Kevin Duffy comments on the recent announcement regarding the use of GPS tracking devices on Everest summit attempts this season. Could they cause more problems than they solve?
The Nepalese tourist authorities have unveiled a pilot scheme to put GPS trackers on some Everest climbers for the coming season, purportedly aimed at verifying successful summit attempts and increasing climber safety. If successful, the GPS will be mandatory from next season, according to the Director/Information Officer of Nepal’s tourism department, Durga Dutta Dhakal.
The move is apparently motivated by a recent fraudulent claim to have summited Everest by an Indian couple, a fraud they perpetrated by faking a summit photo, removing other climbers and inserting their own image. Discovery of the fraud is said to have embarrassed the Nepalese authorities, who reacted by voiding the couple’s record, banning them from climbing in Nepal for 10 years and retaining their $4000 waste deposit.
The idea may seem to be an obvious and easy application of readily available technology, but does the reasoning behind it stand up to scrutiny?
If it’s not on Strava…
In running and cycling, a meme has emerged relating to tracking apps. The idea behind the meme is that a run didn’t happen if it hasn’t been recorded and displayed for all to see. While it’s obviously intended as a joke, the idea behind it does, however, feed into an emerging pressure from technology, a pressure to feed the wearable, to populate the spreadsheet, to show social media you did the work. There are benefits to that, what gets measured gets done, but should that pressure be added to the difficult decision making process at altitude? Do tired climbers already under stress need the added knowledge that “success” or “failure” will be immediately recorded and relayed? Nobody wants those who didn’t summit lying, but then again nobody wants them dying.
Will the blinking light of a GPS even change the parameters of success, where sensibly turning around, or perhaps sacrificing a summit bid by stopping to help another climber becomes a “failure”? Readers of this website may understand all the considerations as they are mostly climbers, but the audience for Everest is not the same congregation and the climbers of Everest are not singing from the same hymn book.
Christian Kober, a Welsh climber and photographer based in Chamonix who was forced to turn back just 150m from the summit OF Everest in 2012, feels that the GPS wouldn’t have made a difference to his attempt and overall believes that the plan is useful to verify summit bids, though he does note that he doesn’t have a problem telling people that he had to turn back, a position not all would take as demonstrated by the faked shots leading to this plan.
I guess that’s why they call it…
In my experience, fraudulent claims rarely last long under the spotlight, as indeed in the case of the one giving birth to this plan (the couple were previously denied a completion certificate for Australia’s 10 highest peaks in apparently similar circumstances, used photographs from someone else’s successful climb only two days before their own and had different clothing at different times in the claimed photos of their summit day. I honestly don’t know how they thought they would get away with it for more than a couple of days).
The plan seems unlikely to eliminate fraud as it appears easy to overcome too, unless the units are to be strapped on and only to be removed by the authorities, it would seem too easy to send a GPS to the top with someone else. Indeed it might make the fraud easier, as the absence of a summit shot or witnessed ascent would be countered by the fact that the GPS made it up and down as though it were incontrovertible proof. If you don’t think this will happen, look up the phenomenon of “bib mules” in road running, a practice where better runners take on qualifying races under someone else’s name to give them a qualifying time for a more prestigious race. The complex and sometimes questionable reasons that bring people to Everest will almost certainly bring such thinking with them.
Obviously the units might be somehow sealed on, but will necessary removal to don or adjust clothing or equipment or accidental removal or damage void a claim? The verification of even the legitimate summit bids using the GPS may also be impossible or meaningless, as reports suggest that liaison officers responsible for basecamp verification don’t attend or spend little time there and verify with little or no scrutiny. Although the authorities deny those reports, it may be a large part of the source of their embarrassment at the erroneous verification of the faked summit.
Is rescue possible on Everest?
