Nangpa Pass

Body of Tibetan nun shot by Chinese border patrols at Nangpa Pass on September 30, 2006. (Pavle Kozjek. ExplorersWeb)

Slovenian climber Pavle Kozjek, who provided the first iconic images of the killing of 17-year old Tibetan nun Kelsang Namtso by Chinese border guards on the Nangpa Pass two years ago today, has died during an ascent in the Karakoram. Forty-nine year old Pavle Kozjek died on August 25 after falling 2000 meters during an ascent of the treacherous 7273-metre Mustagh Tower (Ice Tower) in Pakistan.

Kozjek, a mountaineer for 20 years who was acclaimed for his courage, was the first climber to answer the call for images to provide visual evidence of a group of Tibetans being fired upon by Chinese border guards as they attempted to escape into exile in Nepal across the Nangpa Pass, the main trading route between Tibet and Nepal which is commonly used as an escape route by Tibetans fleeing into exile. It was the first time such an incident had been observed by such a large group of international witnesses – climbers on Mount Cho Oyu, which overlooks the Pass.

Pavle Kozjek contacted the adventure web portal ExplorersWeb ( following their appeal for climbers to come forward with images of the shooting, and he passed on the same images to ICT.

The image that flashed across television screens worldwide and was passed on to governments concerned about the case depicts a body lying in the snow, which was later confirmed to be the 17-year old nun, Kelsang Namtso, from Nagchu (Chinese: Naqu) prefecture in central Tibet. The image, which focused international attention on the dangers of Tibetans’ journey into exile, showed a trail through the snow described by one eyewitness as ‘Kelsang’s path’. Romanian climber and cameraman Sergiu Matei, also on Cho Oyu at the time, filmed the shooting and told ICT that after she was shot, Kelsang crawled further through the snow before finally coming to rest.

On his ascent of Cho Oyu following Kelsang Namtso’s death, Pavle Kozjek led a new route in a solo single push up the southwestern face of Cho Oyu (8201 meters) in less than 15 hours. But Kozjek’s enduring memory of the ascent was of bearing witness to Kelsang Namtso’s death.

In an interview for a forthcoming documentary about the incident, he told film-maker Mark Gould: “I still can see images like yesterday from this Nangpa La. When I’m talking about [it], I just move myself there… Although [the expedition] was very successful – the first image in my mind is that, that body in Nangpa La. The first image… that’s just impossible to forget. It was so shocking this body in the white, white saddle of snow, just unreal… I’m sure that responsibility of me as a climber or anybody as a human being is to report such kind of, such killing, let’s say murder, it’s above all the other ethical questions. We were guests [in Tibet] but it does not mean that we will keep our mouths shut about such things. I think it’s not acceptable. This is above the local rules – this is just a question of humanity.”

Other images taken by Kozjek and passed onto ICT depict Tibetan children who had been in the same group fleeing into exile in the custody of Chinese border police at advance base camp, Cho Oyu, after they were captured following the shooting. The older children were severely beaten in custody, and one Tibetan teenager later told ICT that he had been shown the body of Kelsang Namtso, covered in tarpaulin outside the detention center, and was asked by police to identify her. (See ICT report, ‘Dangerous Crossing‘ for a full account of the incident.) Pavle Kozjek’s images can be seen in ICT’s report, Image of nun’s body in snow at Nangpa Pass – October 11, 2006.

Tina Sjogren from ExplorersWeb, who published Kozjek’s images of Kelsang Namtso dead in the snow, said: “Pavle is a great loss to the climbing community. For his solo, express new route on Cho Oyu, Pavle Kozjek was chosen as the best climber of the year by the crowds attending the Piolet d’Or [The Golden Ice Axe, an annual mountaineering award]. But the climb was only one part of his popularity: Where most climbers whisper about the fate of Tibet, few will risk their permits to speak up. Pavle did so.”

President of the International Campaign for Tibet and longtime climber John Ackerly said: “Slovenian Pavle Kozjek embodied the best of a tradition among climbers to speak out on behalf of the peoples who lived at the base of the mountains they love.”

While Tibetan refugees escaping from Tibet into Nepal have been fired upon before on both the Chinese and Nepalese sides of the border, the September 30 killing on Nangpa La was the first such incident to occur before a large number of international witnesses and to be documented on film.

Kozjek was born in the small village of Setnica, close to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and began climbing in the Slovenian Alps as a teenager. His first Himalayan expedition was Gangapurna in 1983, and in 1997 he became the first Slovenian to climb up Mount Everest without the aid of bottled oxygen.

Pavle Kozjek and fellow Slovenian Dejan Miskovic climbed the northeast wall of the ‘Ice Tower’ in the Karakoram range on August 24 and decided not to go to the summit because of strong winds. Just after they started descending, Kozjek fell to his death. Miskovic was later rescued by helicopter.

Bostjan Videmsek, a close friend, wrote in an email communication to ICT on September 9: “Pavle is resting somewhere in Himalaya. For ever. In his natural habitat. After he and his friend had managed to climb one of the toughest ‘walls’ in the world in one move, my dear friend fell from the top of it. He was one of the biggest, strongest, smartest and most ethical people I’ve ever met and also my climbing mentor.”

Two years on from Nangpa shooting, border still sealed due to unrest and crackdown

The Tibetan nun Kelsang Namtso was around 20 minutes walk from the border with Nepal when she was shot dead on September 30, 2006. Over the past decade, around 2500-3500 Tibetans have escaped each year into exile across the Himalayas into Nepal, and from there to India. For many, the main purpose of their visit is to see the Dalai Lama. Others are children being sent into exile by their parents for an education, or monks and nuns, aiming to join exile monasteries due to restrictions on religious practice.

Two years on from the Nangpa shooting, the border of Tibet with Nepal is effectively sealed following the wave of protests that swept across Tibet and the ensuing crackdown from March 10. The presence of armed troops has been stepped up at the border and People’s Armed Police personnel are frequently seen on the Nepal side of the border, according to reliable eyewitness reports.

Since the protests, the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center in Kathmandu has been empty, as Tibetans have been unable to make the treacherous mountain crossing due to intensified security in the border areas and the intensified military presence in Lhasa and beyond.

Due to the heavy Chinese footprint on Kathmandu, Tibetans are increasingly vulnerable under the new Maoist regime in power in Nepal, and many fear the situation will deteriorate further – both for the estimated 20,000 long-staying Tibetan refugees in Nepal and the thousands more who transit through on their way to India.

The Nepal government has taken a series of moves against the Tibetan community in Kathmandu, in deference to what it says is Chinese pressure to stop activities by Tibetans that it deems as anti-China.

In January 2005 it closed the Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Welfare Office, both of which had been operational with the consent of the Nepal government since the 1960s.

China’s acute sensitivity over Tibet has been the primary feature of China-Nepal relations for some years, a situation that has been re-established with the new Maoist government. Although non-interference in each other’s internal affairs is an official principle of China-Nepal relations, China exerts significant and unequal influence in Nepal in every aspect of their relationship, both political and economic.

Nepali Prime Minister Prachanda was given a red carpet welcome in Beijing when he flew in for the closing ceremony of the Olympics ­ his first trip overseas after being sworn in on August 18. In Beijing, Prachanda reiterated his intention to support China on the Tibet issue.

Beijing has been particularly incensed by Tibetan protests – largely peaceful – against the current crackdown held outside the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu. As a result Tibetans who are detained following the protests have been threatened with deportation to India by the Nepalese government, if they do not have valid legal documents to stay in Nepal.