_Luis Benitez paused when he saw me coming down and leaned into the axe planted in the snow above him.
“Hey Sam, how’re you feeling?”
“Good . . . tired,” I replied, my voice weak.
“I’ll bet you are,” he said, and laughed. “Why don’t you go back to base camp, get yourself a coke, go to college, find a hot boyfriend—how ‘bout a junior—and forget this scene for a while,” he said.
That was one of the first conversations I had coming down from the top of Everest in 2007. Benitez, an experienced guide, was headed up for his group’s own summit bid, what would be his sixth summit of the peak. After our meeting he continued on to the top of the world, but once he got there, instead of the usual euphoria he felt something less pleasant.
“I felt pretty disillusioned,” he told me over the phone a few days ago as he walked his dogs around his Colorado neighborhood.
Benitez’s discomfiture stemmed from an event that had occurred about seven months before, while we were both on Cho Oyu, the 26,906-foot Himalayan giant 19 miles west of Everest. While I was high up on the mountain making my summit bid, Benitez was back at base camp, where he witnessed a tragic event unfold, an event recounted in the film Tibet: Murder in the Snow, which will screen Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Del Mar and feature a post-film discussion with Benitez. The film features first-hand footage taken by Romanian mountaineer Sergiu Matei.
On Sept. 30, 2006, Benitez and about 100 other mountaineers heard gunshots coming from the Nangpa La, a 19,050-foot-high mountain pass between Tibet and Nepal visible from camp. Still used for commercial trade, it and other passes like it historically provided the gateway for Tibetans into Nepal, allowing for the settlement of the well-known Sherpa communities in Nepal’s high Himalaya. It has now become known as the “poor person’s refugee gate.”
“Many wealthy Tibetans can buy their way out of the country,” Benitez says. “But [poorer] Tibetans can’t do that . . . their only choice is something like this pass—they can’t afford bribes, they can’t afford permissions.”
The Chinese border patrol had opened fire on about 70 Tibetans who were making an attempt to flee by way of the pass. Even with crude weaponry and aim, they managed to lodge a fatal bullet into the back of Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old nun hoping to escape into India in order to freely practice her religion and realize her dream of meeting the Dalai Lama.
I didn’t hear about the incident until I returned to base camp, and even then I only heard a few scattered details. “There was a body on the pass, but don’t worry, it’s been cleaned up now,” I was told. It was only after I returned to the states that I realized the irony that while I, a 17-year-old Westerner, stood on the top of a mountain under which, by some Buddhist legends, the instructions on how to save the world from chaos are buried, Chinese officials prodded the lifeless body of a 17-year-old nun who had made a desperate attempt for a better life, taking photos with her body and the summit in the background.
The event created a rift in the mountaineering community. Some of the guides, people from the Western world running a business for Western clients, didn’t want the information to get out for fear they wouldn’t be able to get permits to return the next year. The Chinese government, they reasoned, would have no reason to let climbers into the country in the future if it meant having witnesses who would report on incidents such as this one.
Benitez says he was appalled when he learned that no one else planned to report the shooting. After he wrote an anonymous article for the website http://www.explorersweb.com, a couple of other guides found out and, Benitez says, “came down on my head for speaking out. It was a cussing and screaming match.” Then they told him that the Chinese government had his name, that he’d better get out of there.
After Benitez was safely home, British journalist Jonathan Green picked up his story. “He told me that if we did the story, you’d have to name names [of who tried to cover it up], you’d have to call the whole thing out. I knew if I did it was going to change my career. I felt that something was broken [in the mountaineering community], so I chose to collaborate on the article.”
According to Benitez, the release of the event had the feared effect: it caused permitting and logistics to become much more difficult on Cho Oyu. He says the release of Green’s article in Men’s Journal, which denounced the climbers who chose to remain silent about the event, also fractured the mountaineering community—not just about whether to continue to fuel “summit fever,” the term invoked when mountaineers seemingly put their own glory ahead of helping their fellow man—but also over what would be the best course of action for the greatest number of people in Tibet.
“I get it,” Benitez says, “we provide work and revenue to Sherpas and the Tibetans. It’s a loss of income to them. It affects their livelihood. But to me, the bottom line for it all was a question of human rights.”
The net effect of publicizing the event is unclear. Benitez says the Chinese government “still calls it normal border management to this day.” What’s more, China built a new garrison port to catch refugees going over the pass. Attempts to get the incident recognized as a crime against humanity were stalled because it “was not a genocide,” says Benitez.
But Benitez says filling in the knowledge void about China’s relationship with Tibet is still important. He equates the average Chinese person’s level of knowledge about the treatment of Tibetans to what residents of the 13 colonies were told about the Native Americans. “They’re told [by the government] that they’re bringing infrastructure, health care, religion—isn’t it great?” Benitez says. “They don’t hear about border shootings or mass killings due to religion. It’s all perspective.
“This is the first time in 50 years that Westerners have seen and spoken out about it. It’s a sticky subject for climbing and human rights because we don’t know what to do with it.”
Originally Published in the Santa Cruz Weekly: