Shooting ourselves in the foot


Willie's climbing partner Matt Moniz with skis on the Western Cwm of Mount Everest. Pic: Willie Benegas

Khumbu -- Never let the facts get in the way of a good story is a line which sure also lives in Nepal. So, I am not consulting actual facts for this report. It is  too difficult. My facts are as I see them and that makes them my facts. If feelings are hurt, these are the facts regardless of the cause.

On Sunday a team of Nepali guides topped out on Mt Everest while fixing the route, securing it for others to follow. These men take the greatest risks, in the lead and are a great credit to their profession and to Nepal. A Chinese double amputee and 13 other climbers summitted Monday morning.

Before we heard this good news there was the report that Willie Benegas was to be recalled from the mountain, fined and banned from Nepal. His crime was skiing the short distance from Camp 3 to Camp 2 on Mt Everest last week.

I consider Willie and his brother Damien to be friends and, like myself, mountain professionals. I have known the brothers for well over a decade and have climbed with them. I met with my partner Dawa Steven in Asian Trekking before they left for the mountain this season. The brothers come to see what is new in the world of high altitude oxygen and give us their feedback from the previous season. They were the only people to do this and they do it to make Everest better and safer. Over the years I have trusted them to test new innovations because I trust their opinions, experience and passion.

I first climbed on Mt Everest in 1988, and have led teams many times since then. I had never heard that you need a permit to ski on Everest, nor has anyone else I know. It just does not make sense. Skiing on any mountain is a perfectly accepted norm up and down, as accepted as wearing crampons.

Skiing a crime? Seriously? It is clear that Willie also was unaware of his crime, and crime it must be if he is facing deportation. He posted the event on social media and told people he intended to do it. It is pretty difficult to smuggle a set of skis up a mountain. Surely his Liaison Officer would have seen this and made him aware?

Lets take a quick look at the permits. First he bought a Nepal visa, then an Everest climbing permit of $11000, then a National Park permit in order to get to the place that he has bought an $11000 permit to get to. If he wants to make a video he needs to get a filming permit.

So what else can the government do to make extra cash? We could then charge him a camping permit, taking photos permit, talking to media permit (this exists) wearing boots permit, using ropes permit?

Do you know how this looks from the outside in, it looks like a very nasty, cheap, money grubbing venture by the government. Willie immediately offered to pay the permit. No, not allowed. He was summoned to Kathmandu where he went at great personal expense by helicopter. We then hear that he is to be deported.

Willie’s expedition was an attempt by NASA to replicate its experiment with twins in orbit, by tracking the physiological functions of the climbers’ twin brothers at sea level.

The mountain community are enraged. Willie is possibly the most respected western professional in the industry. The guides and local people remember what the government cannot. Willie and his brother did great work during and after the 2015 earthquake. They have brought countless people and therefore money to the industry and Nepal. Now lets punish him, perhaps ruin his livelihood. For skiing!

Yes, a crime has been committed and people should be punished, but was not Willie who committed it. The real crime here is the damage done to the industry and the name of Nepal. This bad press has of course reached every part of the world, and people are truly incensed.

As the greater, true crime goes unpunished, Willie has already been punished before being found guilty. He lost vital time on the mountain needed for his acclimatisation and the costs of helicopters.

Stop Press. This just in. There is no permit to ski on Everest. There exists a ‘heli ski permit’ where you exit a helicopter with the express intent to ski, but this is not possible on Everest as the only helicopters allowed at this height are for rescue and need a permit.

All this damage for nothing when it could have been avoided, not made any press as Willie would actually have paid for a permit that did not exist. So the fine and the money grubbing efforts are all in vain.

By the way, where was the paid-for Liaison Officer while all of this was happening. Just asking, in case he was not there where he was meant to be, where he was paid to be by Willie?

If this was the case, then we have someone who we could punish, who really did commit a crime.

Ted Atkins is a former RAF Chief Engineering Officer and works on mountaineering oxygen systems. He contributes this Outside In column for Nepali Times. 

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