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Page last updated at 16:55 GMT, Monday, 28 April 2008 17:55 UK

News blackout at Everest base camp

Everest base camp
Everest base camp is teeming with frustrated mountaineers

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Gorak Shep, near Everest base camp, Nepal

Just a short while after arriving in Everest base camp on Monday, we were politely but firmly told to leave by an official from Nepal's Ministry of Tourism.

The move came as China prepares to take the Olympic torch up its northern side of the world's highest peak.

The Nepalese authorities have imposed a complete communications ban from the base camp upwards and closed territory on Everest above 6,500 metres until the torch has been and gone from the top.

We knew there were restrictions on satellite phones and video cameras but were now told that even pre-recorded radio material on non-political subjects would not be allowed.

Nor would informal chats with the hundreds of mountaineers currently in the camp, the tourism ministry official, Prabodh Dhakal, said. If any mountaineer talked to the BBC, he or she would be expelled, he added.

'Our friend, China'

Those staying in the camp on the southern side of the mountain have had their satellite phones locked up, as well as any satellite dishes that might give internet access. It is a communications blackout in which, someone told us discreetly, people were afraid to talk openly about their frustrations.

"We are doing this for our friend, China," Mr Dhakal said. These were, he said, special circumstances which would change as soon as the torch had been up Everest.

China has been leaning heavily on Nepal to prevent any possible disruption to the Everest leg of the torch relay.

Chinese climbers are expected to bring the flame to the summit as soon as weather conditions permit. It is ascending on the Chinese-controlled Tibetan side of the mountain where, ironically, a group of local and foreign journalists is reporting on this most ambitious stage of the relay.

The flame is not coming anywhere near the Nepal base camp. But nor may journalists. And after the recent expulsion of an American mountaineer with a pro-Tibet, anti-Chinese flag, which he had intended to unfurl on the summit, China's worries are increasing.

Its ambassador to Nepal visited the camp a few days ago with Nepalese army officers. The military, which has an encampment there, has been given the right to use force if necessary against possible disrupters of the torch.

Several Chinese officials visited villages lower down the mountain a few weeks ago and eyewitnesses say they are now back.

With the upper parts of the mountain closed for now, base camp is teeming with frustrated mountaineers unable to make the high sorties they need to acclimatise before their final attempts on both Everest and its near neighbour, Lhotse.

Restrictions

Nepal, while continuing to break up demonstrations by Tibetans in Kathmandu, is tightening its restrictions at the base camp. We were told that all those without summit permits would soon be required to leave.

We met one such person, a photographer.

The ban may also include spouses of summiteers, team leaders not going to the top and even doctors - although one doctor told the BBC he did not believe he would be sent away.

The restrictions are also bad news for the many poor Nepalis who work as porters and are trapped without the possibility of looking for other work.

Naturally, anyone attempting Everest is risking his or her life: there is a fatality rate of 3% among those who climb it.

But one Nepali we did speak to said that with the current bans on visits to high altitudes, the dangers would be increased - acclimatisation would be more difficult, and there would be more of a congested rush for the top once the ban was lifted.

The ban is due to be lifted by 10 May at the latest - but what if the flame had not reached the summit by then?

"Another order will come from above," said Mr Dhakal.





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