This Dog Did Not Climb Mount Everest

The story of Rupee’s improbable adventure spread fast. But some facts got lost along the way.
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There’s no question that the tale of Joanne Lefson and her dog, Rupee, is heartwarming: Lefson found Rupee when he was a starving puppy on the streets of Ladakh, India, and took him home with her to South Africa. Just months later, Rupee is a healthy and spirited companion for his globetrotting owner. The pair returned to India in October en route to a new challenge—a trek up Mount Everest. Now, news organizations around the world have christened Rupee Slumdog Mountaineer, showcasing news of his ascent with headlines like “Rescue dog climbs Mount Everest, first pooch to summit” and “Meet Rupee, the First Dog to Ever Climb Mt. Everest.”

There’s just one problem with this inspiring narrative: It’s not quite accurate. Edmund Hillary climbed Everest. Jim Whittaker climbed Everest. Rupee, bless his heart, made it to Everest base camp.

Joanne Lefson and Rupee appeared on CNN on November 17, 2013. (CNN.com)

In fact, the sensational headlines accompanying Rupee’s Everest adventure bring more attention to shoddy journalism in the Age of Upworthy than to the accomplishments of a woman and her dog. If only the reporters at ABC, TIME, and other outlets had taken a minute to consider the difference between hiking to the base of a mountain and climbing to its summit before writing introductions like this one:

In a true underdog tale, a homeless dog rescued from a dump has reached the peak of Mt. Everest with his owner, becoming, according to some, the first dog on record to do so.

Or take this nonsensical caption in a slideshow by the New York Post: “The pup, who was dying of starvation and dehydration when he was found, scaled the world’s tallest mountain with owner, Joanne Lefson, reaching the iconic Everest base camp.”

“Scaling a mountain” is simply not the same thing as visiting its base camp, which, in the case of Everest, is more than 10,000 feet shy of the summit—and decidedly less iconic than the peak. Some media outlets, including The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom and The Press Trust of India, portrayed events accurately by mentioning that Rupee is believed to be the first canine with an officially recorded presence at Everest base camp. But even these articles could have benefited from some extra research.

It’s doubtful, for example, that Rupee is truly the first canine to reach 17,598 feet on Everest. Veteran climber Robert Anderson told TODAY.com that he’s seen dogs at base camp before, and Will Cross, an American who’s summited Everest three times, told me that every year, one or two stray dogs from the Khumbu Valley in Nepal follow trekkers up to base camp and “settle in” there for part of the climbing season. 

That being said, by no means did Lefson take Rupee on an easy walk; climbing to that altitude takes several days, a lot of stamina, and assistance from porters and yaks. Rupee’s veterinarian told Lefson that the dog, having been born at 11,000 feet in Ladakh, would be less susceptible to the altitude sickness that often slows down foreign climbers in the Himalayas. Lefson hired an extra porter just in case Rupee got tired and needed to be carried, though she told the media that Rupee actually ended up leading the way on most days. By all accounts, Rupee is a charming dog—and an example of what can happen when an orphaned animal is taken in by a kind stranger and given a chance to thrive.

Lefson called the trek “Expedition Mutt Everest,” and she did it in part to raise global awareness for homeless dogs—a mission she started years ago, before adopting Rupee, with a dog named Oscar. “Oscar the globetrotting dog” went with Lefson to the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and Angkor Wat before being hit by a car in California early this year.

This is what Lefson told MSN Australia about Oscar shortly after his death:

I adopted Oscar from an animal shelter in Cape Town in 2005 one day before he was going to be put to sleep. I’m not sure why I chose Oscar — he was cute, very cute, but there were many dogs at the shelter that would have also made a wonderful friend to me — but I could only take one home and it was Oscar. There are so many wonderful dogs at shelters and not enough good homes. That is why Oscar and I travelled so far, to tell people that if you want a wonderful animal, please, do not buy a dog, or breed a dog, go to your local shelter and adopt a dog.

Another option—though certainly a less practical one, as Lefson admitted in another interview—is to adopt a dog like Rupee off the streets of India.

In any case, this is a cause that Lefson, a former professional golfer, is passionate about, and hats off to her. She wasn’t trying to take Rupee, or herself, to the top of Mount Everest, which would have proven very difficult. But the story of how Rupee is continuing the work that Lefson began with Oscar, if told properly, is just as inspiring as the tale of a dog scaling the world’s highest peak. 

Even better, it’s a true story.

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Svati Kirsten Narula writes for and produces The Atlantic's National channel. 

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