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Nepal’s Department of Tourism has come under fire for awarding summit certificates to climbers who never made it to the top of Everest
On May 20, 2016, two Indian climbers, Narender Singh Yadav and Seema Rani Goswami, found themselves in peril--at an altitude of 8,200 metres on Mount Everest. Exhausted by their days-long climb up stretches of sloppy terrain, the two climbers, who had gone days without adequate food and sleep, were determined to achieve their lifetime goal of summiting the world’s highest peak.
While Yadav and Goswami were trying to make it to the top, two other climbers, Chetna Sahoo and her husband, Pradeep Sahoo, who were part of a different expedition group, were descending, along with other teammates, to lower camps after having summited Everest.
Yadav and Goswami were part of a 15-member international team managed by Seven Summit Treks Nepal. While nine team members (DoT records show 11, including Yadav and Goswami) did summit Everest, the two didn’t get to the top--mainly because they were too weak to make it all the way. The world mountaineering community was thus later shocked to learn that Yadav had later claimed that he’d conquered Everest. And just recently, his story set the mountaineering world on fire because he had been nominated for India’s prestigious Tenzing Norgay Award.
According to their team’s leader, Naba Kumar Phukon, as part of the initial plans, Yadav and Goswami were supposed to have reached the summit together with their other team members. But they had been left behind, says Phukon, because the duo’s health was rapidly deteriorating. Their Sherpa guides had already returned to camp IV, citing technical problems and depleting supply of bottled oxygen. The ailing climbers were left behind in an area known as the ‘death zone’ after they refused to descend to lower camps.
But Yadav and Goswami remained adamant about getting to the summit, even if it meant putting their lives at risk. The two descending climbers were suffering from high-altitude sickness, and their health too was deteriorating. But Yadav and Goswami were in far worse shape than Chetna and Pradeep.
While the four climbers were stuck in the death zone, two high-altitude Sherpa rescuers--from a total of four stationed at camp IV--were heading higher up, towards the ‘Balcony’, on a rescue mission, as had been requested of them. On their way up, the rescuers came across Yadav and Goswami and found that the climbers were suffering from acute high-altitude sickness.
Worried by their condition, the rescuers radioed fellow rescuers stationed at the high camp. The additional rescue forces helped to first bring down Yadav and Goswami first and then other stranded climbers to Camp IV. Afterwards, Yadav and Goswami’s Sherpa guides helped them safely descend to Everest Base Camp.
The Sherpa rescuers and team leader Phukon say Yadav and Goswami never summited Mount Everest. “He submitted a fake photo of himself on the summit,” says Phukon.
They were lucky to have been saved, according to rescuers interviewed by The Record. Phukon later provided a detailed account of what actually happened with the duo on their climb up Everest.
According to Phukon, at around 7:30 pm of 19 May 2016, Yadav and the other team members reached the South Col, and Phukon rested there, together with Yadav, Goswami, and their Sherpa for two hours, planning for the final summit push. At that juncture, Yadav’s Sherpa informed him that they didn’t have a sufficient supply of oxygen (which was to have been deposited there for him by his agency).
“Knowing the complex situation at hand, Narender was nervous and stressed,” recalls Phukon. “Because I was the team lead, he informed me about the situation at the time. After his discussion with me, and knowing the dangerous situation he was in, I myself advised him not to climb to the summit without sufficient oxygen.”
Upon much urging on Phukon’s part, Yadav told Phukon that the duo would not climb higher and that he planned to stay back with Goswami in a tent in the South Col. But apparently Yadav and Goswami continued to push upward after Phukon parted ways with them. Phukon resumed his climb to the summit and reached the top the next morning. That very evening, when he returned to the South Col, he began to search for Yadav and Goswami. According to Phukon, at the South Col, he met some Indian climbers, who told him that Yadav and Goswami were heading down to Camp III.
That night, Phukon rested at the South Col, and the next morning, when he was on his descent, he met a forlorn Goswami, who had just been rescued, in the Lhotse face area.
“When I met her, she told me to rescue her at any cost,” says Phukon. “And then I discussed the situation with my own Sherpa. I told him to rescue her immediately. My Sherpa immediately invited others in the rescue party from the lower camp. Having solved the said complex situation, I left her, and in the evening, at about 5pm, I returned to camp II.”
In camp II, Phukon met Debasish Biswas of Kolkata. Biswas was providing treatment to Yadav in a tent. Yadav had frostbitten toes on both his legs. According to Phukon, Yadav was negotiating over the telephone with some of his agency’s members and he was apparently blaming them for his failure.
They were in such bad condition, that Yadav and Goswami were able to get back to Kathmandu only owing to their timely rescue by the Sherpas.
