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The Human Code

The Human Code

British police officer Steve Lawes had seen dead bodies before. But on the morning of September 30, 2006, as he watched Chinese soldiers aim at unarmed Tibetans below the flanks of Cho Oyu (8201m), he felt an overwhelming shock. “You expect accidents and death on the mountain,” he told us later, “but you don’t expect this.” He, too, was unarmed, and given the altitude (ca. 5600m) and the crevasse-ridden terrain, he figured it would take him at least three minutes to run the 300 or so meters between him and the soldiers. By then, the shooting was over.

That morning, at Advanced Base Camp, eighty to a hundred climbers had been asleep in their tents, drinking tea or finishing breakfast, when they heard gunfire. Lawes, with other members of his commercial team–Lee Farmer, Jason and Steve Marsh–had looked out to see a line of dots crossing the glacier, along a historic trade route over Nangpa Pass that in recent years has been used by Tibetan refugees to escape into Nepal. At first Lawes thought the soldiers were firing in the air, but then one dot fell, got up, and fell again. Shortly afterward the soldiers marched a group of captured adults and children through ABC. In the days that followed, the climbers learned that the fallen body was that of a seventeen-year-old nun, Kelsang Namtso. Rumors circulated that another Tibetan had been killed as well.

This was the first time such violence had occurred in Tibet in front of so many foreign climbers. The next day, Namtso’s body still lay on the glacier, in full view of the climbers going about their daily camp life or preparing for their ascents. But apart from Romanian Sergiu Matei and a few others, who had assisted a fugitive they found hiding in a toilet tent, it seems that nobody did anything to help the refugees. As far as we have been able to determine, no one gave up his or her climb.

Several eyewitnesses later explained that they believed relinquishing their ascents wouldn’t accomplish anything: the girl was already dead. Initially, fears that they, too, would be shot or arrested prevented some from releasing the story to the international press, at least while they were still inside Tibet. Certain commercial operators and climbers worried that if their names were associated with any form of protest, they would not be allowed to conduct business or climb in China again. They were also anxious to protect their Tibetan staff members.

But many narratives of those who kept climbing display a profound sense of dissonance. After the incident, Farmer became completely focused on getting to Camp I safely; once there, however, as he struggled to fall asleep, he couldn’t stop turning over the image of the dead body in his mind. A guide, Kenton Cool, may have heard the gunshots from Camp I. While he was making the first British ski descent of the mountain, he couldn’t help peering down toward the yellow tents at ABC, wondering whether the dark shapes among them were boulders or bodies. Slovenian alpinist Pavle Kozjek, who began a new route on Cho Oyu the day after the killing (see “Climbing Notes,” Page 91, in this issue), was used to focusing on the moment. On his way down, however, he felt “a strange, new emotion”: the climbing had been, as it always was, an “upgrade of life.” At the same time, he’d just witnessed the worst event imaginable–the murder of an unarmed human being.

Ultimately this disconnect led to action. When a guide who’d felt guilty about not intervening returned to ABC, on October 2, he was surprised to find nothing about the murder on the Internet and to discover that certain commercial outfitters were encouraging witnesses to keep quiet. Concerned about protecting his company and his clients who were still in China, the guide nonetheless sent off an anonymous report of the incident to ExplorersWeb and thus became the first to break the news to the world.

Others, like Kozjek, soon followed with photographic proof. On October 8, scarcely half an hour after they returned to Kathmandu, Lawes and Steve Marsh gave their testimony to the International Campaign for Tibet and to mainstream media sources such as Reuters. Matei released his film of the shooting on the Romanian ProTV, and it spread worldwide, eventually appearing on YouTube and adding to a growing body of evidence that easily refuted the Chinese government’s claim (October 12, Xinhua) that the soldiers had been acting in self-defense. By October 12, the US embassy in Beijing made an official complaint about the incident, and by October 25, the European Parliament, citing the climbers’ photos and video, passed a resolution condemning the murder of the nun and calling on the Chinese government to conduct a full criminal investigation and to release the young prisoners.

Most witnesses, however, chose not to act, and some may have even tried to prevent others from doing so. The guide who broke the news said a few commercial leaders had criticized him for this action, and when he heard rumors that they’d offered his name up to the Chinese authorities, he left the country early. Matei’s climbing partner Alex Gavan raged on his website,, “Big expedition organizers will never speak about that [shooting]. Otherwise they will be banned from the Tibetan side of the Himalaya. And this will mean no more big bucks for them anymore…. It has nothing to do with the spirit of mountaineering (which has been lost in those commercial outfits) but with basic human values.”

Not all such organizers encouraged silence: two clients recounted that their outfitter told them to act according to their own conscience and not to worry about the effects on his business. When we spoke to this outfitter, he said, “I hope that climbers will always speak out about what they see around them.” He felt his own lack of public response was justified, arguing that the very ability of climbers to let the world know about such murders in the future depended on the region not being closed to foreign expeditions. Through continued interaction with the outside world and through the aid projects that climbers and companies had initiated in Tibet, he hoped that long-term reform would come. A staff member concurred: “It may be a choice between two evils, but these are the choices we have at the present.”

Yet at a certain point silence becomes acquiescence. Four and half months earlier, in May, some thirty people had climbed past the ailing David Sharp and continued to the summit of Everest, leaving him to die alone (see “Editor’s Note,” Issue 17). If Sharp’s death reminded us of our duty to other climbers, Kelsang Namtso’s embodies our obligation to our fellow humans. Without it, even our greatest feats, in the most radiant settings, reveal only emptiness and night.

Katie Ives