TARKESHWARI Rathod says all they had was a little ambition. “It is important that one must have some achievement to one’s credit,” she tells The Sunday Express from an undisclosed location where she and her husband are hiding. What they have now is an Everest-size scandal.
On August 29, Nepal banned the Pune-based husband and wife from climbing any peak in the country for 10 years, confirming what was being talked about since Tarkeshwari and Dinesh Rathod claimed in May to have become “the first Indian couple” to scale the world’s highest peak. Veteran climbers say there have been hoaxes before, but never has Nepal taken such drastic action.
Those who know the Rathods vouch for their long and relentless trek on the quest for fame, though few can say why the couple who are in their 30s went chasing mountains for it. Fellow mountaineers in Pune have accounts of other failed climbing attempts.
And yet, from Pune to Kathmandu, few officials had questions at the start. All the Rathods, both constables in the Pune police, had to do was submit a photograph that they said showed them “at the Everest summit on May 23”, to almost pull it off.
When the Rathods arrived in Kathmandu on June 5 and presented this “evidence”, the Nepal government accorded them a hero’s welcome, distinctly different from the other 454 issued certificate of successful ascent this expedition season. They were interviewed by Kantipur Television, the largest private TV channel of the country, and felicitated by Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae.
They were issued the ascent certificate on June 10, after the government liaison officer, Ganesh Timilsina, endorsed the claim made by the Rathods and their Sherpa guides, Fursemba Sherpa and Furba Sherpa. The two guides are also missing now.
It was the photograph that proved the Rathods’ undoing. Satyrup Siddhanta, a software engineer from Bengaluru, was the first to claim that his photographs of Everest ascent had been morphed by the couple to pass of as theirs. A three-member Nepal government enquiry team has now endorsed this.
The Rathods, however, hold on to their story. The couple are officially “missing”, having failed to appear before the departmental inquiry instituted by the Pune police.
“There is a lot we want to talk about, but there are restrictions due to the ongoing inquiry,” Tarkeshwari says. “Our silence should not be seen as us accepting the charges.”
Dinesh says “all will be clear” in a couple of days. “We have strong proof of reaching the summit, which we will give to the media. We did it for our satisfaction,” he says.
Both Tarkeshwari and Dinesh are currently deployed at the Shivajinagar headquarters of the Pune city police, with its ‘C’ and ‘A’ companies. An officer, on condition of anonymity, says they joined the service in 2006 and got married in 2008.
Colleagues talk of a couple who were “calm”, “normal” and “kept to themselves”. Expressing “shock” at the charges against them, a woman colleague at the police headquarters says, “The two have a house in the Wakad police colony. But they would be mostly out of town, either for sports or mountaineering. Their interaction with others at work was also limited.”
Trying to explain their road to Everest, Tarkeshwari says their favourite sport was karate. “Both of us love karate,” she says.
Ramesh Rathod, an advocate related to Dinesh, says the family has full faith in them. “Both of them are true sportspersons.” He also describes Dinesh as a “daredevil” who was also into boxing and adventure sports. “We are from the Banjara community which is known for its courage and skills. A few years back, without any practice, Dinesh had jumped from 5,000 feet from a helicopter. Hundreds had gathered to see this in Baramati taluka,” Ramesh claims. “Dinesh does not need any practice for all this,” he repeats.
A police officer says Dinesh and Tarkeshwari’s families chipped in for the Everest expedition. The two raised Rs 17 lakh each, some of it also from wellwishers. Then they formally applied for two months’ leave for the expedition, and gave references of an earlier “summit climb in Australia”.
Pune-based Anjali Kulkarni, who along with her husband was part of that 10-member expedition to Australia, says even that story was a half-truth.
The Rathods had gone for the “Aussie 10” challenge (that involves climbing the 10 highest peaks of Australia) on the advice of Surendra Shelke, president of the Pimpri Chinchwad Mountaineering Association. Shelke says they met him in 2014, seeking his advice on climbing the Everest.
But when he told them to undergo a 28-day course from one of the five national mountaineering institutes in the country to climb the Everest, the two baulked, he says. “We are already sportspersons… Do we really need such courses?” they reportedly enquired.
Shelke had the feeling the couple were not serious. “They showed least interest in the mandatory training for a peak like the Everest. Their approach seemed casual.”
He says they then told him that to get leave up to a year for an expedition to Everest, they would need to show the office a proper schedule. “We need some achievements to our credit to get sanction,” they reportedly said.
Shelke then suggested the Australia challenge, and the Rathods headed there with Kulkarni, her husband and six other mountaineers in 2014.
According to Kulkarni, there, the Rathods skipped five of the 10 peaks. “They were exhausted after scaling five peaks and just could not complete the expedition,” she says.
After returning, the two reportedly avoided any contact with their Pune mountaineering team.
In April-May 2015, the Rathods went on their first Everest expedition. But the earthquake that year foiled their plans.
When asked how the couple were granted leave again for the Everest trip this year, ACP G S Mandgulkar says, “Their application was approved by the state Home Ministry. In case of government staff going abroad, the Home Department’s permission is required.” With their application, the couple submitted documents related to their sports activities, as well as to their Australian expedition.
By May 23, the Rathods claimed to have climbed the Everest, and on June 5, came the press conference in Kathmandu where they announced this to the world. “We were committed that we would not give birth to a child until we climbed Mount Everest,” Dinesh told reporters. “With pride now, we want to become parents,” said Tarkeshwari.
The other Indians who were part of expeditions to Everest this year were astounded. Immediately after the press conference, Kuntal Joshier, Rafik Shaikh and Satyrup Siddhanta, who scaled the peak this season, called up Shelke, Kulkarni and other mountaineers in Pune.
