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Climbers take on diplomacy, garbage and Mount Everest

Published Oct. 16, 2005

The first American to scale Mount Everest is planning another assault, this time with a trash bag on his back and Soviet and Chinese colleagues at his side. Jim Whittaker is leading the three-nation "Peace Climb" to celebrate world peace and mark the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. The 30-person expedition will clean decades of discarded oxygen bottles and other debris left by previous climbers, he said.

If all goes as planned, climbers from the United States, China and the Soviet Union will set foot on the 29,028-foot peak on April 22.

Gaining the participation of climbing teams from the Soviet Union and China, which only recently eased relations after decades of mutual hostility, took a little shuttle diplomacy, Whittaker said.

When he approached the Chinese in 1987, they told him they were interested but would only invite the Soviets if they knew in advance the Soviets would say yes. "They didn't want to lose face," Whittaker said.

In Moscow, he said, the Soviets told him they would participate only if they knew for sure they were invited.

"They thought the Chinese may be trying to embarrass them," he said.

So he returned to China, where he finally was told, "Mr. Whittaker, you may bring your Soviet friends to our mountain."

"When you get enough people behind a movement _ the environment and peace _ leaders will get smart and get in front or be toppled," Whittaker said.

Whittaker said the team members will plant their national flags and bounce signals off a U.S. space satellite to broadcast live television footage of the event. Each will speak to his nation's leader by telephone.

The idea for the Peace Climb was hatched during a 1981 ascent of the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier during which Whittaker and two friends guided several disabled climbers to the summit.

They wondered what else they could do to make the world a better place to live, to show that people from entirely different worlds can work together toward a common goal.

On the day of the climb, children from several American schools will climb nearby hills and pick up garbage as they go, Whittaker said.

On the Peace Climb, dozens of climbers hauling gear and food from lower camps to higher camps to support the summit assault will stop on their way down to fill empty duffels with trash left behind by climbers over the past seven decades.

An estimated two tons of discarded tents, empty oxygen bottles, tin cans and other garbage littering the flanks of Everest will be buried in a landfill near the base camp at 17,100 feet, team members said.

Whittaker, who scaled Everest in 1963 and led the first American ascent of K-2 in 1978, doesn't plan to try for the summit himself, preferring to leave that bid to younger and stronger climbers.

"An essential ingredient to this is that if one climber falters, climbers from all three countries will turn back," said Warren Thompson, the expedition's deputy leader. "It's important that what we accomplish is accomplished together."