- Bhadra Sharma/Centre for Investigative Journalism-Nepal
Our months-long investigation reveals chilling collusion among liaison officers (LOs), expedition companies and bureaucrats at the Ministry to award summit certificates to fake climbers. Moreover, politicians and those in powerful positions vouch for individuals to be a LO, but the majority of those selected as Los never stay in the Everest Base Camp (EBC) during the climbing season.
Prime Minister KP Oli could barely hide his discomfort during a BBC live interview in London during his UK visit in the second week of May.
BBC journalist Matthew Amroliwala asked some tough questions on growing anomalies in Nepal’s mountaineering sector. “Out of sixty liaison officers (LOS) in the mountains, only five stayed on those mountains. They had taken the money but stayed at home,” Amroliwala asked adding, “Did that disturb you?”
Prime Minister Oli struggled to answer the question. He was either oblivious about the mess in Everest this spring or he sat for the interview without adequate preparations. He instead talked about other issues of mountaineering and skipped the question about the absentee LOs.
Right after the interview, PM’s secretariat called tourism secretary Mohan Krishna Sapkota and sought an explanation on the reported absence of Los in the mountains. As he didn’t have accurate information, Sapkota directed the Department of Tourism, the line agency to provide Los-related information at the earliest.
Before Prime Minister Oli returned home from his trip to Europe, the Department issued a statement mentioning that the traffic jam had no role behind the deaths on Everest this season. The Department then issued a second statement a few days later stating that only 22 out of 37 Los deployed for this season had reached the Everest Base Camp (EBC).
The department neither named the LOs nor explained why the 15 LOs failed to report to duty. Two LOs later claimed that they had visited the Base Camp by helicopter and returned.
This was the first time ever in Nepal’s mountaineering history that the Department formally admitted to anomalies that had long thrived in the shadow of Mt Everest: LOs producing reports even without setting their foot on EBC.
The Department later formed an internal probe panel to study whether the liaison officers reached the assigned mountains or produced the report without reaching the assigned venues. The preliminary report about the absence of LOs has been kept secret. 13 LOs never reached the Base Camp
Out of the 37 liaison officers, 13 officers had submitted their report about the summit without even going to the base camp. They basically stayed home. Our investigation shows that many of the officers in question were mainly government officials who are well connected to the country’s power centers.
According to the details submitted to Prime Minister Oli, who leads the Tourism Ministry as well after the demise of the tourism minister Rabindra Adhikari in February, Tourism Ministry’s section officers Lekh Paneru, Bina Shrestha, Santosh Moktan, Humnath Pandey, Laxmi Sharma, Gopal Bhandari, and Bishwo Bandhu Regmi have been found producing fake report without reaching the Base Camp and they have been receiving full payment for the assignments.
It has been revealed that Punya Prasad Dhakal, the section officer at the Home Ministry, CIAA’s Tirtharaj Chapagain and Kamal Prasad Mishra, Tourism Ministry’s legal officer Chandra Prasad Adhikari, President’s Office under-secretary Prahlad Pudasaini and Rajendra Kumar Shrestha of Solukhumbu, pocketed allowances without even reaching the Base Camp.
The ministry claims 22 LOs reached the base camp. However, Sherpas, who stayed there for the entire expedition season, say very few LOs were stationed throughout the expedition period. They say most LOs just trekked to the Base Camp located at an altitude of 5,300 meters while others returned to Kathmandu, after spending a few days.
“Only Gyanendra Shrestha and two or three other LOs were stationed at the Base Camp till the end. I didn’t even see the rest of the liaison officers,” said Kami Rita Sherpa, who climbed Everest 24 times, a record, including twice in a gap of a week this spring season, adding, “Some of the liaison officers reached Pheriche, some others made it to Namche while others just stayed at home in Kathmandu.”
Our investigation shows a few LOs toured the Everest Base Camp via helicopter and returned to Kathmandu immediately. Tourism Ministry’s Ganesh Katuwal and Mangala Pradhan did the same. Katuwal was deployed as a LO to manage the expedition team from Imagine Trek and Expedition, and Pradhan was assigned to handle a 15-member expedition team from Himalayan Ski Trek.
“Mangala ma’am visited the EBC by helicopter and returned right away. She didn’t even visit our camp,” said Ram Thapa of Himalayan Ski Trek, adding, “As a liaison officer she has already signed the document [summit certificate].”
A high-level committee led by joint-secretary Ghanshyam Upadhyay has been constituted to investigate into the matter and come up with recommendations for policy, procedural, legal and structural changes.
Dandu Raj Ghimire, Director General at the Department, complained that all LOs were not honest with their assignments. “All LOs aren’t honest. We need to develop software to test their honesty.”Ghimire, who is also a member of a high-level probe committee, assured to “monitor the activities of non-compliant liaison officers and scrap their future deputations if found guilty”. He claimed that most LOs reached the base camp this year. “Twenty-two of them reached the Base Camp. Only four to five had reached the camp in previous years.”
