EVEREST BASE CAMP, China (Reuters) - China was tight-lipped about the progress of a special Olympic flame up Mount Everest on Monday, despite the arrival of international media at the foot of the world’s tallest mountain.
The ascent of Everest is the highlight of a torch parade that has been dogged by protests and counter-protests over Tibet on its journey around all five inhabited continents to raise the curtain on August’s Beijing Games.
The Everest flame is separate from the globetrotting torch, which passed through the streets of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Monday and was due to be paraded in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday.
Determined that nothing will spoil this special leg, the authorities had only cryptic answers to questions on just where the flame was and when it would reach the Himalayan summit.
“I can confirm that the lantern with the flame is in the hands of the mountaineers but I cannot tell you whether there are climbers on the mountain yet,” said Shao Shiwei, deputy director of the media department of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games.
“There is not only one flame, there are many flames,” he said. “There are many back-up flames and they did not tell us which one is going to go to the peak. We are working with prudence because the whole world is watching.”
The intended sending-off ceremony at base camp was cancelled last week because of inclement weather, officials said.
A delegation from China’s General Administration of Sport has already toured Tibet -- where protests against Chinese rule erupted last month -- to check preparations for the torch’s climb 8,848 metres above sea level.
“We have the confidence, sense of responsibility, capability and power to thwart any disruption and sabotage by hostile elements within and outside the country,” Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, told the delegation, according to a report in the Tibet Daily last week.
Since a day of Buddhist monk-led rioting in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March 14 and ensuing protests by ethnic Tibetans in western China, foreigners have been banned from Tibet, and it was only last week that Chinese tourists were allowed back into the region.
The new 150 million yuan ($21.4 million) road to base camp on the Tibetan side of Everest runs along a route popular with trekkers, but it was deserted on Monday apart from the convoy taking foreign and Chinese media to cover the torch’s ascent.
There were five security checkpoints along the 108-km road from the town of Tingri, but with one exception the checks were cursory.
There have been concerns that the desire for tight security was also putting the 11 foreign journalists at risk, forcing them to go from 54 metres above sea level to more than 5,000 metres in less than four days.
On Monday a Hong Kong television journalist travelling with the foreign media was forced to return to a lower altitude.
“After talking with the doctor, we have decided to send him back because of the altitude sickness,” said Shen Kaiyun, director of the Everest media centre.
Although the weather on Monday -- blue sky with minimal cloud cover leaving the Himalayan peaks glistening white in bright sunshine -- was good for the camera, it was not ideal for mountaineering.
The clouds of snow being blown off the peak indicated that the westerly winds were too strong for an attempt to summit, according to Beijing Organising Committee official Sun Bin.
Sun, who climbed to the top of Everest last year along with 19 others in a test-run for the torch, said he expected the team to be able to summit in two days in perfect conditions.
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