KATHMANDU • Mr Satyarup Siddhanta only discovered he was at the centre of an Everest fraud when he spotted news of a couple whose false claim to have scaled the world's highest peak has set off a debate about how mountaineering feats are authenticated.
The Indian couple had doctored his summit photo, superimposing their own faces to support their claim, and were awarded an official summit certificate from the Nepal authorities.
Ascents of many of the world's highest peaks are validated based largely on trust, a system that has until now worked within the close-knit community of high-altitude climbing.
But as the numbers heading up Mount Everest have risen, many are questioning whether summits need to be validated more scientifically.
For an Everest summit, climbers have to provide the Nepali or Chinese authorities with a photo from the top and a report from the team leaders and government liaison officers stationed at base camp.
Last year, Indian couple Dinesh and Tarakeshwari Rathod provided just that, before other climbers said their story and photos didn't add up.
In one photo, Ms Tarakeshwari's face had been superimposed on Mr Siddhanta's, the colour of his boots changed and India's national flag pasted over his hands.
In another, he had been replaced by Mr Dinesh.
"I looked at their photo and immediately recognised the people around," Mr Siddhanta told Agence France-Presse. "I took out my own photo to compare. I was shocked; it was my photo."
The couple were stripped of their summit certificate and banned from Nepal for 10 years.
A record 509 paying clients headed to Everest at the beginning of this year's spring climbing season hoping to make it to the summit.
Standing at the top of the 8,848m mountain adds a star to a climber's resume, and many go on to forge careers as motivational speakers and authors.
But the growth has diminished Everest's exclusivity and created a new pressure to summit, particularly for those who have been sponsored for their climb.
"Climbing was never a competitive sport, but now there is so much pressure to find some way to be the 'first'.
"There's the pressure to find sponsors and then the pressure to be special," said German journalist and climber Billi Bierling.
That has resulted in climbers sometimes offering bribes for authentication of a failed climb.
A Nepali guide said he was aware of climbers offering their Sherpa guides bribes to lie about ascents.
"Mountaineering used to be honourable. Now if we can't count on the word of climbers - that's sad," said Ms Bierling.