Upon the team’s arrival in Kathmandu, Seven Summit Treks briefed the Department of Tourism (DoT) on their expedition. In their briefing, the agency presented Yadav and Goswami as successful Everest summiteers. Further, during the debriefing, the agency requested the department to recognize the duo as successful Everest climbers by providing them certificates commemorating their feat. These details were echoed in a report presented by Pawan Ghimire, a government official deployed as a Liaison Officer (LO) to Everest Base Camp for managing the Phukon-led expedition group.
On the basis of the photos, letter, and briefings provided by the agency and LO Ghimire, Jeeban Kumar Acharya, the then chief of the mountaineering division at the DoT (he is now chief district officer in Sankhuwasabha District) had prepared the summit certificates. The Director General of the DoT then issued the certificates to Phukon’s team, including Yadav and Goswami.
And despite Phukon’s more recent statements about Yadav and Goswami, an official at Nepal’s tourism ministry says that Phukon--in his capacity as team leader--had put his signature on the debriefing report that mentions both Yadav and Goswami as having successfully summited Everest. The official is involved in the ongoing internal investigation of the case.
Shortly after receiving his certificate, Yadav returned home to India, where he was introduced as a successful Everest summiteer. He received a hero’s welcome in his village in Haryana and was felicitated over a series of events. He posted photos of all these activities on social media. On seeing the photos, his Sherpa rescuers were dumbfounded.
Some Sherpas were quick to object and complained at the department about the fake climbers. But the department didn’t listen to their complaint at all. Only much later was it revealed that Yadav had submitted a morphed photo to obtain his Everest certificate.
“The summit photo he submitted is definitely faked,” says Phukon. “After analyzing all of the facts that I have been privy to and the circumstances I found him in, I confidently submit to you that he [Yadav] has not summited Everest.”
But despite the complaints from Yadav’s Sherpa rescuers, the issue of the fake summiteers was never discussed among tourism officials, nor on any public forums--until it blew up into a huge controversy in India last month, following Yadav’s nomination for the Tenzing Norgay Award, among India’s most prestigious awards for adventure.
Four years after that controversial summit saga, Nepal’s DoT, in late August this year, received an odd inquiry from India’s Ministry of Youth and Sports. The inquiry, which was made over the phone by the ministry’s top bureaucrat revolved around one question: Had Narender Singh Yadav really summited Everest in 2016? To this day, Nepal’s tourism officials remain troubled about how Yadav was able to bag his Everest certificate.
The department says that the certificate was handed over to Yadav on the basis of photos and reports provided by his expedition agency, team leader and the liaison officer at Everest Base Camp. Yadav and Goswami had already been named as successful Everest climbers in the department’s records. But before Nepal could reach a conclusion about whether Yadav’s summit was genuine, the Indian government had removed Yadav’s name from its list of nominees for the Tenzing Norgay Award. The award was scheduled to be given to Yadav by India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind. Subsequently, after the controversy flared up on social media and mountaineering forums, Yadav deactivated his accounts on social media platforms.
The global mountaineering community has regarded the Yadav episode as a matter of shame. They are still puzzled by how someone who failed to summit Everest was named a successful climber and how he eventually managed to get shortlisted for India’s highest award for adventure--one that was named after one of the first two individuals to climb Mount Everest. They are also extremely disappointed with the negligence by Nepal’s tourism officials and angered by the misrepresentations made by Yadav’s expedition agency.
Nepal’s tourism officials, who told the Indian sports minister that the certificate was handed over on the basis of the debriefing report they received, have now underscored the need for an investigation into the matter.
“Documents and the briefing report show he summited Everest. But in light of the controversy that has now emerged, we have formed a probe panel,” said the department’s director Mira Acharya, adding, “The investigation is underway.”
As of now, the probe panel, headed by Pradip Koirala, joint secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, is interrogating the agency, the aforementioned LO, and the then mountaineering chief--the director general of the DoT-- responsible for certifying Everest summits.
Yadav’s story of his fake climb to Everest’s top has now raised serious questions around the credibility of Everest conquests. But many members of the mountaineering fraternity have known for some time that faking summits has become the new normal in Nepal, particularly in recent years. It’s a product of the toxic brew of the stiff competition among expedition agencies, the greed of bureaucrats, and the growing culture of impunity among wrongdoers.
Nepal’s tourism authorities have been known to turn a deaf ear when stories about faked ascents emerge or are reported in the media. They refrain from taking punitive measures even though existing mountaineering regulations have empowered them to take action-- ranging from suspending rogue expedition agencies and scrapping their registration to going after corrupt LOs .
For example, when the national and international media reported that an Indian police couple, Dinesh and Tarakeshwari Rathod, had lied to obtain their Everest certificate in 2016, Indian authorities investigated the matter and later sacked the couple from their jobs.
Nepal did ban the couple from climbing Nepal’s mountains for 10 years, but the Nepal government has not taken any action against their agency, Makalu Adventures; nor has it taken action against the then LO Ganesh Prasad Timsina, who assisted the couple in making their fake claim.
