World’s Highest Airport Opens

World's Highest Airport - Air China
Flickr, Erik Tomer

China claimed a new record for world’s highest airport when Daocheng Yading Airport opened this week in the Tibetan province of Sichuan, taking the title from Changdu Bangda Airport, also in Tibet. The new airport is at an elevation of 14,472 feet above sea level, 253 feet higher than the previous record holder. There is a single Air China flight scheduled for now, from Chengdu, with additional domestic flights planned in the coming year. The flight cuts travel time from the provincial capital from a two-day bus ride to a one-hour flight. The airport is close to the Yading Nature Reserve, known as the last Shangri-La. Daocheng shouldn’t rest on its laurels long, as Nagqu Dagring is planning an airport to open in 2015 at an altitude of 14,554 feet.

The airport is controversial, as part of China’s plan to increase tourism in Tibet, which Tibetans feel deepens Chinese rule on the autonomous region. China also opened the world’s highest railway in Tibet in 2006, much of it on permafrost, which many felt would threaten the local environment and culture.

Sherpas May Install Ladder On Everest To Lessen Crowds

Sherpas may install a ladder on Everest
EPA

A controversial plan to install a ladder on Mt. Everest has been met with a less than enthusiastic response from the mountaineering community. The mountain guides behind the proposal say that the ladder will help to alleviate traffic jams near the summit, while purists claim that it will detract from the overall challenge of the climb.

The plan was first made public this past weekend when Dawa Steven Sherpa, a prominent mountain guide and member of the Expedition Operators Association in Nepal, revealed that the organization was considering installing a ladder at the Hillary Step, a crucial point in the climb on Everest’s South Side. Named after Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first to scale it, the Hillary Step is located at 28,750 feet. The 40-foot rock wall has been the cause of bottlenecks in recent years as climbers attempt to negotiate the tricky route while wearing crampons and other heavy climbing gear. Since only one person can be on the ropes at any given time, others end up standing around watching and waiting for their turn. This can be especially dangerous due to the thin air, cold temperatures and weather conditions that have been known to change abruptly.

According to Dawa, the ladder would only be used by climbers who are descending, which would have little to no impact on the level of challenge related to the climb. It would simply direct the traffic heading down in a slightly different direction, thus eliminating congestion and diminishing traffic jams.But opponents of the plan say that those coming to the mountain should already know how to safely climb a relatively easy technical section such as the Hillary Step. They argue that the ladder will enable even more people to attempt Everest, bring more inexperienced and untested climbers to the mountain. Critics say that it could possibly even lead to further crowding in the future.

It should be noted that ladders are already used on certain sections of Everest. For instance, climbers on the South Side use them to traverse the Khumbu Icefall, a treacherous section that would be nearly impossible to pass through without the aid of a ladder. On the North Side of the mountain, which falls inside China controlled Tibet, there is a permanent ladder installed at a place called the Second Step. That rock face is far more difficult than the Hillary Step however and without the ladder there, almost no one would successfully reach the top along that route.

Personally, I feel that if Nepal truly wants to make the mountain safer they should limit the number of permits that are issued each year. That won’t happen however, as the permits bring in a lot of money to a country that is otherwise extremely poor. Given the alternatives, I’d say adding the ladder is a wise move.

Summit Day Arrives On Mt. Everest

Mt. Everest from the South Side
Kraig Becker

It has been a long and wild climbing season on the world’s tallest mountain. Over the past few years, Mt. Everest has been widely criticized for being an over crowded stage for publicity seekers and tourist climbers who have no business being on the mountain. That hasn’t changed much this spring, but when you add in the recent brawl between three European climbers and a mob of angry Sherpas, not to mention the death of a very well known Russian mountaineer earlier this week, the 2013 season has been a strange and difficult one indeed. But for most of the climbers, the end is now in sight. After nearly two months away from home and weeks of acclimatizing at altitude, all of their preparation is about to pay off. Summit Day has arrived at last.

The summit of Everest has remained an elusive place thus far this spring. A week ago two teams of Sherpas completed the job of fixing the ropes to the top of the mountain from both the North Side in Tibet and the South Side in Nepal. A couple of daring and experienced climbers followed closely behind and were able to top out just before a system of bad weather moved in. Since then, high winds have kept the summit out of reach and challenged the patience of the other teams waiting to make their ascents. Over the past few days, a number of those teams attempted to reach the top, but most of them were turned back by persistent bad weather. Today the skies cleared, the winds have calmed and temperatures have even warmed a bit making it a perfect day to climb to the top.Most of the climbers launch their final push to the summit from Camp 4, located just below the so-called “Death Zone” at approximately 26,000 feet. It will take them hours to reach the 29,029-foot summit where they’ll stumble onto the ridge with a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration. They’ll have just a few minutes to enjoy the view and savor their accomplishment, because any mountaineer will tell you that the summit is only the halfway mark. They’ll still need to descend back to their starting point at C4, where they’ll get some much needed rest before continuing further down tomorrow.

