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Tibetan refugees shot on Nangpa La pass near Cho Oyu

We made a safe return from the IMG Gurla Mandhata 2006 Expedition after making what we believe is the first American ascent of this spectacular, 7728 meter/25,502 foot peak in remote Ngari Prefecture of west Tibet. If you did not have a chance to follow the action in real time on my blog, feel free to check it out now at http://mountainworld.typepad.com/gurla2006.

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Sadly, there was a tragedy just the other day on Cho Oyu, the world’s 6th highest peak, which I have been fortunate enough to climb. near 18,000 foot Advanced Basecamp on the peak lies a pass called the Nangpa La (la is Tibetan for pass). At 19,000 feet, it is one of the highest traditional trade routes in the world. Traditionally, Tibetan and Nepali traders used the pass to conduct their centuries-old trade of grains from Nepal for salt from Tibet. In recent years, the merchandise has changed to Chinese garments and electronics, while the mode of transport remains the same: yaks carry the good while people walk alongside over the glaciers and steep terrain.

According to reports, a group of 70 Tibetan refugees was attempting to cross the Nangpa La into Nepal on the morning of September 30 when suddenly shots rang out. Climbers at Cho Oyu Advanced Basecamp reported seeing several figures collapse into the snow…they did not get up. While reports are still sketchy at best – the climbers (the only eye witnesses) are understandably wary of reporting on the incident while still in Chinese territory – from the sounds of it 43 of the 70 Tibetans managed to escape the gunfire and make their way safely into Nepal. Of the remaining 27, reports say that several were killed in the shooting, including a Tibetan nun in her mid-twenties.

The shots were most likely fired by the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary wing of the People’s Liberation Army formed in the early 1980’s, according to the International Campaign for Tibet. In 2003, the Chinese government finished construction of a paved road to the new army base near Gyaplung, just 6 kilometers from the Nangpa La. The road and base were designed to stem the flow of refugees across the border.

Sadly, being shot is not the only danger refugees face on their journey across the Nangpa La. At 19,000 feet, refugees run the risk of storms, frostbite, hypothermia, and other cold and exposure related injuries. Many who do make it safely to Nepal are hospitalized or die from their injuries. Additionally, as Nepal has in recent year become dependent on China for aid and trade, the Nepali government and police are sending many refugees back to China.

But, this has not stopped the flow: On my two expeditions to Cho Oyu, in 1997 and 2000, I saw at least a dozen refugees attempting to make the journey. I remember one encounter vividly: two boys, in their mid-teens, came up from behind us as we made the journey to ABC. They were dressed in light jackets, cotton pants, and Chinese Army shoes, which are akin to camouflage Converse All-Stars. In near-perfect English, they politely said "excuse me" as they massed our group. I began talking to them, knowing they were not traders going to the Saturday market in Namche Bazaar. After some time, I got their story:

They were from a village outside of Lhasa, and, when young, were smuggled out of Tibet by their families and sent to school in Dharamsala, India, the site of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government in Exile. They had recently gotten word that one boy’s mother was gravely ill; but, their repeated attempts to get Chinese entry visas were denied. Desperate, the boys together made the dangerous journey from India through Nepal, over the Nangpa La and up to the village near Lhasa. But, the month-plus journey was too slow: the one boy’s mother had died before they arrived. They spent a week at home, mourning the loss, and then turned around to make their way back over the pass and back to school.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and was torn up inside. All I wanted to do was to help them, to do what I could to make their journey a little better, a little safer. But, I was working, and my options were limited. So, I did all that I could: I gave the boys by extra gloves, a couple of pairs of warm socks, two hats, and an extra down jacket. I scraped together all the Nepali rupees I had – only about $20 worth – and gave that as well. We chatted for another hour or so, and then I turned left with my team to ABC, and the boys headed right, down a worn yak trail toward the Nangpa La. There were no shots fired that day, and the weather was good for several days thereafter…so I assume they made it safely over the pass, into Nepal, and back to school.

They were some of the lucky ones…

For more information and reports, please visit these sites:

http://mounteverest.net/news.php?news=15136
http://www.mounteverest.net/news.php?news=15149
http://www.savetibet.org/news/newsitem.php?id=1036
http://news.google.com/news?q=nangpa+la+refugees&hl=en&hs=hzw&lr=&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&sa=X&oi=news&ct=title

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