Peak climbing season in Nepal
A record number of climbers are attempting Nepal’s Himalayan peaks this autumn, and the renewed interest is due to the backlog of expeditions cancelled during the pandemic, as well as two Netflix films.
Many first-time mountaineers and trekkers appear to have been drawn to climb in Nepal after watching the globally popular Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, which follows Nims Purja’s ascent of the world’s highest 8,000m peaks. Also popular was the French language animation, Le sommet des dieux, about a fictional Japanese climber on Everest searching for Mallory.
Purja climbed 14 eight-thousanders in Nepal, Pakistan and China in 2019 within a span of 6 months and 6 days, smashing the previous record by a South Korean climber of more than 7 years.
The ex-British Gurkha commando’s climb of Manaslu has been questioned because he supposedly only reached a fore-peak, although Purja did return to stand on the true summit last autumn. Most climbers have stopped a few metres short of the main peak because of its dangerous knife-edge ridge (see box, below).
Purja is back on Manaslu this season and hurt himself while trying to take off on his paraglider on Monday. He was flown by helicopter to hospital in Kathmandu for x-rays and has returned to the mountain.
Manaslu, at 8,163m, is by far the most popular mountain this season in the Nepal Himalaya, with over 400 climbing permits issued. There are another 400 Nepali high-altitude guides from over 15 expeditions on the mountain.
Most expeditions helicopter to Samagaon and trek up to Base Camp located on a broad moraine at 5,850m. This has raised concern that the lodges along the Budi Gandaki trail, that were hit by the pandemic collapse of tourism, have not been able to benefit from the revival of trekking and mountaineering.
The reason for Manaslu’s popularity is that the route to the top is not technical, except for the last bit to the true summit and avalanche risk between Camp 2 and 3. It is therefore the preferred ‘acclimatisation peak’ for those preparing to climb Mt Everest. Cho Oyu (8,201m) used to be the other eight-thousander popular for acclimatisation, but its easier northern approach from the China side has been closed.
Despite persistent late monsoon snowstorms, a 7-member advance team of Nepali guides from Purja’s Elite Exped fixed ropes all the way to the true summit on 15 September. Other expeditions are acclimatising and waiting for better weather, even though the forecast for the coming week is not ideal.
Some climbers have expressed worries that there may be a traffic jam just like on Everest if there is only a brief weather window for the summit push. Things could get precarious on the narrow summit ridge if too many climbers arrive there at the same time.
Also on Manaslu is Norwegian climber Kristin Harila, who is set to break Purja’s speed record on the 14 summits. But after Manaslu, she needs to get permission from the Chinese authorities to climb Xixapangma (8,027m), as well as for Cho Oyu, which she can also climb from the more difficult south side in Nepal if the Chinese permit is not forthcoming.
If Harila is unable to beat Purja’s feat, it will not be because of the lack of skill or stamina, but because of geopolitics. The China side of the Himalaya has been closed to most climbing since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
A Hungarian climber also plans to ski down from the summit of Manaslu. Then there is the Japanese climber Toshiyuki Yamada who is taking the ‘fast track’ to the top. The Canada-based climber will be climbing with minimum equipment and without support of porters, although he will be relying on the fixed line that have been already laid to the summit.
Compared to the spring season rush on Mt Everest, in autumn there is just one expedition on the world's highest peak who plans to summit without oxygen and high altitude support. The Polish mountaineer Andrzej Bargiel then plans to ski down to Base Camp — a feat that has been done only once before. In spring, Bargiel climbed K2 in similar style and skied down the world’s second highest mountain in Pakistan.
Nepal’s Department of Tourism has allowed 472 foreign mountaineers to climb various peaks in Nepal this autumn — most of them for Manaslu. One third of them are female. The most popular peak this season after Manaslu is Dhaulagiri, although there are also expeditions on lesser-known peaks like Himlung, Gang Chenpo, and Jannu. For now, all eyes are on long-term monsoon forecasts for late September.
The Nepal government has collected Rs 55 million just in climbing fees this autumn, but expeditions spend much more on porters, food, logistics and helicopter charters.
The Department of Tourism’s focus seems to be on revenue, and the royalty collected on each mountain is meticulously recorded and fed to the press. However, the government has been ridiculed in mountaineering circles for refusing to certify the Mt Everest climb during spring 2022 by 19-year-old Mexican climber Juan Alvarez for playing a keyboard on the summit without permission. It also cancelled the certificate for Russian climber Katya Lipka for unfurling a Ukrainian flag on the summit, and another for paragliding without a permit.
Manaslu’s true top
The big story in mountaineering in the past two years has been about how many of the climbers who summited Manaslu since the first ascent by the Japanese in 1956 actually climbed the true top of the world’s eighth highest mountain at 8,163m.
Manaslu has a 150m summit ridge that stretches from northwest to southeast with several corniced sub-summits along the way. The farthest peak is the highest, but only by a few vertical metres — and there is a dangerous and difficult traverse to get to it.
The fact is that most mountaineers who claimed to have climbed Manaslu never got to the real summit. Few even knew that there was a higher peak behind until Nepali guide Mingma Gyalje Sherpa (Minima G) and his daring traverse of a vertical ice wall in 2021 was recorded in the now famous drone image by Australian adventurer Jackson Groves.
Records at Himalayan Database show that of the 281 mountaineers who climbed Manaslu in 2021, only 19 got to the true summit. The site puts a double asterisk behind names of climbers who cannot prove they got to the real summit.
The German mountaineering chronicler Eberhard Jurgalski created a stir in alpinist circles by publishing his ‘shrink list’ after closely analysing the summit photographs of the 52 climbers who claimed to have summited the world’s 14 eight-thousanders. He verified only three of them and rejected even climbs by Reinhold Messner. Most of Jurgalski’s disqualifications were of the ascents of Manaslu, although Messner was credited with getting to the true summit of that particular mountain.
Ice conditions on the top can vary considerably from season-to-season, with the ridge covered by new snow in autumn, but the true summit is sometimes devoid of snow in the spring. Still, most of the over 2,100 climbers who have reached the top since 1956 have done so in spring — raising questions about whether most of them really got to the true summit.
Conditions at the Manaslu summit this year are said to be bad, with a lot of new snow piled on top of the precarious overhangs on the summit ridge. The slope below the fore summit and the traverse to the main peak is called the ‘Rolwaling Traverse’ because that is where Mingma G is from.
Last week’s summiteers have said the slope is unstable and may not be suitable for the hundreds of climbers hoping to reach the top in the coming weeks. Elite Exped plans a one-way track along the ridge to the top, and descending to the Rolwaling Traverse to rejoin the route back down.
This autumn there are quite a few mountaineers who have returned to Manaslu to ‘correct’ their climb, including Ralf Dujmovits of Germany who thought he had been on the true summit in 2007.