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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 04:23 GMT 05:23 UK
Everest goes online for anniversary
By Mary Hennock
BBC News Online business reporter

Everest's summit
Everest is expected to prove a popular destination this year
Everest, the roof of the world, a place of freezing winds, glittering skies, and awesome silence.

Or maybe not. Climb the mountain this spring and you may encounter a middle-aged entrepreneur chattering busily into his mobile phone.

It will be Charles Zhang, founder and chief executive of Sohu.com, one of China's most successful internet companies.

Mr Zhang's trekking diary will appear daily on Sohu.com's site alongside a medley of news, shopping tips and adverts. Expect it to be garnished with digital snapshots from his mobile handset.

'Anytime, anywhere'

In a shrewd marketing move, Sohu.com has joined forces with telecoms operator China Mobile to bring text and photo messaging to Everest using phones donated by US firm Motorola.

Cyclists in Beijing
Everest news for Beijingers on the move

"We strive to give the notion of 'wireless communication anytime, anywhere' a new meaning," says Mr Zhang.

To be fair to Mr Zhang, the world's highest mountain promises to be a crowded place this spring.

Twenty teams of mountaineers from around the world will be ploughing towards the summit.

The climbing world is gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Everest's conquest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay with gimmicks and stunts of all kinds.

A Nepalese sherpa aims to shimmy up to the summit in just 15 hours, while British Royal Marines hope to screen a live TV broadcast from the notorious north-east ridge.

New tech, old ambition

So the arrival of three truckloads of China Mobile wireless equipment at Everest Base Camp should not raise any eyebrows.

We want to show people that every individual, without special equipment, just with one mobile phone, can do a lot of things
Charles Zhang

China Mobile says the project is a "momentous test" as wireless technology generally only works below a height of 4,000 meters.

"As long as we have this wireless station, they beam the signal towards Everest, we'll be able to enjoy communication all the way to the top," says Mr Zhang.

But why bother? Mountaineers frequently use satellite phones - like those taken to Iraq by journalists - which can send live, if wobbly, video.

Something for everyone?

"That's TV technology. We want to show people that every individual, without special equipment, just with one mobile phone, can do a lot of things," retorts Mr Zhang.

Sir Edmund Hillary (right) and sherpa Tenzing Norgay
Everest's first conquerors celebrate victory
Industry experts agree that mobile phones offer better pictures than sat phones.

Even the video is "remarkably watchable", says Andy Heselwood, head of mobile video services at BT Broadcast Services, which provides TV networks with satellite slots.

Besides viewing video on mobile phones "isn't about quality... it's something that appeals to our childlike need for immediacy," he adds.


Mr Zhang refuses to disclose how much Sohu and its partners are paying to sponsor the China Mountaineering Association's 50-strong '2003 China Sohu Team' climb, which will be filmed by state television for good measure.

But he reckons his time spent away from the office is well-spent. He is probably right.

In practice, we remain a long way from being able to send pictures to anyone, anywhere at anytime, and not just because China Mobile will take down its Everest masts after the climb.

Even at moderate altitudes, few mobile users can yet send photos to friends on different phone networks.

"This trip is symbolic," says Mr Zhang. It conjures mass communication with a technology "applicable to any individual".

Aspirational images

Few of the urban Chinese who are Sohu.com's key market get the chance to go climbing in Tibet.

Chris Bonnington and Doug Scott on Everest in 1975
Risky sports make compulsive viewing

But in crowded cities the great outdoors is rapidly becoming an elite destination - rather than a life-sentence to rural poverty - and domestic tourism is taking off along with the consumer lifestyle.

Mr Zhang himself was introduced to mountaineering two years ago by a pal who owns a real estate firm.

Mobiles on Everest offers a potent aspirational mix.

And using them to send dramatic digital data popularises one of the industry's lushest new revenue streams.

Not for the first time, Mr Zhang looks like hitting his market ahead of the curve.

The Beijing graduate returned to China from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology to found Sohu.com in the late 1990s.

He tells how Sohu.com "caught the last train" to list on New York's Nasdaq technology stocks index in July 2000, just as the dotcom boom came crashing down, but survived to turn its first profit in the third quarter of 2002.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this adventure in high-altitude advertising is that Communist China's latest assault on Everest is being paid for by a New York-listed company.

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