Virginia climber Brant Holland made headlines this week for becoming the first person kicked off Mt. Everest and out of Nepal for carrying a “Free Tibet” banner up the mountain. Chinese authorities, worried that the Olympic torch will be held up on its way to the top of Everest by protests over China’s role in Tibet, have closed access to the summit until May 10. Although Holland was climbing the south side, Nepal has been cooperating with China and has deployed army troops at Everest Base Camp.
The 26-year-old arborist had climbed five of the Seven Summits, with Everest and Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson remaining. His self-funded, self-guided attempt on the mountain came to a halt after he showed the banner to Mountain Madness guide Willie Benegas, whom Holland had met when climbing Aconcagua in Argentina. Holland gave the banner to a Sherpa in Bengas’s team and it eventually made its way to the Nepali army, which told him to leave.
Benegas couldn’t be reached because communications restrictions imposed by the heightened political situation have prevented contact with climbers on the mountain, but in an email to friends last week he referenced the incident and said, “That was the excuse that our friendly neighbor needed to close the mountain….[and there are] easily a couple thousand people who directly depend on the Everest season to survive the rest of the year.”
So, how did this unfold?
At first, I biked across the U.S. to get in shape for climbing and then I started biking through China and the weather was bad and then I started toward the northeast corner of Tibet. For five weeks I did a combination of biking and hitchhiking. I got to Nepal for a month. My mom and sister came out and visited with me for a couple of weeks and then I started trekking to Base Camp.
I got to Base Camp on the evening of April 15th. It didn’t last long. I was deported Monday and got back to the States on Tuesday. With deportation, you’re right on the next plane, sayonara.
How did you get up to Everest? How’d you get your permit?
I did it with Asia Trekking. I wanted to do it as independently as possible I don’t believe in paying a shitload of money to someone to carry your crap up. They’re a great outfit. I know some people are talking shit about them, but I think they’re damned professional. There’s nothing they did wrong.
Did you hire them for guiding?
No, they weren’t guiding. They just got my stuff to Base Camp and then Base Camp services. I was going to climb on my own.
So, was this thing a flag, a banner, what?
It was a banner, maybe two by two. They’re all over the place in Kathmandu, I just bought it. There’s tons of embroidery shops.
Had you planned it?
It was more spur of the moment. I was like, well, shit, I’m gonna take the flag up there with me, take a picture of it.
Bad idea. If I had realized it was as serious as it was, I wouldn’t have done it. I was working forever to pay for that climb.
How much did you save for it?
Forty grand, fifty grand. I bought two different bikes…the air fare, the permit, the gear. I already had some stuff, but you have to have multiple tents to run on the mountain. I pumped a good amount of money into it.
I was originally going to climb from the north side [in Tibet] but in March [the Chinese] said, ‘We’re shutting this down completely.’ I was like, all right, I have to pony up some more money because Nepal’s more expensive than Tibet. I should have taken the hint that this wasn’t a good time to do it, but I’d already taken the time off work.
You were going to carry some other things up the mountain.
Yeah, a Virginia state flag. A Clinton, Louisiana, fire department patch. They let me sleep in the firehouse one night when I was riding my bike across country. They were good ole boys. I had an Outside Bozeman magazine. They had a contest called “how far will you go”with the magazine. The front cover story was “When Climbs Go Wrong”. I wanted to take a picture of it in front of the Ministry of Tourism when I got deported, but it was still in Base Camp.
How did people know you had the banner?
I was at Base Camp and I was making the first run up to Camp One. And I ran into Willie halfway through the [Khumbu] Icefall. I said, ‘Hey, remember me?’ and we started talking. I was asking him about conditions and the mountain and he said, well, you can just put your stuff in my tent.
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Later, we were together and I pulled it out to show to him. Willie was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ He asked if I hadn’t read the permit. I said, ‘I don’t know, the government offices were closed, they were changing permits’…after seeing the permit later, it was obvious, rule number one, don’t damage relations with China.
Willie said, ‘You need to get rid of it, burn it, throw it in crevasse.’ He said, ‘Man, you’re giving me a heart attack.’ I should have gotten rid of it myself, but I gave it to Sherpa Lakpa. That was my biggest fuckup.
So, what then?
I gave it to the Sherpa in Camp One. I assumed he was going to throw it in the icefall, but he gave it to my expedition leader in Base Camp, who gave it security forces. They brought it to my tent and I said, ‘Yep, it’s mine’ and they said, ‘Pack your bags.’
What was their demeanor? Were they polite? Aggressive?
Well, they weren’t happy about it. There were definitely some raised voices. The first guy said, ‘Would you do this in your country’ and I didn’t want to be a smart mouth, but I said, ‘Well, yes.’ And then they wanted to know if I’d been to the Base Camp meeting on [April] 15th, which discussed what was in the permits, but I didn’t get there until the night of the 15th.
Honestly, I understand they don’t want protests. I wasn’t sitting there protesting. When I showed it to Willie and his clients and the Sherpa, it’s not like I was trying to make a big deal. I wouldn’t risk at least a year of my life for that. I feel sorry for Tibet, but I can get my voice heard other ways. I’m not an activist, I’ve never been in an activist organization. If I had really wanted to stage a protest, I would have bought a $20 backpacker permit, walked up there, and done it in Base Camp.
Did they escort you off the mountain?
Well, afterward, my expedition leader said I had to go down and report to the Ministry of Tourism. I just packed my bags and was out of there that evening, alone. A couple of days later, I was back in Kathmandu and I went to report to the ministry and of all days, it was Democracy Day, so they were closed. Democracy, my ass.