China plans highway at foot of Everest | AspenTimes.com

China plans highway at foot of Everest

Scott McDonald
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

BEIJING ” China plans to build a highway on the side of Mount Everest to ease the Olympic torch’s journey to the peak of the world’s tallest mountain before the 2008 Beijing Games, state media reported Tuesday.

Construction of the road, budgeted at $19.7 million would turn a 67-mile rough path from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 17,060 feet “into a blacktop highway fenced by undulating guardrails,” the Xinhua News Agency said.

Xinhua said construction, which would start next week, would take about four months. The new highway would become a major route for tourists and mountaineers, it said.

An official from the Secretariat of the Tibetan government, who declined to give his name, confirmed the project was planned, but refused to give any details. Tibet and Nepal are the most commonly used routes up the mountain.

In April, 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 the 29,035-foot summit of Everest.

Taking the Olympic torch to the top of the mountain, seen by some as a way for Beijing to underscore its claims to Tibet, is expected to be one of the relay’s highlights.

China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time. Chinese communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951, and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.

The day before the route of the torch relay was announced by the Beijing organizers of the Olympics, five Americans unfurled banners at a base camp calling for an independent Tibet.

The five, from the Students for a Free Tibet group, were briefly held and then expelled from China.

Officials from the Beijing organizing committee did not immediately return phone calls asking for comment.

Ed Viesturs, one of the most accomplished American climbers, said he thought a paved road, as opposed to the current dirt one, might make access to base camp easier for tour groups, but he did not think it would affect climbers significantly.

“It’s not going to matter to a climber whether it’s paved or not,” he said. “Big deal.”

Viesturs, who has summitted Everest six times, noted that no matter how well maintained the road is, climbers must ascend slowly to give them time to acclimatize to the steadily dropping oxygen levels.

Although he acknowledged that the bumpy, dusty ride up to base camp on the north face of the mountain helps to make “you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” he was reluctant to criticize the plan.

“I can’t make a decision to say it’s good for me to be alone. That’s hypocritical,” Viesturs said. “I know it would be nice to have less people there, but that’s selfish.”

Viesturs added that climbers who prefer trekking to base camp already choose to approach the mountain from the Nepalese side, where there is no road.

Mark Bain, the director of Cornell University’s Center for the Environment, said the environmental impact of new roads in relatively pristine areas is more severe than in places where similar infrastructure already exists.

Roads, in general, are a minor source of pollutants, he said, like tire dust, oil and the pavement itself.

The most significant concerns in such projects, however, is that they create “the opportunity for further development,” Bain said, like the need for a parking lot at the end of the road and then perhaps a restaurant.

Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, said he also was concerned the road would be going into an “arid and fragile environment.”

“Any time the margins of the wildernesses of the world get encroached upon, we get concerned,” Powers said.

Matt Schonwald, the North America program director for MountainMadness.com, said Everest, at least on the Tibetan side, is no longer the pristine environment many imagine.

“The sanctity left that mountain a long time ago,” he said. “The north side is already being exploited by poorly equipped people. That’s the tragedy ” not the road.”

A local climbing official praised the plan.

“It is a good thing for the local development and the local people, because more tourists and mountain climbers will be attracted to the region,” said Zhang Mingxing, general-secretary of the Tibetan Mountaineering Association.

“The road now is a very shabby. People have to spend one day to get the base from the foot of the mountain. Mountain climbers will be able to save their energy for climbing,” Zhang said.


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