Over the years emails between ExplorersWeb and Italian climber Alberto Peruffo would regard mountains such as Rakaposhi or Kanjut Sar. That all changed this spring.
There was a crackdown in Tibet. Himalaya peaks were shut one by one. Alberto went to the legendary University of Padova, to seek counsel of a Luminary of International Law at the Center for Human Rights.
Leaving Professor Antonio Papisca's studio, "I thought to myself," the artist/climber recalled, "something must be done, ideas that seem crazy must come to life."
We have covered close to a thousand expeditions in 2008. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.
And yet, there are those who linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2008.
Today number 6: Red flares for freedom, Alberto Peruffo
Padua University was established during 1200 AD in response to an increasing need for academic freedom in the dark ages. The University enjoyed protection against popes and emperors by various authorities such as the Venetian Republic. Thanks to this, great men such as Galileo Galilei could later teach there contributing to the scientific revolution. During WWII Padua had a leading role against the Nazis; later receiving the Gold Medal for Valour, the only university in Italy to gain such an award.
Fast forward half-a-century. Leaving Papisca's chambers at Padua, Alberto's Sad Smoky Mountains was born: "In synthesis my new idea," he reported: "To kindle the broken hearts of both mountains and mountaineers with the color of shame-sadness-outrage and bid food to those who resist."
"If we move, something will move with us"
The action was simple but grand: Alberto called for climbers around the world to unite in a series of red flare ignitions on mountains and tall monuments, synched with each other and the inauguration of the Beijing Olympic Games. Snap a pic, and send it to Alberto for an art exhibition and a poster named "Lit Your Own Flame."
Would this move the governments, though? "I dont know and it's not a problem," Alberto said. "What I do know, for certain, is that our action will nurture those who resist. It will make them feel less lonely; surrounded by a net of humanity. This is no petty work."
"If we move, something else will move along with us. Consequences are not foreseeable but they do always remain consequences," Alberto said.
Two ignition dates were set. By the first ignition on May 11, the project had grown into a mega event. More than 100 summits were involved including red flare climbers making a difficult ascent on Matterhorn.
The Chinese Olympic flame in turn visited Everest in spite of protests from the Tibetan community. To rub it in; the torch returned to Tibet for a second time - passing tanks and troops through the locked down Lhasa.
To kick off the second phase Alberto decided to "ignite" a bell tower in his home town, a small Italian village, to make "the bells sound with what memory withholds." Then he went to Paris. "My friends and I will move near, on top of, beneath or at the sides of the Eiffel Tower," Alberto declared, "in the heart of the city where UNESCO has its HQ, in a city that more than any other has consigned culture and intelligence to the fundamental freedoms of man."
Final ignition was set for 08/08/08 - the inauguration of the Beijing Olympic games - and Alberto called on the rest of us to "make volcanoes and monuments of ancient architectures talk the language of smoke in the evanescent color of blood on the day on which the Olympic torch, a double-headed symbol of peace and hypocrisy, will light the Peking Olympics."
Over the mountains, into thin air
How could we refuse? ExWeb editors climbed Peak Democrat and ExplorersWeb flew a "Red torch for Tibet" banner over the Statue of Liberty, presented to the United States by France in 1886, as a symbol of freedom and democracy. The pilots dodged storm clouds over Manhattan while we cut through fog in Colorado; but we did it - August 8, 1 pm sharp.
Alberto meanwhile, lit his flares at the Eiffel tower - our red smoke joining perhaps somewhere high up in the jet stream and carried to Everest; where another climber was about to make a decision.
As the mountain shut down and soldiers took over BC, American free-lance writer, film-maker and former professional firefighter Scott Mortensen did his best to understand the situation by talking to Sherpas, LO officers, fellow climbers, guides, and Tibetan refugees. Then he made his mind up.
"During a pre-summit rehab in lower altitude Namche Bazaar, I had the opportunity to talk with a couple of Tibetans who had witnessed the oppression of their homeland, firsthand," Scott told ExWeb."The despair reflected in their eyes made it impossible for me to climb in a vacuum of self-aggrandizement."
"With the Chinese taking the Olympic torch to the top of the world much more was at stake because the whole world was watching. To put it in the words of Dominic Gilbert, a climber on our team who shared humanitarian inclinations, 'Weve got to do something.' So we did."
At the peaks highest point, American Scott and French Dominic separated themselves from the masses. Against dictators' orders and with snipers below; the two mountaineers borrowed the Tibetans' protest shirt and flew it on the top of the world.
Maga Kijak was fired up as well. August 8, she wore a t-shirt that said 'time to free Tibet' to a class she was teaching at Warwick University in UK. She ended up paying the biggest price.
Summoned to see the boss and told she had committed a 'serious professional misconduct' - following 9 years at the University, Maga felt forced to resign. "And I thought that the UK was a free country where the right to free speech was almost taken for granted," Maga wrote to ExWeb. "I was born and grew up in Poland and NEVER EVER thought that wearing a t-shirt saying 'time to free Tibet' is a crime here in the UK."
Alberto's baby, born after leaving a studio at Padova University, had consequences indeed. It rallied a world of climbers, and reminded us that decisisons and actions for democracy and human rights are far more self-evident in light of history than our own, present time.
Alberto didn't rock governments. But he moved, and we moved with him. Hopefully somewhere along the line, Alberto's vision did nurture those who resist. Time will tell.
Previous in the countdown:
7. The 14th knight - Ivan Vallejo
8. Wintering the Big White - Tara's 2007-2008 Arctic Voyage
North Pole explorers Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin
B.A.S.E. jumper Valery Rozov
Everest seniors Yuichiro Miura and Min Bahadur Sherchan
James Burwick and the Anasazi girl
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