Atop Mt Everest or not? Climbers challenge Haryana trio's claim of scaling world's highest peak

The mighty Mt Everest has been drawing thousands of climbers to it for decades now. Once scaled successfully, the climber’s name remains forever etched in the pages of history, besides earning the achiever countless pats on the back, and considerable financial rewards from various quarters. On 26 May,  three climbers from Haryana — Vikas Rana, Shobha Banwala and Ankush Kasana, claimed to have summited Everest. Once back home in early June, they were received like heroes and felicitated at various functions, with the local media extensively reporting their ‘feat’.

But those who were on the mountain alongside them this season had their doubts. They had seen the three struggling lower down on the mountain, while a few have alleged that they never quite made it to the top of the mountain. The incident is rather similar to the infamous case of the Pune couple, Dinesh and Tarakeshwari Rathod, whose claims of summiting the Everest in 2016 were found to be fake.

Struggles started early for the trio

The three climbers had signed up with Makalu Extreme, an agency owned by Oxana Morneva, a Russian who became the first woman to climb Mt Lhotse in the Himalayas twice. According to the Himalayan Database, Rana, Banwala, and Kasana have no previous climbing experience in Nepal.

Mumbai-based climber Keval Kakka, who summited Everest on 16 May, had seen them struggle during the initial acclimatisation rotations on the mountain as well. “I had asked them how high they had climbed before — they said Kilimanjaro and Elbrus. So I thought they needed more preparation. They weren’t very good with the technical aspects of climbing either,” Kakka says.

The climber mentions meeting Vikas Rana at a climbathon in 2016, and says he knew she “has done some mountaineering”. “But the other two I had no idea of, though I know they have done some mountaineering courses,” he says.

 Atop Mt Everest or not? Climbers challenge Haryana trios claim of scaling worlds highest peak

Keval Kakka atop Mt Everest.

Kakka mentions how, during their first rotation, the three took unusually long to get from base camp to Camp 1. While on his way up for his second rotation to Camp 2, he met Rana, who was on her way down.

“The other two weren’t there with her, only Rana and her Sherpa. Rana told me that when Banwala and Kasana had reached Camp 1, they were very exhausted and told their Sherpa that they couldn’t walk. They wanted a helicopter to fly them down from Camp 1, but the Sherpa told them that it wasn’t possible. Rana said that they had descended the next day while she had set out for Camp 2.”

Kakka further adds that Rana told him how she felt the other two were incapable of making it as they “lacked training”. They wanted her to come back down with them since they were a team. “They told her that their family had sold off fields to get them there, but Rana too had raised funds with great difficulty. She had been denied funding by the Haryana government since her training was found to be inadequate. Only if she made it to the summit, she would be able to recover the amount she had invested in the climb,” he says.

Ratnesh Pandey, the first from Madhya Pradesh to have scaled Everest in 2016, was on the mountain as part of the Prestige Adventure team. He had known Rana to be a dedicated mountaineer, although she was suffering from chest congestion, he mentions. When Pandey moved down to Pheriche to rest before the summit push, he had asked her to join them in order to recover.

“I had met Vikas at Camp 2. She was on her own, without the other two teammates,” Pandey says.

Weather woes in the Himalayas

The weather on Everest wreaked havoc this season. The Sherpas usually open the route, and fix ropes along the tricky sections of the mountain right before climbers attempt to summit the peak on their own. During most seasons, the exercise is conducted during early May, but this year, high winds between 5 and 10 May prevented the rope-fixing team from making an attempt.

“We lost five important days due to bad weather, which is when we supply equipment to Camp 4 and complete the route to the top. The weather was predicted to get better between 11-16 May, so we were still busy fixing ropes then and most attempts were postponed by a week,” says Rishi Ram Bhandari, managing director at Satori Adventures.

“A lot of summit plans changed because the window of good weather was now pushed back,” says Mingma Sherpa, who was an Everest guide this season.

A few like Kakka managed to summit during the first good weather window on 16 May. A second spell of bad weather followed again, from 17-21 May, after which the mountaineers were blessed with another round of good weather from 22-23 May, which is when a majority of them attempted the summit. Finally, a last round of good weather was predicted for 26-27 May, by which time only a few teams were raring to go for the peak.

Keval Kakka on the Everest summit.

Keval Kakka atop Mt Everest.

A tedious and slow progress

Jordanian mountaineer Mostafa Salameh, who had summited Everest in 2008, and had eventually gone on to successfully complete the Explorers Grand Slam (travelling to the North Pole, South Pole, and climbing the Seven Summits), was part of the Makalu Extreme team as a mentor to Khadija Mohammad Turki from the United Arab Emirates.

Salameh claims that the three climbers went up to Camp 2 on 19 May as part of their summit push. Instead of staying there for two nights, they ended up spending six nights at Camp 2, before moving to Camp 3. “Most climbers on the summit push spend two nights at Camp 2. When I spoke to the team, they said they had gone to the summit without their Sherpas. I had two unsuccessful attempts on Everest in 2004 and 2005, before making it in 2008. And I know that there is no way on earth an inexperienced team like theirs can climb without Sherpas,” the mountaineer says.

