Olympic torch scales Everest - 5/8/2008
The Olympic flame reached the top of the world Thursday morning, carried to the summit of Mount Everest by climbers wearing oxygen masks to breathe in the thin air of the earth's highest point.
A 23-year-old Tibetan woman -- the youngest member of the expedition -- carried the flame atop the peak. Once there, the mountaineers removed their masks so television cameras could record their faces and so they could shout and cheer their feat.
The climbers, braving gusty winds and freezing windchill, relayed the flame -- ignited from the main Olympic flame, now making a course across China en route to host city Beijing -- to the summit by 9:15 a.m. (9:15 p.m. ET Wednesday), about two hours ahead of schedule.
"They were very motivated; they were very excited," journalist Tomas Etzler said from the Everest base camp at 5,360 meters (17,600 ft). Video Watch as the torch reaches the top »
The climbers started their ascent at 3 a.m. Thursday (3 p.m. Wednesday) along the Tibetan side of Everest, known there as Chomolungma. Twenty-two of the 31 climbers were Tibetan.
The torches and fuel used in the relay were specially developed by the Chinese space agency, allowing the flame to continue burning at such high elevations, Etzler said.
Harsh weather had forced a delay in the climb, damaging several camps along the way, officials said, but earlier Wednesday, a spokesman for the Chinese climbers said two of three damaged camps had been repaired and mountaineers were on the way to fix the third.
China's official television network, CCTV, broadcast dramatic live images from nearby peaks of the climbers making their way up the steep side of the 8,848-meter (29,030-foot) mountain, as well as close-up views of the climbers using ropes and spiked boots to secure their footing on the treacherous slope. Two groups climbed to the summit: a 12-person team of torchbearers and a supplemental seven-person pickup team, officials said. The team of about 50 includes 31 climbers along with coaches, advisers and other support staff members.
The flame is burning in a lantern designed to protect it from low-oxygen conditions of the high altitude.
The main Olympic flame began its three-month trek through China on Sunday after a global torch relay.
Secrecy kept journalists at the base camp from knowing when the summit attempt might begin. Tight security surrounds the mountain to prevent any anti-Chinese and pro-Tibet protests.
The climbers needed four to six days of good weather to climb to the summit and return, officials said.
Despite the secrecy ahead of the effort, elaborate technical plans are in place so that CCTV can broadcast the ascent live.