Kulkarni says they told her the Rathods had been spotted by them at the Everest base camp only on May 4. “And on May 23, they claimed to have reached the peak. This is shocking. As per norm, climbers have to be at the base camp for at least a month to acclimatise to the conditions and practise at the nearby smaller peaks before the final ascent.”
Mumbai-based Joshier, who scaled the Everest on May 19, says, “On May 4, I saw a tent coming up at the base camp which belonged to the Rathods. When a climber from Haryana sought to know why they had arrived so late, the Rathods told her there was no need for them to acclimatise or practise. What is required is ‘jigra (gumption)’.”
Most of the Everest trekkers arrive at the base camp by mid-April for the climbing season that lasts from April till mid-June.
Joshier, who came down to the base camp on May 21 after his summit climb, says he didn’t meet the Rathods or their two Sherpa guides either going up or descending. “Generally, Indians who bump into each other spend some time chatting up. But I did not come across the duo.”
Finally, photographs released by the Rathods to the press gave them away. Siddhanta says he noticed that the Rathods had morphed photos of his climb. “When I had come down to the base camp along with two Sherpas, the Sherpas had copied pictures of the summit in their pen drive. They might have shared the pictures with other climbers,” he says.
Siddhanta also never saw the Rathods along the Everest route, he says. “We were a team of four climbers and four Sherpas. We spotted only an Indian NCC team.”
As the Nepal government probed the allegations, Siddhanta’s summit certificates were put on hold. “Finally, I received the certificate on August 29,” he says.
Kulkarni says the “lie” after all wasn’t hard to catch. “The colour of Dinesh’s jacket is red and black in his individual summit photo, whereas in the couple’s summit photo, his jacket colour is yellowish orange. The same with Tarkeshwari’s. In her individual summit photo, Tarkeshwari’s shoes are red and black whereas in the couple’s summit photo, her shoes are yellow and black.”
After other mountaineers raised doubts, the Pimpri Chinchwad Mountaineers’ Association approached the Pune police seeking an investigation. Pune Commissioner Rashmi Shukla then instituted a probe headed by ACP Madgulkar.
Shukla says Nepal officials had told them a letter had been sent confirming that the Rathods’ claims were fake. “The couple have tarnished the image not only of police but the whole country,” says the Commissioner.
On August 30, the Nepal Ministry of Tourism, the nodal agency for the Everest expedition, to which proofs of a summit climb are submitted, annulled the certificate it had issued to the Rathods, apart from banning them for 10 years from any Nepal expedition.
The month-long probe into the Rathods was conducted by two Nepali officials, one each from the Ministry of Law and Tourism, and included a photographer.
Makalu Adventures, the Nepali trekking agency that organised the climb, was let off with a warning “to be careful in future”, as the probe team held that “they cooperated right from the beginning and were the first to tell the government soon after the complaint was lodged that ‘we may have been cheated’”.
Mohan Lamsal, who coordinated the climb, couldn’t be reached as he was not in Kathmandu, but a Makalu official who said he was not authorised to speak told the Express they had extended their services to the Rathods after intervention by their Sherpa guides. “The guides pleaded with us to accommodate them since they had to abandon the expedition in 2015. We acted in good faith and on humanitarian grounds,” says the official.
There has been another fallout of l’affaire Rathod. Sudarshan Dhakal, Director General in the Ministry of Tourism, told The Sunday Express the Nepal government is now looking at more credible ways to authenticate a climb.
The government issues a permit to climb Everest for a fee of US $11,000 per person, and while those who succeed are issued certificates, their Sherpas get ‘adventure bonus’, and their words carry much weight when it comes to determining a successful climb.
The government liaison officers, assigned at base camps, rely on the word of the trekkers, physical evidence they supply, and the Sherpas to recommend to the Ministry of Tourism that a certificate be issued.
A senior official in the Nepal Tourism Ministry says they would be dealing with the liaison officers in the Rathod case. “But we are waiting to talk to the two Sherpa guides.”
Shelke hopes the case will lead to Nepal putting more checks in place. “It will be interesting to find out how the Rathods managed to get the photographs and who helped them morph them,” he says.
Talking about the alternatives they are considering, Gyanendra Shrestha, an official in the Ministry of Tourism who has also scaled Everest, says, “We have considered installing GPS (to authenticate climbs), but protecting equipment and battery appears a problem.”
However, he adds, they never did imagine a situation like this. “No one could anticipate that somebody would risk his/her life and reputation like this.”
ACP Mandgulkar says police may also change its policy regarding applications for leave for sports or expeditions, based on the Rathod case.
While the Rathods are off Nepal’s list of successful summitteers for this year, their guides could be struck out too. The official figure for 2016 has been corrected to 452.
One of the 452 incidentally happens to be the man now certified as the first Maharashtra Police constable to have climbed Everest — a feat the Rathods had in their sights.
A naik with the Aurangabad rural police, 30-year-old Rafik Shaikh scaled the peak on May 19, got frost bite, and had to take a helicopter for part of the way back.
Relative Ramesh Rathod says in their “hope to achieve something different”, Dinesh and Tarkeshwari knew little came close to Everest. “They knew if they achieved that, it would be unique.” It wasn’t monetary benefits or promotion they were after, he insists.
But Shaikh has no doubt the Rathods did all this for “instant fame, promotion in job, long leave and could be money”.
Shaikh took nearly Rs 50 lakh loan for his two attempts to climb Everest, which the government has paid. “Besides,” he smiles, “the government has promised me a promotion.”