Who was the first Filipino to climb Mount Everest?

Leo Oración claims to have been the first Filipino to reach the summit of Mount Everest, asserting that he did so on the South Col route on May 17, 2006 when he was 32 years old. But then so does Filipino Dale Abenojar, who claims he got to the top two days earlier from the North side of the mountain!

Who’s right?

Most climbers dream of summiting Mount Everest, but to be the first to do so from your own country is a very special ambition indeed. But both Leo Oración and Dale Abenojar claim to have been the first Filipino to climb Mount Everest. So it is important to both these individuals to establish this: which of these two Filipino citizens climbed Mount Everest first?

The history of climbing on Mount Everest is littered with disputed or unreliable claims.

The problem with proving the early attempts was that there were no photographs and no witnesses. But by 2006, with the mountain being climbed by dozens of camera-toting paying clients and filming Sherpas it was difficult to evade both cameras and fellow climbers while standing on the top. So surely it would be possible to establish who was the first Filipino on the top?

The silhouette of a climber against Everest

Leo Oración’s path to the top of the world was fairly predictable for an Everest climber. He had a job as a lifeguard at the Shangri-La Hotel on the island of Mactan, Cebu, which he gave up to pursue his ambition to be the first Filipino to climb the world’s highest mountain. He became a member of the coastguard and also a triathlete.

He joined the triathlon team Coast Guard-Sandugo, which came second in the famous Philippine adventure race, the Carrera Habagat. So Leo Oración was supremely fit and highly ambitious, like so many Everest hopefuls.

Oración was then selected to represent his country on the first Philippine Mount Everest Expedition, which was heavily promoted by the ABC/CBN TV network, generously sponsored, and publicised throughout the nation.

Then on May 13, 2006 Oración set off from Base Camp on the South, Nepali side of the mountain, and followed the standard route pioneered by Edmund Hilary and Norgay Tenzing.

There is little doubt that he reached the summit four days later at 3.30 local time accompanied by 15 other climbers, all of whom took photographs and bore witness to his successful summit. He radioed down to Base Camp and was recorded shouting “The Philippine Eagle has landed.” This was a reference to Neil Armstrong’s message from the moon.

Next day, on May 18, Oración’s fellow expedition member Erwin Emata became the second Filipino to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Or so he thought.

Their Nepali liason officer reported the climb thus: “the following one member and one High Altitude Worker of “International Expedition 06” team climbed Mt. Everest on 17th May 2006. Mr. Heradio Oracion (33), Team Building Facilitator, Deca Homes, Mandave City, Cebu, Philipines, Mr. Pemba Chhoti Sherpa (26), High Altitude Worker, Gaurishankar – 1, Solukhumbu, Nepal.

The above mentioned expedition team comprising of 8 members was permitted to climb 8848 meter high Mt. Everest from normal route for the period of 75 days from 4th April, 2006 under the leadership of Mr. Juan Antonio Olivieri of Spain. The handling agency of the expedition team is Thamserku Trekking Pvt. Ltd., Kathmandu, Nepal.” (source: everestnews)

Then, with the expedition back in Kathmandu, Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation gave Oración a summit certificate which recorded his Mount Everest summit ascent on May 17. EverestNews.com also reported Oración’s successful summit on its website. As a final seal of approval, his claim was registered in Mount Everest chronicler Elizabeth Hawley’s Himalayan Database (see my article on Elizabeth Hawley).

So far, so good. You couldn’t have a more gold-plated Everest summit confirmation than all of that.

A climber standing looking at a summit
Dale Abenojar (not shown) was photographed on a plateau below the summit of Mount Everest

It must have been a huge shock, therefore, when a little-known Filipino climber, Dale Abenojar claimed to have been on the top two days before.

The Himalayan Database recorded his climb like this: “May 15. 08:45. Dale Abenojar (d) (Philippines)” The (d) means this is disputed. (source: himalayandatabase)

A bitter dispute arose between the claimants, with the official Philippine Mount Everest Expedition denying Dale Abenojar’s claim and of course this became a furious talking point in the Philippine media.

The problem with Abenojar’s claim is that the summit photograph submitted as proof was clearly not taken on the summit: it shows a plateau behind him.

Abenojar on Everest in 2006
Dale Abenour, also not quite on the summit (source: commons.wikimedia) This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Oddly enough I was on Mount Everest on the very same day, May 15, 2006 filming the Discovery Channel series “Everest: Beyond the Limit.” Our expedition was so busy dealing with the sad death of David Sharp and the ensuing controversy (read my article on David Sharp) we didn’t notice whether or not one of the other heavily suited and masked figures actually got to the summit or not. We did not see Abenojar on our summit footage. But an absence of evidence doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. Equally, it is hard to prove a negative: that he wasn’t there.

My point is this: if witnesses on the mountain at the same time cannot testify either way to your successful climb to the summit, then you better have some bomb-proof evidence, like a convincing summit photograph. And that’s the kind of evidence Leo Oración had, and Dale Abenour did not have.

Disputed mountaineering claims are painful for everyone concerned. Lies abound on Mount Everest as they do in every human arena. So the painful fact here is that there is doubt, and the claimant with the better array of proof surely gets the benefit of the doubt.

So we can conclude that Leo Oración was probably the first Filipino to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.