“I saw them in base camp and they were really suffering — one was sick, the other was really weak. I even advised them to take extra oxygen with them to use at Camp 2, where I saw them again on 23 May. So I don’t see how they made it to the summit,” he adds.

Salameh believes that the Sherpas accompanied them till Camp 3, and after realising their slow pace, refused to go any further and went back to base camp.

Keval Kakka atop Mt Everest.

Keval Kakka atop Mt Everest.

While Morneva successfully topped out Lhotse for a second time on 20 May, Kakka, who was in Camp 4 awaiting his own summit bid on Lhotse the following day, had a brief chat with one of the senior guides about the Indian climbers. He too was told that the Sherpas with the three Indian climbers did not want to risk their safety, so they had decided to abandon the climb.

The final push

With most climbers having finished their summit attempt between 21 and 23 May, there were only a few left on the trail in the days ahead. Tendi Sherpa accompanied a final set of climbers as part of the Climbing the Seven Summits team, who were waiting to take on the challenge on 27 May.

“On 26 May, all my team members who were to summit the next day were climbing to Camp 4 on South Col. They saw nobody on the mountain that day,” he says. Had Rana, Banwala and Kasana summited on the same day as they claim, they would’ve had to either spend the night at Camp 4, or descend to a lower camp. With only one route followed on the south side by most commercial expeditions, that too being climbed by only a few groups during the period in question, there is a good chance that the trio would have been spotted by someone.

“My team of Sherpas met the Makalu Extreme team on their way down and their guide, Dorchi, told my Sherpas that they couldn’t reach higher than Camp 3 on their last summit push. So, it means they didn’t go even to the final camp (Camp 4). My team also heard that they were really slow,” Tendi says.

Proof of conquering Everest

Any summit claim made to the Department of Tourism in Nepal must be supported with a video or photographic evidence. There have been times when gadgets have malfunctioned, as a result of which climbers are known to carry more than just one camera. Or, they often ask fellow climbers on the summit to take their photos.

“The team leader, liaison officer, and agency need to certify that the climber has made it to the top. There is also a lot of documentation required to be submitted, like summit photos, a video, and proof that the climber has been to Camp 1, 2, 3 and 4,” Rishi Ram Bhandari says. “There are enough rules and regulations to get a certificate that you’ve climbed Everest. But people keep abusing the rules and it impacts others. I’ve even heard of people paying extra money to get certificates,” he adds.

The Makalu Extreme team had a liaison officer, who was around only for three days, according to Salameh. “He left around 16 May, so there was nobody keeping track of the climb after he left.”

Last week, Salameh had a word with Kasana about the climb. “He said he was in a bad state and didn’t know what to do. He didn’t admit or deny, but you can tell that he regrets what happened,” he says.

When the veteran mountaineer approached the trio for their summit photographs in order to support their claim, he received only a single photo from Banwala, one that didn’t look like the Everest summit, he claims. Bhandari and Mingma corroborate that the photo isn't conclusive.

The photo that Shobha Banwala sent Mostafa Salameh, claiming that it was from the summit of Everest.

The photo that Shobha Banwala sent to Mostafa Salameh, claiming that it was from the summit of Everest.

“I have been there four times and I’m certain it’s not the summit. I don’t think it is her photo either,” Salameh says.

Another glaring aberration, according to him, is the fact that the climber in the photograph is wearing a down jacket instead of a down suit — a gear that is indispensable on the summit given the temperatures. The reflection in the climber’s goggles also shows around six people.

“Who were these other climbers? And if they could take one photo, why couldn’t they take more, especially of the other climbers?” he asks.

Another climber from Mumbai, Kuntal Joisher, who summited Everest from the south in 2016 and Lhotse last year, besides getting to the top of Everest from the north side this year, believes that the photo has been tampered with.

“I’ve know this terrain from my past climbs and I don’t think this is the summit of Everest. What you see in the climber’s reflection is a part of the Western Cwm, something that you see between Camp 1 and Camp 2. What you see behind the climber is a part of what you see from the summit. It’s not possible to capture both these geographical features in one frame. I believe that these are two photos that have been superimposed to create this one,” Joisher says.

Morneva, however, mentions that her team claimed to be the only one to summit on 26 May. But a report by The Himalayan Times confirms that base camp officials reported no summits on that day. It also mentions that Pandey had been authorised to conduct the debriefing, and had approved the climbers’ fake summit claim while submitting his report to the Department of Tourism. “It was really windy that day and some people have reported to the Ministry of Tourism that they didn’t summit. But when I asked them, they couldn’t give me proof. And I cannot say anything hundred per cent without proof. So it’s a big problem for my company,” Morneva says.

A few from the climbing community say that the sheer desperation driving fake summit claims stems from the rewards on offer. A number of climbers from Haryana have been handed government jobs and prize money after scaling Everest in the past. For those already holding a position, a promotion is at stake. In 2016, a few climbers from the state had moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court after they were denied a job despite climbing Everest.

“India has so many climbers and it doesn’t go down well with the climbing community. Nobody should lie about summiting Everest. I too made it to the top only on the third attempt,” Salameh says.

All attempts to reach out to Rana and Banwala for comments were unsuccessful till the time this article was published.

Updated Date: Jun 28, 2019 09:52:42 IST