Expedition company refutes sherpa’s account of heroic Everest rescue

Ngima Tashi Sherpa walks as he carries a Malaysian climber while rescuing him from the death zone above camp four at Everest, Nepal, 18 May  2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video (Gelje Sherpa via Reuters)
Ngima Tashi Sherpa walks as he carries a Malaysian climber while rescuing him from the death zone above camp four at Everest, Nepal, 18 May 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video (Gelje Sherpa via Reuters)

One of the expedition companies involved in the “almost impossible” rescue of a stranded Malaysian climber from Mount Everest has spoken out after differing accounts of the incident sparked a very public mudslinging match online.

Speaking to The Independent, the company’s founder took issue with large parts of the account of Nepalese guide Gelje Sherpa, who posted on Instagram about his role in saving stranded climber Ravichandran Tharumalingam and has received widespread praise including from the Nepal government.

After Gelje’s story received international attention, members of the mountaineering community questioned why his role in the rescue seemed not to have been acknowledged by the Malaysian climber himself on social media and in TV interviews.

Gelje said he found Ravichandran at the Balcony, a small platform above 8,300 metres on the world’s highest mountain peak, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “No one was helping him, no friends, no oxygen, no Sherpas with him, no guides – so this is quite dangerous for him,” he told the journalist. He claimed the other climbers and guides “just focused on the summit”.

“I made the decision to cancel our client’s summit push so that I could bring him down to safety before he died up there alone,” he wrote on social media.

But Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, who founded 14 Peaks Expedition, told The Independent that he was behind the decision to cancel the Chinese client’s summit push and instructed Gelje to bring the Malaysian climber to safety.

“I was making all the decisions regarding the rescue,” he said. “I was mobilising the rescue team and it was a joint effort.”

This is in stark contrast to the story that Gelje has been telling.

Tashi, the expedition leader for the Malaysian climber, also shot down Gelje’s claim that Ravichandran was alone on Everest when he found him.

He said Ravichandran was with his own guide Mingma Sherpa.

A day after his fourth summit success, 58-year-old Ravichandran was coming down Everest with Mingma, when his oxygen began running out, according to Tashi.

Pastenji Sherpa – one of the guides with 14 Peaks Expedition – was also on the same route with a Russian client and allegedly found Ravichandran was running out of oxygen and slowing down.

He immediately informed expedition manager Tashi who said he arranged for two oxygen cylinders to be sent to the Malaysian climber from Camp 3 via another sherpa named Ming Tenji Sherpa.

Meanwhile, Tashi said he scrambled for help.

He connected with all his sherpas scaling the peak via walkie-talkies and found Gelje was nearer to where Ravichandran was.

“Luckily Gelje was there very near from Ravi’s place and I instructed him,” he said. Tashi says he “told [Gelje] to turned back his clients [sic] and bring Ravi down as soon as possible”.

“Life is more important for us than any achievement,” he said. After the rescue, Gelje had said that “saving one life is more important than praying at the monastery”.

By this time, Ming Tenji had reached Ravichandran with the oxygen.

“First I send Gelje to check the situation of Ravi, and Gelje informed me Ravi is in very bad condition. And at this time, Ming Tenji Sherpa already dropped oxygen to Ravi and I told Gelje to cancel the summit push and bring him down,” said Tashi, giving his own account of what transpired on 18 May.

Gelje is a climbing guide with 14 Peaks Expedition’s sister company, the Seven Summit Treks.

Meanwhile, Ravichandran’s guide Mingma walked about 10 metres away from him to speak with Tashi through Gelje’s walkie-talkie – contrary to Gelje’s claim of finding the climber alone.

Asked if Gelje knew Mingma was with Ravichandran at the time he was found, Tashi told The Independent: “Yes, Gelje was passing me Mingma’s message because they [were] together.

“I was the one who mobilised everything in the right time for this rescue,” Tashi said, adding that Gelje “strongly” supported his decision to cancel his client’s summit push and “work as a team for this mission”.

Gelje mentioned in his original Instagram post that he carried the climber “myself all the way down to Camp 4 where a rescue team helped from then on”.

But in a viral video, in which a sherpa is seen carrying a climber on his back, is in fact not Gelje himself doing the work, according to Tashi. “Gelje is taking video,” Tashi said, adding that the person carrying Ravichandran at that time was another sherpa guide named Ngima Tashi.

In later interviews, Gelje said he and Ngima Tashi took turns carrying the climber and sometimes dragged him through the snow before a helicopter flew him to base camp.

Gelje has now left Nepal for Alaska where he is attempting to scale Mount Denali aka McKinley – the highest peak in North America.

Tashi said Gelje is “very strong and nice” and a “good friend”.

He also dismissed the idea of wanting to take credit himself for the rescue mission: “I really don’t care about credit. I’ve just done my job.”

The Independent also spoke to Adriana Brownlee, who runs expedition company AGA Adventures in Kathmandu alongside Gelje.

“I think Gelje would like the situation to now cool off and not comment on it,” she said.

The Independent has reached out to Gelje and Ravichandran themselves for comment.