How can a climber get a summit certificate and not summit? Well apparently all that is needed is a current summit photo and basic skills with Photoshop.
Before I get into this year’s post-season controversy, let’s get this out of the way – climbers cheat, cyclists cheat, baseball/football/basketball/soccer players and even entire countries cheat in the Olympics. So holding any one of these segments as holier than thou is a mistake at and naive at worst. AND it does not make one single cheater correct or absolve them of their false claim.
Indian Couple Claims 1st Everest Summit
So this year’s media frenzy is all about the Indian couple, Dinesh and Tarkeshwari Rathod from the Indian city of Pune. Buzzfeed broke the story and has an excellent account of the situation plus pictures so I won’t repeat everything here but will cover the basics.
Both members of the Indian police force, the Rathods held a new conference on June 5th in Kathmandu where the couple showed their summit pictures from May 23rd. They went on to claim to be the first married couple from India to summit Everest. Their claim was accepted without question by the Nepal Ministry of Tourism and they were issued summit certificates and returned home to enjoy the spoils of victory.
But there was one problem according to Satyarup Siddhantha, a climber from Bangalore, who recognized that it was his May 21st summit photo published in the newspapers with the Rathod’s inserted.
Allegation began including the clothes they wore in the summit photo didn’t match the clothes they were seen in just a few thousand feet lower on the mountain. Their claim of arriving on May 4 and summiting on May 23 seemed unreasonable to anyone familiar with normal acclimatization for professional climbers. Their Sherpas, Furba from Sankhuwasabha and Fursemba from Solukhumbu, who were with them have not been available for questioning and have seemingly disappeared. And other climbers who were on the summit that same morning said there was no one else there.
When asked about these allegations, the Rathods summarily dismissed them and continued to bask in their summit glory.
The Nepal Ministry of Tourism when asked said they had no problem, But today Nepal’s Department of Tourism under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation said they would launch an investigation according to The Himalayan Times Newspaper.
UPDATE 18 August 2016: Rajan Pokhrel of The Himalayan Times reports on 18th August 2016 that the Ministry has imposed a 10 year ban on the Rathods for travel to Nepal for mountaineering and revoke their and their two climbing Sherpas’ summit certificates. Makalu Adventures admitted they altered the images.
The guide company the Rathods used, Kathmandu based Makalu Adventure Treks, said they have no problems but will cooperate with the investigations. They submitted the allegedly altered images to the Ministry as proof of the summits.
The Maharashtra Police have launched an investigation … and this is not the first time summits photos from Pune climbers have been accused of alterations. A similar incident occurred in 2012. And this is not the first time the Rathod’s have been accused of fraud dating back to their claim of summiting the top 10 peaks in Australia, which was contested by their own teammates.
In theory, the Nepal Ministry of Tourism asks for a summit picture of the climber with their feet on the snow on the summit and their face fully showing (not covered by a mask). Also with a clear view of the background. But I think it is safe to assume these rules are loosely followed and the Ministry takes the world of the expedition leader as proof.
My fellow blogger Mark Horrell did an excellent post on way to prove your summit that is worth a read if you are looking for ways to cheat the system!
But the authorities are not always reliable. In a conversation this season with Billi Bierling who helps run the Himalayan Database, she commented that the China Tibet Mountaineering Association issues summit certificates for climbers who never summited:
And you may know as well as I do that some people end up with a summit certificate from the Chinese who did not even reach the summit. I had people come to me and say “Billi, I did not summit but i have a certificate”…so these people have a stamp from the Chinese that they reached the summit..but are in the database as non-summiteers.
So What’s New?
False claims of summits is a legendary part of mountaineering history. But to generalize to most climbers or “business as usual on Everest” is as false of a claim as are the few who break the ethics and integrity code. A quick check of the Himalayan Database shows 21 of the 7,001 Everest summits as “disputed” or 0.3%
But it does happen and sometimes in spectacular manner. In 2010, Austrian climber Christian Stangl, falsely claimed a summit of K2 as part of his Mammut sponsored project to summit the 2nd 7 Summits. It only took a few hours for the sleuths on the Internet to debunk his claim as the background of his ‘summit’ photo didn’t match what would be seen from the summit of K2. Challenged, Stangle admitted on Austrian television that he has in fact lied about his summit and claimed he was in a ‘state of coma caused by stress and the fear of failure’.
The simple answer is ego and bragging rights. But there is a more nefarious aspect to cheating in any sport – money. Ask Lance Armstrong how much he made from ‘winning’ 7 Tour de France races ($125 million net worth is the short answer!) before he admitted to cheating.
Many aspiring climbers from small countries or those with a limited history of mountaineering know that a summit of Everest or K2 will bring them fame and fortune – literally – books, endorsements, speaking tours, and sponsors oh my!
In 2010, two Finnish women resorted to stealth tactics including sneaking out from camp in the darkness of night be the first Fin female to summit Everest.
In speaking with Indian climber and 2016 Everest summiteer Kuntal Joisher, he said the incentive for Everest summits was strong in India:
Typically summiteers with good government connections are rewarded well. Which is driving a whole bunch of people to go climb Everest.
Then there are the sponsored climbers, like Stangl, who feared losing his funds and career if he failed. To be clear all sponsors will deny putting such pressure on their athletes.
Solutions to Fraud
There are none.
OK, perhaps I was too quick with that answer. But seriously, cheaters will cheat, liars will lie and those lacking integrity will try to get away with as much as they can. By fellow climbers coming out as Satyarup Siddhantha did with the Rathod’s, the sport will be self policing.
Again, if found guilty, I want to say to the Rathod’s and anyone else considering fraud, that that their selfishness and lack of respect for the mountain, mountaineering and the overall sport is simply unacceptable.
Also the guide companies themselves must show that they are honest with their actions and statements to earn the right for future business.
Bigger Problems on Everest
But I want to close with this thought. If the Rathods are found to be cheaters, it will not be the first or last time this will happen on a mountain. And this is no where near the being in the top 10 Problems on Everest.
Certainly the Chinese and Nepalese authorities have the obligation to accurately certify summits if there is to be any integrity under their jurisdiction. But they also need to clean up the entire guiding area starting with companies in their own backyards.
They need to ensure members have adequate experience before issuing permits. The five deaths on Everest this year were mostly preventable in my view. The root cause was a deadly combination of lack of experience and safeguards by both guides and members.
They need to improve human waste disposal, salaries and insurance for high altitude workers. Let’s fix the entire Liaison Officer situation where they receive thousands of dollars but never do the work. And so much more.
Claiming a summit when you didn’t leave base camp is one thing, but dying due to fraud is an entirely different matter.
Memories are Everything