Officials supporting Everest climbers to be strapped with GPS device this springThe use of technology is aimed at preventing fake summit claims and stopping liaison officers from pocketing money from climbers while staying home.
Last week an investigation committee of the Tourism Ministry recommended revoking the Everest climbing certificates of two Indian nationals who produced fake documents to say that they had climbed Mt Everest [8,848.86 metres] in May 2016, and imposing a 10-year mountaineering ban on the duo.
The fact-finding government committee had, after six months of investigation, concluded that the photographs submitted by Indian nationals Narender Singh Yadav and Seema Rani Goswami showing that they had reached the top of the world's highest mountain were fake, said Taranath Adhikari, the spokesperson for the ministry.
Yadav was one of the recipients of the prestigious Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award in India. On August 22 last year, the 26-year-old was named one of the five recipients of India’s highest award for adventure sports in the ‘land adventure’ category for the year 2019 and Indian President Ram Nath Kovind was slated to hand over the award on August 29 last year.
But after several claims of fake ascent, India’s Ministry of Youth and Sports requested Nepal for an investigation. After four years of that controversial summit, the Tourism Ministry had formally opened an investigation in August last year.
Earlier in 2016, Nepal had imposed a 10-year mountaineering ban on two Indian climbers Dinesh Rathore and Tara Keshari Rathore for claiming to be the first Indian couple to have climbed Everest.
They too had submitted photos to the department to claim the climbing certificate, which would give them fame and promotion. But it turned out the photos were morphed.
According to the department, out of nine fake certificate cases reported, five including four Indians and a UAE national are under investigation.
As per the rules, every climber has to submit a photograph standing atop Everest within five months of the completion of their expedition to the Department of Tourism in order to claim the certificate. They also have to submit a report from their liaison officer, who stays at base camp. But in many cases, liaison officers are also a part of the plot.
A separate internal report of the department says that in the spring of 2019, out of 37 liaison officers who were deployed on Everest to support climbers, only 22 went to the base camp. But those figures are still exaggerated, according to climbing guides.
The liaison officers, who are the civil servants from various ministries and departments, including the army and police, make handsome earnings [at least Rs200,000]—payments supported by the climbers with their daily allowances and charge for their mountaineering gear and food.
According to mountaineering officials, the allowances given to the government officials depend on the height of the mountain.
There is a general understanding that a liaison officer mobilised to monitor climbers attempting peaks of elevation between 6,500 metres and 7,000 metres is offered $1,400 for the entire mission. For the peaks ranging from 7,000 metres to below 8,000 metres, the allowances is $1,600. For the peak above 8,000 metres is $1,800 and for Everest, the minimum allowance is $2,000.
“The allowance depends on bargaining,” said a government official, who has been part of Everest expeditions twice. “It’s illegal, but it’s normal. Many liaison officers make excuses to increase their allowances.”
But this year, the department is planning differently.
At least 20 government employees deployed as liaison officers to support Everest climbers during the upcoming spring season will be strapped with a GPS device to locate them and to prevent false claims of reaching the base camp and supporting the climbers.
Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of the Department of Tourism, the agency that issues climbing permits, said they have been expediting the process to launch the GPS system as a pilot project.
“We are expecting the pilot project this year but are not sure how successful it will be,” he told the Post. “As cases of fake climbing and fake rescue are increasing, we hope this system, once fully implemented, will discourage malpractice in the mountaineering industry.”
Tamang, however, is not sure how long it will take to implement the system fully.
“But we are optimistic about launching the first phase trial this spring even though time is limited,” said Tamang.
The spring season begins in early April as hordes of climbers start trekking for the Everest region. From hotels to restaurants, guides to potters, and airlines to helicopters, all eagerly await the spring climbing season as it generates much-needed income and jobs for the mountainous region.
The government alone earns around $4 million by issuing Everest climbing permits every year. The two-week summit window normally begins in the second week of May.
Last year, millions of dollars of revenue was wiped out from the market as the spring ascents were called off in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the resumption of flights and Nepal reopening for tourists and trekkers, the government this year aims to conduct a trial of the GPS system for Everest expedition.
The department has allocated Rs5 million to buy GPS devices and is in the process of opening the tender documents submitted by the suppliers which would take a few days.
“If the devices supplied fulfil our requirement, we have to buy other systems like radio frequency systems that provide critical positioning capabilities,” said Tamang. "We will conduct a trial this year, and if this works, we'll make it mandatory for all climbers to carry these devices from 2022.”
Nepal decided to implement the GPS monitoring system of climbers after 2016 when the first case of faking the Everest climb was reported.
But according to officials at the Department of Tourism, the plan could not materialise due to frequent changes of tourism ministers as well as funding issues.
Tamang, however, said since Everest will see fewer visitors this year, it wouldn't be difficult for them to manage the numbers. “We have not planned for any major changes in the Everest rules this year.”
According to the Department of Immigration, Nepal recorded fewer than 9,000 foreign tourists in January this year, the highest arrivals since April last year. Industry insiders say that the bookings for spring have started, but it’s not that encouraging.
But still there are several questions over the authentication of the GPS devices to prove one has reached the summit.
It is still not clear what will happen if the device registered in the name of one climber is handed to someone else who will carry the device to the summit.
Engineer Pradip Raj Poudel of the Tourism Ministry said that apart from GPS devices, the tourism department is also working on the installation of a biometric attendance system.
“The government will use the latest GPS system, a satellite-based two-way texting, mapping and tracking system,” said Poudel. “The department will set up biometric attendance at least in three different locations.”
The liaison officers will first have to login on the biometric attendance system installed at the Department of Tourism before heading to the mountains.
Other biometric attendance systems will be installed at Namche Bazaar and the Everest base camp under the supervision of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, an agency that deploys a team of icefall doctors to fix a climbing route at different peaks, including Mt Everest.
“This is an effective way to prevent liaison officers from colluding with hoax climbers,” said Poudel. “It will depend on the department guidelines whether liaison officers have to make attendance on a daily basis once they reach the Everest base camp.”
According to Poudel, it will cost around Rs200,000 for the GPS device that includes the satellite rental charges and power backups.
If the trial is successful, the government may make the climbers pay for these, according to department officials. The department is preparing a new set of guidelines for the implementation of the GPS tracking and monitoring system.
A total of 6,507 mountaineers have climbed Everest from the Nepal side since Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and New Zealander Edmund Hillary first set foot atop the world's highest peak in May 1953.
The year 2019 was significant in terms of records set on the world’s tallest peak. On May 22 and 23, a total of 223 and 212 climbers reached the summit, which has been recorded as the highest and the second-highest number of climbers on the top of Everest on a particular day.
Gyanendra Shrestha, a government official, who has been the liaison officer for 11 different years on Everest, said if liaison officers are present at the base camp, mostly during the climbing period, it will almost prevent the cases of fake climbing.
“They have to prepare the report of the climb and submit it to the department. Based on the report, the department issues the certificates,” said Shrestha. “But still, liaison officers could leave the base camp immediately after reaching there on various pretexts. Spending days at over 5,000 metres is challenging.”
It’s also not clear whether all individual climbers will be strapped with the GPS device.
“We are also studying the option of strapping the device to the group’s climbing leader who will report on behalf of other climbers,” said Tamang.
But technology is just a tool.
Even if the GPS is strapped to climbers, there are chances some may still make claims of reaching the summit without doing so, according to Shrestha.
“It’s all about ethics,” said Shrestha.