A Plan to Pave Mount Everest
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
China is planning to build a blacktop highway up Mount Everest. It's partly to ease the path of runners carrying the Olympic torch, which theoretically is going to the top of the tallest mountain. But some suspect it's partly to emphasize China's claims to Tibet.
The highway would go up to the base camp at 17,000 feet. The summit is considerably higher than that - more than 29,000 feet. The Chinese plan a highway with a guardrail, a smoother and easier way up than the rutted path, which is now used by climbers. Climbers, I should note, don't think the road will make much of a difference to them. The hard part, after all, is not getting to base camp.
Although the Olympic torch is the ostensible reason for building the road, another reason is tourism. The chairman of China's so-called Tibet Autonomous Region says that the road will facilitate visitors, although, the chairman also recognizes that there is not enough air up there for ordinary people. It would be very difficult for them to spend the night, he said. And, of course, there are no hotels yet, but that may be coming.
If it's possible for civilians to zip up to the base camp on a good road, the first thing they'd need would be some kind of high altitude truck stop, a parking lot, maybe somewhere to eat, bathrooms - the things tourists want no matter where they go. But possibly more important at 17,000 feet, there would have to be a little crew of oxygen rangers standing by to revive the hapless tourists when they pass out because the air is way, way too thin.
Perhaps the way to go would be a destination spa, a hotel with spectacular views, it could have hot tubs and hyperbaric chambers for altitude sickness, and, of course, lots of opportunities to suck up in rich air when lungs and brains are oxygen-deprived. But we're talking spa here. People who spend time on the shoulders of Everest lose weight whether they want to or not. Just staying alive at that altitude soaks up so many calories that everyone comes down smaller.
Environmentalists argued that the top of the world is no place for tourists. The environment is far too fragile to support that kind of invasion. Others point out that Everest has already been trashed by thousands of climbers. But if the Chinese really do mean to take the Olympic torch all the way up the mountain, here's what I'm wondering, fire requires air. How will they keep it lighted up there?
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