A new torch controversy: the battle for Everest

As the Olympic flame makes its way to the top of the world's highest mountain, China's repressive tactics have sparked fresh criticism. By Andrew Buncombe

William Holland was only thinking of the photograph. When he got to the top of Everest he planned to take the rolled-up flag saying "Free Tibet" from his rucksack, pose for posterity with the banner as a backdrop and then roll it away again before starting back down. He was not looking to make a scene.

But that is exactly what transpired. Someone in the group he was climbing with informed the Nepalese authorities of Mr Holland's flag. When he reached Everest Base Camp he was ordered from the mountain and told to go straight to Kathmandu. From there he was deported from Nepal with an order not to return for two years.

The 26-year-old US climber's treatment at the hands of the Nepalese authorities is just one indication of how the world's highest mountain has in recent days become engulfed by the politics and controversy surrounding China and its relationship with Tibet.

As Chinese climbers seek to reach Everest's summit carrying a replica of the Olympic torch, the Nepalese government has closed down the upper areas of the mountain within its own borders and ordered everyone to stay away from the summit. It has even told the dozens of security personnel dispatched to the mountain they can shoot protesters seeking to disrupt the Chinese ascent.

The behaviour of the Nepalese has been widely criticised, not only by pro-Tibet activists and human rights campaigners but also by mountaineers who say that the 29,029ft peak – straddling the border of China and Nepal – should remain loftily above politics. They insist the actions of the Nepalese government – which is desperate to remain on good terms with China – are a severe overreaction.

"It's ridiculous. The Chinese have basically bought themselves a mountain. It's all about money and politics," said Mr Holland, now home in Virginia.

"I don't know if the Nepalese are filling their coffers because of this. It's not as though the Tibetan flag is banned in Nepal – you see it all over the place." The embroiling of Everest in the controversy surrounding the China-Tibet issue dates from April last year when the Beijing Games organising committee revealed the route the Olympic torch would take. The committee said it would pass through more than 20 countries on six continents and travel more than 85,000 miles, the longest journey of any Olympic torch.

"The Olympic torch relay is one of the most important ceremonies and a major means to spread and promote the Olympic spirit," claimed the committee's president, Liu Qi. "As one of the grand ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games, the torch relay of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games has set its theme as the Journey of Harmony."

As part of the journey of harmony envisaged by Liu Qi, it was announced that once the Olympic flame was transferred from Greece to Beijing, another torch would be lit and this new flame would then be carried to the top of Everest, known in China as Mount Qomolangma. "One of the highlights of this leg will be the attempt to bring the Olympic flame to the highest peak in the world," said the Chinese.

Just as the main torch has become a lightning rod for pro-Tibetan protests wherever it has appeared, the attempt to bring the second flame to the summit of Everest has also run into problems and controversy. The protests followed the violent crackdown by the Chinese authorities of protests in March in Lhasa and surrounding areas in support of Tibetan autonomy.

So fearful are the Chinese that the second flame will attract similar protests, the authorities have instituted a media clampdown. This included the farcical ending of a BBC correspondent's attempts to film for an online diary at a base camp on the Chinese side of the mountain.

"Clambering breathlessly down from the ridge we were herded towards our next briefing. In a week that has seen a lot of pointless briefings, this one broke new ground," wrote Jonah Fisher. "A crew of firemen explained how in this rocky, barren and almost entirely plantless landscape there was a severe risk of fire. There followed a demonstration of their surprisingly powerful hose."

Last night, the Chinese climbers and their propane-fuelled torch were holed up at 21,300ft at Advanced Base Camp, waiting for better weather before heading for the summit.

On the other side of the mountain, the authorities in Kathmandu have announced a 10-day ban on all climbing beyond Everest's Base 2, located at 21,300ft.

Apparently acting on a request from Beijing, they have banned the unauthorised use of satellite phones, video recorders and radios. Any mountaineer found speaking to journalists could also be expelled from the mountain. Police and troops have been authorised to fire at any protesters who make their way to Everest.

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch said it had written to the Nepalese authorities urging them to rescind the order. "The Nepal authorities should be using whatever means necessary to protect basic human rights, not violate them," said spokeswoman Sophie Richardson. "With the world watching, this is the moment for Nepal's new government to prove that it aspires and adheres to international standards."

The response of Nepal to the pro-Tibet protests that have broken out around the world has been among the most harsh of any government other than China. Hundreds of Tibetan monks and activists were arrested and detained after demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu.

Its behaviour has been driven by its desire to cement good relations with its powerful neighbour, a policy that is unlikely to alter following the recent elections that saw the country's Maoist party win the largest number of seats. Trapped between China and India, Nepal believes it needs to have good relations with both huge countries. But does Nepal need to go so far in doing China's bidding, especially in regard to Mount Everest? Many believe not.

Those who have ascended the mountain say it retains a unique symbolism and insist it should not become a political battle ground. Sir Chris Bonnington, the climber from Cumbria who has led four expeditions to Everest and who himself stood on the summit in 1985 at the age of 50, said: "It's just a real pity and very, very sad a whole mountain has to be closed down because the Chinese are worried that someone will interfere with their precious flame."

Sir Chris said that the decision to award the Olympics to China came with an undertaking that journalists would be allowed to report freely on preparations for the Games and the country would improve its human rights record. He said that had not happened. "This whole thing is political ... as was the decision to give the games to China," he added. "But, so was the decision to award the games to London."

Stephen Venables, the first Briton to climb Everest without additional oxygen, described what was happening on the mountain, as a "circus". "My view is that the Chinese claim to sovereignty in Tibet is spurious to say the least, that the whole Olympic circus has become an absurd political propaganda charade and that it's monstrous that not only should [the Chinese] stop climbers going to Tibet but that they can tell people what to do on the other side," he said. "It just seems outrageous that they can tell Nepal to stop people climbing the mountain so they can continue with this circus of blatant propaganda."

Yesterday an expedition headed by the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who is climbing Everest to raise funds for the Marie Curie Cancer Care charity, said it was told that the Nepalese ban would only last for two days. At the moment this group is waiting at Base Camp on the Nepalese side for permission to continue their ascent.

What is certainly true, is that the quicker the Chinese complete their ascent with the Olympic flame and take their own photographs (without the backdrop of banner saying "Free Tibet"), the quicker the soldiers and police will be told to lower their weapons and life will get back to what passes for normal on Everest.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Midlothian, Virginia, Mr Holland, the climber who has been sent home, prepares to return to his day job with a tree cutting company. Since being ordered out of Nepal, he has had time to reflect both on what happened to him and what is happening to the country whose flag he was carrying.

"I feel the Tibetan cause is a worthy cause but I would not describe myself as a hardline activist," he said last night. "I definitely think it's a shame what is happening."

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