively tented base camp village, most "shrugged their shoulders at the injustices and got on with the business of climbing the mountain".

So far, a mass conversion by climbers and trekkers to Free Tibet activism seems unlikely.

However, with the cause now taken up by Hollywood - with Brad Pitt's new film Seven Years in Tibet just released - this may be an opportune moment to prick the consciences of those whose obsession with "Big E" is also bolstering oppression.

Chomolungma Sings the Blues, Travels Round Everest, by Ed Douglas; Constable: pounds 18.95. Chomolungma is the Sherpa name for Everest and means Goddess Mother of the World.