Olympic torch relay scales new heights
446 days to go
Geologists say the mountain is getting higher all the time but, to judge by the crowds on the top, Everest presents less of a mountaineering challenge than it used to. It took decades of trying before the first successful ascent in 1953, but last year more than 480 people reached the summit and this season's crop may exceed 500 for the first time.
So the Chinese Olympic torch rehearsal team, who are understood to have already summitted this month, raised eyebrows less for the scale of their ambition than for one novelty among many. Sitting at Base Camp on the Nepalese side of the mountain I spoke by satellite phone with Arnold Coster, leader of the SummitClimb expedition on the Chinese side, at the northern Base Camp a few kilometres away.
'There's like 40 Tibetan climbers and another 40 Chinese climbers and their base camp is all fenced off,' he said in a tone of gentle amusement. 'If we go near there an armed guard comes and tells us to get lost.'
I was at Everest Base Camp on the north side a few years ago and it was easy to picture the scene. All around there are huge piles of slowly shifting loose rocks that could pass for mountains in their own right in many other places. A vast dirty glacier keeps the landscape slowly but constantly moving.
Amid all this, the extensive tent-village of Base Camp seems tiny.
It takes a lot to get yourself noticed on Everest these days. A Dutchman, Wim Hoff, plans to climb this year without trousers and the Norwegian Cato Pedersen could become the first man with no arms to conquer the peak, following Mark Inglis, who climbed it last year on prosthetic legs. British television personality Bear Grylls intends to fly over the mountain with a motorised parachute.
But you underestimate the world's highest mountain at your peril. Two South Korean climbers were killed trying on Thursday, falling from the southwest face after they reached an altitude of 8,230 metres.
In an era when a 20-member expedition is towards the upper limit of normal, the estimated total of 250 members, including non-climbers, on the Chinese team makes them hard to ignore.
Carrying the Olympic torch over Everest will be the centrepiece of the 2008 torch relay, which will be the longest ever staged. Luckily for the climbers, the design of the torch is said to be able to withstand winds of up to 65km/h and rain of up to 50mm/h, according to its maker, computer giant Lenovo.
The torch, modelled on an ancient Chinese scroll, will cross five continents, taking in 22 capitals from London and Paris to Pyongyang. The 'journey of harmony' will cover 137,000km in 130 days, 97 of them in China, as it travels to 113 cities and regions, following the ancient Silk Road.
The enterprise has been marked by protests and media comment criticising China's occupation of Tibet, and five American students who unfurled banners at Base Camp were quickly arrested and expelled. The attention is sure to be greater next year as activists seek to exploit the publicity surrounding the games to press their point.
Nevertheless, this year's rehearsal shows that nothing is being left to chance, and reports from the mountain describe a strong team. One climber, Duncan Chessell, saw them as they returned from the summit this month.
'I was at the North Col, when at about lunchtime a large number of Tibetan/Chinese people came past with about half a dozen Olympic torches in cloth sacks attached to their packs,' he told MountEverest.net.
'They said they burnt well on the summit and that 17 members summitted from the team. There were difficult conditions with strong winds on the descent, but they all looked great.
'Most of them had a cigarette at the North Col, a cup of hot drink, and then went to ABC [Advance Base Camp] shortly afterwards.'
In case a torch should blow out, the organisers plan to reserve a spare flame in a lantern at Base Camp. Co-ordinating the elaborate spectacle will be easier since China Mobile recently upgraded its network in Tibet, building 17 new base stations along the torch's mostly deserted route between Everest and Lhasa.
And reports this week say Beijing will set up a network of six unmanned weather stations on Everest to make sure the torch relay goes smoothly.
'The data will be crucial to know weather changes, and the observatories will provide concrete statistics to ensure a successful Olympic torch relay across Mount Qomolangma [Everest],' Wu Shihong, an official with the Tibet Meteorological Bureau, said.
Roof of the world
1 Formerly known as Peak XV, it was named Everest in 1865 ? after Sir George Everest. It is the world's highest mountain at 8,848m (29,028ft)
2 First ascent: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Fastest ascent (North side): 16 hrs 45 mins in 1996 by Italian Hans Kammerlander
3 Average cost to climb Everest - US$65,000, including permit (US$25,000), sherpas and expedition team. Add US$8,000 for equipment
4 One in 10 climbers will die attempting to scale Everest, while one in 20 won't make it down alive from the summit
5 More than 480 people summited last year, while there were 11 confirmed deaths - the second deadliest year after 1996 (15)
6 The youngest person to reach the summit is Temba Tsheri, 15, while the oldest is Sherman Bull, 64