Claiming False Summits

Above: Climbing above Camp 4 Manaslu summit day, 2012

Words and Images by Guy Cotter, CEO of Adventure Consultants

Is standing on the actual summit important to claim an ascent?

The Ministry of Tourism in Nepal has recently granted summit certificates to climbers on the 8163m Mt Manaslu despite  them not having reached the actual summit.

During an ascent I made of Manaslu in May 2012 I observed many a climber who claimed to have reached the summit but  had stopped at one of the mountains fore-summits. Bad weather and persistent snowfalls on the mountain had made progress through the season extremely difficult and hazardous yet a late window opened in the season, finally enabling a single fine day for an attempt to be made on the summit before the onset of a season-ending storm cycle. In fact, the window was so small that we had to make the attempt from Camp 3 at 6,900m, as the forecast predicted we didn’t have time to climb to Camp 4 to make an attempt before the weather turned.

The second false summit on Manaslu, still 60-70 meters to the real summit.

This demanded us to face a 1300m summit day and fix ropes while we climbed, so it wasn’t going to be an easy task. A cold clear night turned to a stunning Himalayan dawn as we approached the Camp 4 site, then out of the swirling spindrift two climbers came walking down the mountain towards us. They stopped to talk, breathing heavily, slumped over their ice axes. They were members of a group of three Iranian climbers we had been observing throughout the period of expedition, noticeable due to the bold but totally suicidal approach they applied to their climbing practices. It appeared as if they had never read any mountaineering history or understood the principles of snow safety through their brazen disregard for avalanche hazards and lack of personal safety.

The story they revealed to me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They related how their group of three had summited the previous day but had become disoriented on the descent and had become lost on the plateau and had tried to descend a gully they had found (that was actually leading down the opposite side of the mountain to which they should have been heading). At that point their team mate had slipped and fallen to his death. The two survivors bivvied out overnight to avoid following their partners fate, and were now descending, distraught at the loss of the close friend.

Three hours later I arrived at the fore-summit of Manalsu, a flat section near a rock outcrop with a beautiful arête leading towards the summit some 200m above. I could see the footsteps of the Iranian climbers had stopped where I was standing. It was clear no one had climbed the arête as there would have been a line of steps in the soft snow. I lead out up the arête with a belay from below. I was revelling in the position, the views, and the incredible ambience of leading on intricate terrain towards the summit of an 8000m peak! Having run out about 200 meters of rope I arrived at a rock outcrop covered in prayer flags and slings. I secured my rope so the other climbers could follow.  There was still more mountain above me so when a climber I had befriended that was climbing with us that day arrived with more rope, I set off around the corner, along the western side of the steep ridge, and finally I climbed delicately up some crumbling rock to the tiny summit itself. Wow, that was mountaineering at its best!

My client, Anthony Baldry, came up the rope I fixed, to tag the summit, as did a couple of our Sherpa team and a handful of other climbers. To my surprise most of the 30 or so climbers that day stopped at the fore summit where the Iranians had stopped, or at the rock spike back around the corner about 50m away from the summit itself. Why, I thought, are they not going to the summit? Coming all this way and not summiting is such a shame. They would have to come back another time to claim the summit.

Later I realised that they all claimed to have reached the summit. In my naivety I had figured they would be honest about where they had stopped and not requested a summit certificate from the Ministry of Tourism. However, at the completion of the season, all the other climbers that day were recognised for summitting, as were the Iranians who had ‘summited’ the previous day.

I recall being close to the summit of Makalu in 2001, out of rope, with a steep and tricky part of the ridge to get around that was the last difficulty before easier ground led to the final summit. While considering options my climbing partner suggested we just call this the summit and descend. But I couldn’t face coming that close and just giving up without standing on top and there was no way I was going to lie about it if we didnt. I untied all my slings and prissiks to knot together a short rope about 10 metres long. My climbing partner then belayed me until I got around the corner where I could fix the makeshift rope in place. Then the summit was ours.

Donal on the true summit of Manaslu, 11 May 2012

That wizened and sharp-witted doyen of Himalayan chronicalisation; Elizabeth Hawley, spent many an hour at the end of each season interviewing climbers who were trumpeting their summit achievements after returning to Kathmandu. Under the microscope of Elizabeth’s sometimes caustic interrogations, cracks would sometimes appear in the climbers stories. Unbeknown to the uninitiated, Elizabeth would know every detail of the mountain, and especially the recognisable features at or near the summit. “What did you see when you were on the summit of Cho Oyu?”, she would enquire. If your answer wasn’t “Everest and the Western Cwm”, she would know you had failed to cross the summit plateau to the highest point of the mountain and your name would not appear in her Himalayan database, the semi-official record of all summits on major Himalayan peaks since she started taking records in the 1950’s.

In 2015 the Nepal government revoked the summit certificates of two Indian police constables who had claimed they had reached Everest’s on May 23, using falsified summit photos to verify their claim. An investigation revealed that the trekking agency the couple Tarkeshwari and Dinesh Rathod had hired as their local operator, were also privy to the deceit and had knowingly submitted the falsified summit photos to the Ministry to attain the summit certificates. The trekking agency was fined US$4000 and the climbers banned for 10 years from entering Nepal.

To me, this use of `alternative facts’ in mountaineering is counter to the principles of our sport. Presidents can blatantly lie and no-one is surprised, but mountaineers should be better than that.

After all, who are you cheating by claiming you had reached the summit apart from yourself? Over the years I have heard many accounts of climbers being attributed summits they did not stand on the top of. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether another climber has lied about their achievements, as after all, it’s not a competition. But history shows that some of these narcissists such as Tomo Cesen, Cesare Maestri, and now the Rathods’ feel that public appreciation of their feats outweighs the enduring burden of their own guilt in the knowledge of their deceit. I genuinely feel sorry for them yet I do admit to feeling a twinge of disdain that those climbers who did not stand on the summit of Manaslu, that same day as I was there, have been attributed a summit that they did not stand on.

Read more about Guy’s Expedition to climb Mount Manaslu here.