Tibet Sign Costs Climber Everest Trek

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

William Brant Holland made it past the treacherous Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest before he slipped up and was booted from Nepal.

Holland arrived yesterday at Dulles International Airport after being pulled off the mountain and deported for bringing a "Free Tibet" banner from Katmandu to the world's highest peak.

"Yeah, of course it was a dumb mistake," said Holland, 26, who lives in the Richmond area and runs a tree-cutting company part time to help fund his climbs around the world. "I don't belong to any Free Tibet organization. I just wanted to take a picture at the top and put it on my wall, man."

Holland also carried a Virginia state flag and a Clinton, La., volunteer fire department patch he got last year while biking from Florida to California to train for the Everest climb. He was planning to take pictures of those items as well, he said, but he never made it to the top of the mountain.

Nepalese officials have been under pressure to keep the southern approach to Everest's summit free of politics as Chinese authorities prepared to bring the Olympic torch to the mountain's summit.

Everest sits between Nepal and Tibet, which was the site of unrest last month and a Chinese crackdown. Chinese officials fear protests could disrupt the latest leg of the torch relay, as had occurred in Paris and elsewhere.

Other climbing teams, which are waiting in Nepal for the Chinese to finish their ascent from the other side of the mountain in Tibet, have been restricted from using satellite phones, and a BBC crew was evicted from the base camp in Nepal.

Holland had been biking and traveling in China since early January, including pedaling up sharp inclines in Tibet, which he was visiting for the first time, he said. Images of Tibetans inching along roadways on their hands and knees to make pilgrimages were seared into his mind.

"You see guys doing prostrations for thousands and thousands of miles," Holland said. "You see something like that, it makes me feel like a sissy riding my bike. You think, 'Is that for real?' "

Holland made his way to Nepal and met up with an expedition. While climbers waited at Everest's lower elevations for permission to proceed toward the summit, Holland said he met a guide from another operation, whom he had befriended on a trip to Argentina. Holland told the guide, Willie Benegas, about the Free Tibet banner.

"I was just joking around. 'Check out the flag I'm going to take to the top,' " Holland said. "If I'd realized it was such a high crime, I wouldn't have advertised it."

Holland said that Benegas told him that such a banner could get him kicked off the mountain. Benegas told Holland to give the banner to Benegas's sherpa, who would throw it in a crevasse, Holland said. Holland said he handed over the banner, but instead of the sherpa dropping it into oblivion, it was given to the leader of Holland's expedition, who brought it to authorities.

"What I should have done was put it in the crevasse myself, or burned it," Holland said.

Mark Gunlogson, president of Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a climbing service where Benegas is a guide, said he does not know the circumstances because of communications restrictions.

"The climbers, they don't want to get kicked off the mountain because they were going against the restrictions, communications and otherwise," Gunlogson said. "They're there not for political reasons."

Holland was also carrying a copy of Outside Bozeman magazine for a photo at the summit as part of a contest, he said.

"The front cover article was, 'When Climbs Go Wrong,' " Holland said. "Yep, climb went wrong."

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