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April 8, 2010

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Tibet's Everest climbers

Nepal's legendary Sherpas dominate the Himalayan mountain guide industry but Tibetans are being trained in the latest techniques, technology and languages to scale the heights. Fei Lai reports.

When the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games torch reached the summit of Mt Everest, it was carried by a team that included graduates of China's first Tibet Mountaineering Guide School.

Over a decade the school in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, has turned out around 150 Tibetan graduate guides skilled in state-of-the-art mountain climbing techniques and fluent in English, French, Japanese and other languages.

Traditionally mountain climbing in the Himalayas has been dominated by Nepal's legendary Sherpas and untrained Tibetans who usually drove vehicles, handled yaks or did camp and kitchen chores.

But with Tibet's vast mountaineering potential year-round, the situation is changing and a new breed of professional Tibetan guides is scaling the heights.

These mountain men, all natives of the region, are being trained in a three-year program that for some includes advanced study in France.

They have plenty of work: Mt Everest (Mt Qomolongma), the world's tallest mountain, alone has five peaks over 8,000 meters.

The nonprofit Tibet Mountaineering Guide School was established in Lhasa in 1998. The school was established by the China Tibet Mountaineering Association and the Ozark Outdoor Gear Co.

Each year it accepts 20 to 30 students, aged 16 to 18, with at least a middle education. They must be born and living at 4,000 meters or above and pass arduous physical tests that include a 5,000-meter run.

Character, endurance, bravery and a willingness to rescue others are requisites.

"Besides physical abilities, we choose only those with the determination to save others first, which is essential to being a high-altitude guide," says Cering Samdrub, executive vice principal of the school.

He was among the first students selected from the poorest rural areas of Tibet, graduating in 2001. He is the high-altitude cameraman who recorded every moment of the Olympic torch on the way to the summit.

The exact number of graduates who have scaled Mt Everest isn't known, but one of the most famous is Nyima Cering, head of the school and one of the five Olympic torch bearers.

Students are taught to read and write in Chinese and English; selected students are also taught Japanese, French and other languages. They learn all facets of mountain climbing, rock climbing and ice climbing, rope skills, safety, rescue, emergency treatment, weather and geography, logistics and camp management. They also learn high-altitude cooking techniques for use in base camps.

Some will work in mountain climbing logistics, camp construction and management, road renovation and related fields.

Students receive free room and board, clothing and equipment. Selected students have been sent to France for training in high-altitude climbing techniques and emergency aid.

After graduating, the young men work for the Tibet Himalaya Expedition Co, the school's sister company. It provides qualified staff for expeditions and brings much-needed employment to Tibet.

High-altitude guides and kitchen staff trained by the school are also hired by Chinese and Western expeditions. Payment for their services helps fund the school.

The initial funding was 5 million yuan (US$732,456) from the central government and 2 million yuan from the General Administration of Sports, Cering Samdrub says.

Ozark outdoor gear company and others provided additional financial support and equipment.

The school covers 15,000 square meters, with modern teaching facilities, dormitories and rock climbing training grounds.

The first instructors came from China's Tibet Mountaineering Team; language teachers came from Tibet University. Foreign experts joined the staff.

"The school helps ease the shortage of trained guides, promote the local economy and improve people's lives," says Cering Samdrub, executive vice principal.

Hans Schallenberger, founder of Ozark Outdoor Gear, says Tibet has great mountain-climbing and tourism potential.

"China should have a professional mountain crew and that's my goal in helping to fund the school," he says at the Ozark store opening in Shanghai.

"With better equipment and improved service, tourism in Tibet will be more prosperous. Ozark will continue to support this."

The school is always looking for advanced equipment to strengthen its work. Donations of gear are welcome. Those interested can log onto the Website of Tibet Himalaya Expedition Co, the school's sister company:, for more information.


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