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The human toll of cryptocurrency scams are all too easily overshadowed by the industry’s excesses. But a line was crossed this month, when a self-described “publicity stunt” apparently led to a man’s death.
Earlier this week, we received a press release from ASKfm, a Ukraine-based social network planning an initial coin offering, or ICO. It said it had sponsored four Ukrainian “crypto enthusiasts” to climb Mount Everest and bury a hard drive holding cryptocurrency at the summit:
Of course, there were issues… two guys were stuck at above 7,000 meters with no reserve oxygen for all of that time. Under extreme temperatures and unable to descend, they had during the second day to call for a helicopter squad to rescue. Now they’re both safe and receiving treatment. And strong having made such a move.
The release was a jarring one, as it came just hours after the news that famous Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki had died during his eighth attempt to reach the peak, taking the death toll to three so far in May.
Even more jarring was the promo video for the stunt, posted on May 17th, which encouraged crypto enthusiasts to go and search for the digital tokens, “if [they’re] brave enough”.
It only got worse from there, believe it or not.
Because in crypto-land, appearances can be deceiving, we checked the company’s version of events against the blog of Alan Arnette, a Colorado man who diligently covers the events of summiting season each spring.
To our surprise, he did mention a Ukrainian team on the mountain that day — under a subheading called “Preventable Deaths”.
One of the local Nepalese guides assisting the group, called Lam Babu Sherpa, died making the dangerous trip, even though he was an experienced climber who had reportedly reached the mountain’s peak many times before. A representative from Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism told us he heard the guide had been struck by “snow blindness”, an extremely painful temporary loss of vision caused by overexposure to the sun’s UV rays reflected by ice and snow.
To confirm this, we spoke to Taras Pozdnii, one of the four climbers who had recently returned to Ukraine from Nepal. He said they lost track of the Sherpa after he accompanied them to the summit, and that he didn’t know how the man died (his English is slightly broken):
At the top of Everest the weather was very bad, and then we were coming down. We were going down to Camp 4, which is at about 7900m, and one Sherpa was dying. That’s all we know. My Sherpa coming. The last time I saw Dima’s Sherpa was at the top of Everest.
He [the Sherpa] was behind us so we don’t know what happened to him. We were going fast and the Sherpa wasn’t coming with us. He was coming behind so we didn’t see him.
The “Dima” to whom Pozdnii refers is Dmytro Semerenko, another of the four climbers. Also on the trip were Roman Gorodichny and Irina Galay, the first Ukrainian woman ever to climb Everest in 2016. While Galay features in the promo video, she did not actually climb Everest this time. That fact was excluded from the company’s promotional push as well.
ASKfm, the sponsors of the trip, originally told us that there were four Sherpas on the expedition, one accompanying each of the climbers, which Pozdnii confirmed on the phone to us.
But when we asked the company about the death of Lam Babu Sherpa, CEO Max Tsaryk told us:
The team sponsored by ask.fm was assisted on their expedition (which included climbers from other groups and projects), by over 100 Sherpas.
We have become aware that a Sherpa who successfully assisted one of our sponsored climbers on a part of their journey, prior to assisting other non related groups of climbers, later became missing.
The last official update we received was that the condition and location of the missing Sherpa was unknown and it was not our place to make public statements which could’ve resulted in false information being circulated.
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This conflicts directly with the information they initially gave us, and with details provided by two of the climbers. Pozdnii told us that the Sherpa went missing between the summit and Camp IV, which was the camp at the highest altitude, so it is difficult to imagine when he might have been “assisting other non related groups of climbers”. And in a blog post about the climb, Gorodichny mentioned his disappearance as well, and said he “didn’t return to the camp.”
The company also told us:
ASKfm had no updated information regarding the whereabouts of the missing Sherpa, as the group was always moving forward and were assisted by many different sherpas along the way. When Taras and other climbers were rescued by a helicopter and were evacuated after being injured. The last update they received about the missing sherpa was that other sherpas went to look for him. We don’t know what happened next, as this was the last official update we received.
Yet there were reports of the Sherpa’s death in both Ukrainian and English, along with Gorodichny’s post that discussed the loss (in a somewhat nonchalant manner, along with lots of criticisms of the Sherpas).
Arnette has his own questions about the incident. In his blog post he wrote:
I find it hard to understand how the 45 year-old Sherpa developed snow blindness, was reported to be staggering and no one was able to help him. I look forward to obtaining more details on this sad event.
All for the sake of a meme
Along with the promo materials, the company sent us a link to a Facebook post by Pozdnii (excuse the messiness of the online translation):
Podznii wrote that he experienced a 10kg weight loss (about 22lbs), snow blindness and frostbite. Of course, it must have helped that “attention [had] not been deprived”, as he wrote, since the team was met by multiple officials after their rescue.
Attention might have been directed to Lam Babu Sherpa as well — but the rescue team at Camp II was unaware of his disappearance for some time, Arnette reported.
All this to hype up ASKfm’s pivot to blockchain. The company claims the tokens now buried in the snow at the top of Everest — on a hard drive protected by plastic packaging — are worth a total of $50,000. When asked how they reached that figure, a spokesman said:
It’s an estimate of their value once the pre-sale and ICO launch.
Just so we know where we’ve got to, this company is still encouraging climbers to search for some digital tokens that have no proven value whatsoever, even though one experienced person involved in their placing lost his life in the process.
From ASKfm’s press release:
While others try sophisticated marketing techniques, these guys go out there and put themselves right on top of the tallest mountain on the planet.
An elegant way to boast ideological superiority to every other crypto. A method unexplored before.
Even meme-wise, think about the closest starting point to reach the moon. It seems so obvious. Yet no one has done it.
(A popular phrase in crypto-land, which HODLers use in an attempt to pump the value of the digital tokens they are holding, is “to the moon”, or “mooning”.)
We’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the elegance and “ideological superiority” of the ASKfm ICO.
At the very least, you might think this harrowing experience had left the explorers scarred. Apparently not. We asked Podznii how he had found the experience. He told us:
It was very nice. It was the best trip of my life.
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