Syndicate in selecting LOs
As per the mountaineering regulations 2002, the Department of Tourism begins distributing certificates to successful climbers only after the expedition company, team leader and LOs jointly conduct debriefing before the Department officials. Climbers are asked to furnish photos or video evidence before summit certificates are awarded. Climbers get a certificate only after the Department is satisfied with the evidences.
The regulations empower LOs to report if the climbers summited mountains or not and monitor the activities of expedition companies and climbers. LOs are required to monitor and take action, if necessary if expedition companies and climbers are found involved in illegal acts. Officials at the Department say that most of the government employees begin lobbying to secure their deputation as LOs months before the expedition season given the lucrative nature of the job.
The position offers a rare opportunity to get sponsored trek to the Everest region and draw a few thousand dollars as allowance.One has to be well connected to find a place in the LO team. Dhakal, the LO who returned without reaching the base camp, is the chairman of civil servant’s authorized trade union and Regmi is a member.
Any government employee with a certificate of basic training from Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM) and officials from security agencies can file an application at the Department to work as LO, together with a consent letter from their immediate supervisors. The Department selects LOs, keeping all-powerful government bodies in mind. Continuing past tradition of maintaining internal power balance, the Department had selected 113 Los based on the recommendations from the higher authorities. Of them, 37 were deployed for Everest expedition.
An official at the Ministry of Tourism said quota was fixed for key agencies to avoid possible political and administrative pressure. LO selection is made by keeping in mind all the powerful authorities like the Office of the President, PMO, CIAA, Nepal Police, APF and Nepal Army.
The government doesn’t deduct the salaries of the officials deployed as LOs and expedition agencies provide them an additional allowance for the trip to Everest as an “economic package”.
An informal agreement has been reached between the Department and Expedition Operator’s Association that (EOA) to provide a minimum of US$2000 to each LO deployed to the base camp.
But LOs reportedly demand that the expedition companies bear their travel, trek, and lodging expenses also. Expedition companies complain that the LOs demand expensive mountaineering gears.
“It costs up to $2300 to make travel, food and other arrangements per LO. Some expedition companies provide $2500 or more,” said expedition operator Bodh Raj Bhandari.
As per the mountaineering regulations, LOs should be paid Rs 500 daily as allowance and provided additional money required for other logistics, like a down jacket, bed, trousers, snow glasses, and medicine and first aid, among other things. Although the regulations have fixed special benefits for LOs it was unclear whether the government or the expedition agencies should bear the expenses incurred for the deployment of LOs.
Tourism officials believe that such an agreement has made LOs totally dependent on expedition agencies. The same agreement, according to tourism officials, has made them loyal to expedition companies, sometimes even engaging in unlawful activities.
“Those who are well connected to power centers attend training and get recommendations for LO. People have already started visiting us to get deputation as LO for the next autumn season,” said a department official, requesting anonymity. “Selection of liaison officer always remains a challenging job.”
When government employees are selected as LOs based on political influence, they don’t feel the need to go to the ground. In many cases, the Department makes calls to LOs just to get their signature on the documents. “Since the Department cannot issue certificates without the signature of LOs concerned, we have to persuade some to come to the Department to sign the documents.”
“LOs are less accountable to the government and rely more on expedition agencies as they have to share the company’s tents and have to request them for everything, including rescue in case of an emergency,” said Mira Acharya, director at the Department of Tourism.
Expedition operators, however, point finger at the faulty LO recruitment process. “If capable LOs were selected, they could have managed the traffic jam at the top, garbage collection, and notify about any wrongdoing committed in and around Everest,” said Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, adding, “How can you expect better coordination when some LOs deployed from the government don’t even reach the base camp?”
Absence of LOs also benefits the expedition companies as it saves them the extra cost of setting up tents and travel arrangement for LOs.
Producing fake climbers
Everest climbing is increasingly becoming unsafe and unmanaged, owing to LOs avoiding field trips citing poor health or personal issues. LO Bishwa Bandhu Regmi returned to Kathmandu from Namche after complaining of high altitude sickness. He was deployed to manage a 10-member expedition team of Prestige Adventures.
“He got sick and was airlifted to Kathmandu,” said a tourism official, adding, “Then, he never returned to base camp.”
Regmi admits the mistake. Given his poor health, he took climbing updates through expedition company’s representatives stationed at the Base Camp. He claimed that he briefed the Department over the phone based on the information provided to him by the expedition agency’s representative on the ground.
