Out There

In a high-altitude feud, two Sherpas snipe about who's the fastest up Everest
August 29, 2004

It's there. That much, famously, is certain about Mount Everest. But who has made the fastest ascent of the world's tallest mountain is, well, up in the air, with two Sherpas--Pemba Dorji and Lhakpa Gelu--locked in a dispute over which of them owns the record for the 29,035-foot climb. The controversy dates to the spring of 2003, when speed records for Everest (which are not subject to independent verification) began tumbling faster than an avalanche, making many people in the climbing community suspicious. On May 23 of that year, Dorji, then 26, set his first record, going from Everest's base camp to the summit in 12 hours and 45 minutes. Three days later, Lhakpa, 37, bettered that time by almost two hours. Dorji, however, alleged that another climber had seen Lhakpa at Hillary's Step, a few hours below the summit, at the time Lhakpa claimed he was standing on the peak. But, when Dorji was unable to produce this witness, Lhakpa's record stood.

On May 21 of this year Dorji reclaimed the record with a spectacular mark of 8:10. Lhakpa immediately filed a complaint with Nepal's Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviations, accusing Lhakpa of lying about his climb. "Looking into the facts," Lhakpa told the Kathmandu Post, citing the severe weather on the day of Dorji's climb and the absence of any independent witnesses, "Pemba cannot [have made] it to the top in the said time."

The Ministry is still investigating Lhakpa's allegations. It has also indicated that it will recommend uniform rules for the verification of all climbing records to avoid any future controversies, which, in the words of Ang Karma, the general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Federation, "defame the country."

COLOR PHOTOGURINDER OSAN/AP KING OF THE HILL? Lhakpa (left) broke Dorji's record in May, but questions dog both men's climbs.
COLOR PHOTOREUTERS/CORBIS KING OF THE HILL? Lhakpa (left) broke Dorji's record in May, but questions dog both men's climbs.