Thu, May 18, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Philippines gripped by two-team race to scale the world's highest mountain


Alpine fever is gripping the Philippines as adventurers creep closer to the summit of Everest in a two-way race to be the first to plant the tropical nation's flag atop the world's tallest peak.

Manila's two largest broadcast networks have splashed out with hefty sponsorship deals and deployed crews that provide blow-by-blow accounts as the climbers acclimatize and store up supplies and provisions on the upper slopes of the 8,848m mountain.

In a country where no mountain reaches 3,000m, and where the only ice is inside freezers, Romeo Garduce and rival pair Leo Oracion and Erwin Emata are being feted even before they reach the summit.

"If they reach the top they will become national heroes," said fellow mountaineer James Tagara of Manila-based AMCI club.

And even if they fail or something bad happens to them, "there would be more Filipinos stepping up to the challenge," Tagara said.

Filipinos can monitor the teams' progress online as well on their televised preparations.

Garduce, 37, a systems analyst, said in his Internet diary this week that he completed his final training climb to Everest's intermediate Camp 3 on May 6. Climbing on thin air requires "three breaths for every step," he said.

As of Tuesday, Oracion was at Camp 4 (8,016m) of the popular South Col route and closest to the summit after the team decided to split into two.

His teammate Emata is at Camp 3 (7,162m) while rival climber Garduce is at Camp 2 (6,400m).

Network executives at both ABS-CBN and GMA have denied that there was a network race to the top of Everest amid published criticism from some sections of the local mountaineering community that they could get the three climbers killed.

"There is no such thing," said Rikki Escudero, assistant vice president of GMA which put up 2.5 million pesos (US$48,733) to finance Garduce's climb.

She notes that "their [climbers'] lives are already at stake" just by their presence at the mountain.

"We are just focused on supporting Romy. If the other group reaches the summit first we will still cover them," she said.

"There is rising [viewer] interest because we are all hopeful that they will make it," Escudero said. "We think it's a worthy endeavor."

Garduce, who arrived at the Everest base camp in late March in a bid to follow the route taken more than 50 years earlier by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Everest, said he saw himself "not just as a climber, but a gate-opener, a ribbon cutter."

"I may or may not climb the peak, but making the attempt alone already brings major significance in the history of mountaineering and adventure sports here, it means we are now taking on the challenge," he said.

"I don't consider it as a race, because mountaineers know when to quit or to pace themselves," Tagara added.

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