When the agency’s representatives returned to Kathmandu, Regmi, together with Yagya Raj Uprety of the agency, conducted a debriefing at the Department. Out of 10 Everest hopefuls, two were absent, four returned from the Base Camp and four summited Everest. They briefed that Vikas Rana, Shobha Banwala, Ankush Kasana, Khadija Moh, a climber from UAE, and Ali Turki Alblooshi had successfully climbed Everest.
However, other climbers and Sherpas informed the Department that Rana, Banwala, Kasana and Ali Turki Alblooshi did not even make it to Camp IV. The Department then initiated an internal investigation. Since then the climbers are out of contact, ignoring the Department’s request to come up with their summit photos.
The Department has now backtracked from its preparation to hand over summit certificates to the four climbers.
“I briefed the Department about their successful summit as per the information provided to me by the expedition agency. I came to know about the truth only through media reports,” said Regmi, requesting not to write news that tarnishes the county’s image, “I have already filed an application requesting to remove their names from the list of successful summiteers.”
Like three climbers from Haryana, expedition companies and LOs are under scrutiny for providing wrong information to the Department in order to award summit certificates to ‘fake climbers’.
Another preliminary investigation has shown that Nahida Manjoor, a Kashmiri climber, received a certificate of successful Everest summit by presenting a doctored photo. This has raised the credibility of both the liaison officer, police inspector Dilli Bahadur Thapa, and expedition agency Snowy Horizon. Unconvinced by Nahida’s summit claim, the Department had sought re-verification from the expedition company as well. Nahida was awarded a summit certificate, based on her expedition company’s recommendation.
In 2017, a couple from Indian Police Dinesh Rathod and his wife, Tarkeshwari, had received the Everest summit certificate by presenting photos. Evidence later showed that the couple had faked photos to get summit certificates. Nepal banned them from climbing Nepal’s mountains for 10 years and the Indian government sacked both of them from their jobs. But the government has not taken any action against the agency, Makalu Adventures, and the then liaison officer Ganesh Prasad Timsina for assisting their fraudulent activities.
A 2018 permit case tells the intensity of carelessness in Nepal’s mountaineering. The Permission Letter-72 is considered one of the most infamous cases in Nepal’s mountaineering history. Seven Summit Treks had added two additional climbers in their 12-member expedition team and collected $22,000 in fees from the climbers.
The Department formed a probe committee after the then mountaineering chief Ram Prasad Sapkota and liaison officer Tilak Ram Pandey didn’t initiate action against the company for months. The expedition company later deposited $44,000 as fine and loss of property at the Department. This came after the probe panel recommended action against the company at the Department of Revenue Investigation. Of late, no action has been taken against the liaison officer and his boss who were reluctant to take action against the expedition company despite knowing about their wrongdoings.
LO Tilak Ram Pandey had reportedly briefed the then mountaineering division chief Sapkota about discrepancies in the number of climbers permitted for Everest climbing on his way to base camp. But Sapkota and the liaison didn’t take any legal action against the agency for breaching the law.
According to an official involved in the investigation, “Investigation was initiated only after Sapkota was transferred from the department.” No action has been taken against Sapkota and Pandey for their collusion.
“I made it to Syangboche, close to the Everest Base Camp but could not make it to EBC due to high altitude sickness. Later, I summoned the representatives of expedition companies to my place and I was airlifted to Solukhumbu Hospital,” said LO Punya Prasad Dhakal when asked for reasons why he did not stay at the Base Camp.
Everest being defamed by greedy LOs and expedition firms
Nepal received negative coverage across the globe for failing to properly control Everest anomalies. The assigned LOs failed to coordinate climbing when short weather windows opened, which resulted in massive traffic jams for hours on the death zone. Traffic jams may not be the sole cause but 11 climbers died on Everest this past season, one of the deadliest mishaps without major natural disasters.
Garbage is piling up on Everest as climbers continue to dump waste there. Former NMA chief Sherpa says the government’s mandatory rule to bring eight kg of the garbage while returning to the EBC has not been strictly enforced due to LOs’ absence.
Record holder Sherpa says Everest’s image will forever be tarnished if LOs and expedition companies found involved in distributing Everest climbing certificates to fake climbers are not punished. He says that companies involved in wrongdoings should be barred from operating future expeditions. “How can the government select LOs who cannot even reach the Base Camp?”
Ang Tshering worries whether the series of negative publicity about Everest will cause an untimely demise of Nepali tourism. “Let’s send only capable people as LOs so that they can properly coordinate entire expedition work. We don’t need 40 LOs, seven to eight Sherpas can handle the entire expedition,” said Sherpa.
Kami Rita seconds former NMA chief. “Everest has been defamed because of greed. Only Everest summiteers should be named LOs. It would be best if ten times Everest summiteers are picked for that job,” said Sherpa. He says greedy LOs and expedition companies have cheapened Everest.
Pabitra Guragain Kathmandu: The Himalayan Vegan Festival-2022 has been scheduled to be hel…