It’s difficult to find meaningful statistics for rescue on Everest, in spite of a reporting requirement imposed by the Nepalese authorities, as what some might see as rescue - such as where a climber was assisted by short-roping - others might see as just climbing. Assisted climbers may not report what some would see as a rescue, for many reasons. There are also attempted rescues on different scales, one climber spends a little time looking for another or a whole party spends days looking for a lost member or client, or a helicopter is called into action. Recovery of bodies is also listed in some reports as a rescue, but even in the absence of meaningful stats, rescue on Everest is known to be hugely difficult. On the face of it, a personal tracker would make that easier and more likely, but...it’s GPS.
GPS technology and penetration has come on hugely in recent years and few would argue against its overall usefulness. In this situation, however, it may be a flawed plan to use it for rescue. Alan Arnette, an Everest summiteer in 2011 who is described as "one of the world’s most respected chroniclers of Everest" by Outside Magazine, points out that GPS has inherent flaws for this application. “Batteries run out, users forget to turn them on or drop their device and it will send incorrect co-ordinates due to signals bouncing of mountain walls” says Arnette. He also went on to tell me that he has “used GPS since 2011, including on the summit of K2 and Everest successfully, but at times my location was off by tens of miles”. He points out too that even with an accurate location, the key to rescue would be the quick availability of suitably qualified medical and climbing personnel, something that seems to be missing from this plan. Indeed, such close support may not be possible; even in smaller scale ranges the use of avalanche transceivers for search and rescue, principally in skiing and ski-mountaineering, still depends on the party themselves acting quickly. A GPS by itself also provides no other information, while the skiing party will have visual clues and have been close together. It’s notable that Altitude Junkies, a company that provided support packages to Everest climbers for 14 seasons, provided their clients and staff with transceivers and radios, not GPS. Additionally, the Everest climber’s GPS may only be saying they’re stopped, by the time that becomes a reason for concern, it may be too late. As Chistian Kober again points out “Unless I’d been in contact with someone by radio (he didn’t have one), then GPS would have done little to help me there and then”.
While a genuine increase in climber and staff safety could only be welcomed, I don’t see that improved margin materialising. My view of the possibility of rescue is that the use of these trackers will increase the pressure to attempt them, even when it’s not feasible. The ease of pointing at the supposed location increases the leverage for putting pressure on to undertake rescues which shouldn’t be attempted. I can see the pressure to attempt rescues falling back on local staff, a group under enough pressure and facing enough dangers already, with a death rate far higher than that of the paying climber. In emergency response of any kind, from basic first aid and on up the ladder, one of the first principles responders are made to understand is that putting yourself in harm’s way is poor practice, increasing the risk of adding to the number of casualties even when there’s little or no chance of assisting the original victim. It’s a sound principle; one I don’t see the value in abandoning.
The plan reminds me of a story I read some years ago about an archaeological dig in Asia. Western archaeologists were keen to find human remains and incentivised local staff by paying per bone fragment. The plan cost a fortune and destroyed years of potentially valuable research, as it was discovered after some weeks that diggers finding intact human long bones would conceal them, so that they could later smash them into fragments and claim the increased bounty. There are a few morals to the story, but the parallel to me is that the unintended consequence of sending people on unfeasible rescues will likely be a lot more broken bones.
There is also the added stress for watchers of the GPS who are watching climbers they care about without fully understanding what’s going on. To quote Kober again, “I was sat at 8700m for 90 mins doing nothing. Although I was fine, it could have been very stressful for anyone watching at home, not knowing what was going on and wondering why I wasn’t moving for such a long time. Communication between climbers, base camp, Kathmandu and home is not easy and there’s a lot of room for confusion in that environment.”
Besides the logistical and technical reasons why I don’t see this plan working, I must admit to an emotional reaction to the story. Everest is a beautiful mountain. Not just the highest, but a very photogenic, culturally important touchstone. In mountaineering terms, the first attempts and ascents are the stuff of fantastic stories. Its treatment with rubbish is hard to watch, the behaviour of climbers who have no care for the mountains is saddening. My gut reaction to the GPS proposal is that it’s another ring in the circus.