The biggest challenge the climbers will face on their way to the summit will be the incredibly thin air. Most will use bottled oxygen to help them breathe at high altitude and to stave off the effects of altitude sickness, which can be deadly at such heights. Long lines will also form at a couple of strategic points on the mountain as the exhausted mountaineers struggle to overcome a few technical challenges just below the summit. While standing in those lines the thin air and cold temperatures will have an opportunity to conspire against the climbers as well, making frostbite a real possibility.

For many, Summit Day is the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and focus. Today, and over the next few days, dozens of climbers will see their sacrifice pay off at last. Those who do make it to the top will enter an elite group of men and women who have stood at the top of the world.

Fall Himalayan Climbing Season Begins

Makalu, a popular Himalayan climbing site this fall. Most mountaineers, both actual and armchair, know that for two months each spring, Everest and the other big Himalayan peaks become the epicenter of the climbing world. From April to June, hundreds of mountaineers from around the globe descend on Nepal and Tibet with the expressed goal of scaling one of the tallest mountains on the planet. As a result, Base Camps across the region can become noisy, dirty and overly crowded, which dramatically detracts from the experience, to say the least. But not everyone knows that there is a second climbing season that arrives in the fall, after the monsoon has departed for another year. The fall season is much quieter and more tranquil than the spring, affording climbers more solitude in the mountains.

The 2012 fall Himalayan climbing season officially got underway at the end of August when teams began arriving in Kathmandu. Most spent a few days in Nepal’s capital city organizing their gear and putting the final touches on their preparation before they begin the trek to their respective Base Camps throughout the Himalaya. That hike generally helps to start the acclimatization process that will prepare them for living at high altitude over the coming weeks.

Often times the fall season is used to hone technical skills in preparation for bigger challenges to come. For instance, climbers who are planning a spring ascent of Everest will often visit the Himalaya in the fall to gain valuable experience and assess their body’s ability to adapt to the thin air. For some it will give them the valuable tools they’ll need for taking on the world’s tallest mountain, while others will learn that the Big Hill is ultimately out of reach.The two mountains that will receive the most traffic this fall are Makalu and Manaslu, the fifth and eighth tallest peaks on the planet respectively. Of those, the 8481 meter (27,825 ft) Makalu is considered a more challenging climb. The lone peak, located along the border of Nepal and Tibet, features a distinct pyramid-shaped summit that provides plenty of technical challenges including a final approach that mixes both rock and ice. Manaslu, on the other hand, features a double summit, the tallest of which extends 8156 meters (26,759 ft) into the sky. While not quite as difficult as Makalu, it does indeed make an excellent testing ground for climbers looking to move on tougher peaks.

Cho Oyu, another popular destination for fall Himalayan climbers, is off limits this year due to the continued closure of the Tibetan border by the Chinese. That 8201 meter (26,906 ft) mountain is also a good tune-up in preparation for a spring attempt on Everest. But because of on going protests inside Tibet, no entry visas are currently being approved. That has caused several expeditions to change their plans and move their climb back into Nepal instead.

While the fall season is much less crowded in the Himalaya the weather also tends to be more unpredictable as well. At the moment it is calm and warm there, but winter tends to arrive early in that part of the world, which means climbers could easily be dealing with high winds and heavy snows before they’re through.

Most of the fall expeditions will be between a month and six weeks in length. In the early weeks the climbers will mostly be concentrating on acclimatizing to the altitude while they slowly build a series of camps that they’ll use in their final push to the summit. Once that process is complete, they’ll simply wait for the weather to be right to facilitate their summit bids. If they’re lucky they won’t have to wait long, but more often then not they can end up waiting for a number of days before conditions are right to go for the top.

And when they’re done, they’ll head home rest, recuperate and begin planning their return to the mountain in the spring.

[Photo credit: Ben Tubby via WikiMedia]

China Bans Foreign Travelers From Tibet

China bans travel to TibetFollowing a series of high profile protests over the past few months China has quietly taken steps to close the borders of Tibet. The closure means that foreign travelers are once again banned from entering the Buddhist country just as the busiest travel period of the year is about to begin.

Last Wednesday, a number of tour operators in Beijing announced that the government had instructed them to stop booking foreign travelers into Tibet for the foreseeable future. The move comes just as the popular Saga Dawa festival, which typically brings an influx of visitors, got under way yesterday. That festival is an annual celebration of the birth of Buddha, which is of particular importance within Tibetan culture.

China’s decision to close the borders is in direct response to recent protests within Tibet, which included three monks committing suicide by setting themselves on fire in the month of May alone. Two of those self-immolations took place in the nation’s capital of Lhasa, a city which previously hadn’t been subjected to those types of protests. Over the course of the past year 36 people have committed suicide in a similar fashion throughout the country.

In addition to closing the borders, the Chinese government has also moved an additional 3000 troops into Lhasa and arrested an estimated 600 Tibetans. The crackdown is expected to continue indefinitely and could shut down travel into the country for weeks or even months.

If you have plans to visit Tibet in the near future you’ll definitely want to check the status of your tour or whether or not entry visas are being granted. It seems that for at least the next few weeks there will be no one getting into the country.

[Photo credit: Philipp Roelli via WikiMedia]