Because of the lack of proper government oversight, in recent years, Everest has become more unmanaged and unsafe. The mountain has seen an increased flow of inexperienced climbers. Many of them should not be allowed anywhere near the mountain, but the petty interests of expedition agencies, climbers, and government officials deployed as LOs have converged to create an irresponsible culture that many inexperienced, underprepared climbers take advantage of. Some in the mountaineering community blame the involvement of the Union of Asian Alpine Associations (UAAA) and the The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) in Nepal and India as the major reasons behind the increased number of mountaineers in the Himalayas. But the increasing number of fake summit stories have raised the eyebrows of many people in the mountaineering sector.
The rot is so pervasive in Nepal’s mountaineering bodies, that the LOs--who are deployed to Everest Base Camp to manage expeditions--often don’t even make it to Base Camp, despite their getting hefty allowances on behalf of the expedition agencies. The LOs are also known to produce reports on the basis of expedition details dictated to them by the agencies. This lackadaisical/corrupt culture, according to Sherpa guides and mountaineering experts, is one of the main reasons that more and more fake climbers are being produced in recent years.
In 2019, two expedition companies--Prestige Adventure and Snowy Horizon--made a pitch, together with their LOs, for summit certificates for five of their clients. But the climbers had to return home before they could get their certificates--after the media reported that they had produced fake summit accounts. LO Bishwa Bandhu Regmi, who was assigned to manage a 10-member expedition team from Prestige Adventures, had returned to Kathmandu from Namche after complaining of high-altitude sickness, which he said he’d suffered on his way to Base Camp.
Later, after the expedition team returned from Everest, Regmi used the information fed to him by the expedition agency to brief the DoT about the expedition’s details. Regmi conducted that debriefing along with Yagya Raj Uprety of Prestige Adventure. They said that of the agency’s 10 Everest hopefuls, two had not shown up for the climb, four had returned from Base Camp, and four had summited Everest.
They said that four of the agency’s clients--Vikas Rana, Shobha Banwala, Ankush Kasana (from India), and Khadija Moh Ali Turki Alblooshi (from the UAE)--had all summited Everest.
By the time the debriefing was being conducted, the Indian climbers had already reached their hometowns in Haryana. But other climbers and Sherpas informed the department that Rana, Banwala, Kasana, and Ali Turki Alblooshi had not even made it to camp IV.
Concerned over the complaints, the DoT started an internal investigation. Since then, the climbers have remained out of contact, and they continue to ignore the department's request to them to provide summit photos. For now, the department has scrapped the process for awarding certificates to the four climbers, and it is investigating their original claims.
Similarly, another preliminary investigation has shown that Nahida Manzoor, a Kashmiri climber, received a certificate for an Everest summit by allegedly presenting a morphed photo.
Unconvinced by Nahida’s summit claim, the department had sought a re-verification from her expedition company as well. Nahida was awarded a certificate by her expedition company. But an outcry in the media prevented the rest of her team members from getting their certificates as well.
In a bid to investigate into the matter before taking action against the climbers and against those who had assisted in handing out certificates to the fake summiteers, a probe panel led by Prakash Sharma Dhakal was formed on July 17, 2019. Six months after its formation, the committee submitted its report, which recommended the DoT to investigate the matter further before taking action.
The department is now apparently investigating the matter. “But except for pulling in Rs 1,43,000 for a meeting allowance, the ministry did nothing. The department only says it is reinvestigating the matter,” said an official, requesting anonymity. “Hopefully, those involved in fraudulent cases will be booked.”
In recent years, many inexperienced climbers, from countries like India, have been coming over to climb Mount Everest. The flow from India started to increase after several of its state governments announced job incentives and promotions for those already working in government, and played up the social prestige they would garner as an Everest summiter. For example, in 2013, the state of Haryana introduced cash incentives and job opportunities for successful Everest climbers.
But many of the newer breed of aspirant Everest conquerors do not have enough climbing experience, some launch fundraising campaigns to finance their ascents, and quite a few are known to haggle with their expedition agencies and demand a guarantee that a summit certificate will be provided to them. Lured by their monetary offers, the expedition agencies then go on to influence the LOs with bribes and convince them to produce fake reports. Ultimately, the DoT ends up issuing summit certificates to climbers who might not have made it even halfway up the slopes of the world’s highest mountain.
Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary at the Nepal Mountaineering Association, admits that cases of fake climbing are increasing. He has suggested that the government take immediate steps to check them and to focus on promoting quality tourism.
“An increased flow of mountaineers to mountainous countries like ours is always good, but not a flow of fake climbers,” says Gurung. “So we must hold LOs accountable, discourage rogue expedition operators, and create awareness among mountaineers to stop fake climbing.”
Bhadra Sharma Bhadra Sharma is a Kathmandu-based freelance journalist. He is also co-author of the book 'Impunity and Political Accountability in Nepal'.
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