Dispelling myths about climbing

Nepal’s Himalayan peaks are not crowded, and they have not run out of mountaineering challenges

LOOK UP: A fore-shortened view of Lhotse's imposing South Face from the summit of Island Peak. Photo: EDWARD MORGAN

Last spring, I climbed a couple of easy 6,000ers in Nepal with Howard Lister. When we returned to Kathmandu, we had dinner with Richard Salisbury and Rodolphe Popier of The Himalayan Database. 

For them, Nepal’s 2023 spring climbing season had not been very interesting. Although there was a record number of climbers on Mt Everest and many more on the other 8,000ers in Nepal, almost all fall into what László Pintér calls ‘of only statistical value’ -- commercial expeditions repeating the ordinary routes on 8,000ers. 

It could seem like Himalayan climbing (defined as making new routes and early repeats) is in decline. There are a couple of myths about Himalayan climbing, that should be dispelled:  

Myth 1: The Himalaya is Crowded

The record numbers of permits given for Everest and the famous images of queues of climbers on the South-East Ridge might make a casual observer think that the Himalaya is crowded. This is far from being the case. 

In the 2023 pre-monsoon season, 1,176 climbers were granted permits for the 374 ‘open’ mountains, making an average of only three climbers per mountain. That does not sound too crowded, but the distribution of climbers is indeed unbalanced.

László writes about ‘guided summit collectors who seek fame’, and these were massively concentrated on 8,000m peaks with 41% of the climbers on Everest. Even there, they were almost all on the South Col route. 

Read also: Mt Everest (Pvt) Ltd, Vishad Onta

Another 31% were on normal routes on Nepal's six other 8,000m peaks. Of the remaining 329, a quarter of the climbers were on Ama Dablam and a fifth on Everest’s near neighbour, Nuptse. 

That left another 187 climbers spread amongst 365 peaks, of which 346 had no visitors at all. If you want solitude in Nepal, it is not difficult to find.

The magic 8,000m line has a massive influence on the choice of climbing objective. Whilst 847 people tried mountains of above 8,000m, with the exception of Nuptse, there were no attempts on any of the other 23 mountains between 7,500m and 8,000m. 

Myth 2: There Are No Climbing Challenges Left

‘Guided summit collectors’ tend to make up increasingly contorted claims to fame (‘first left-handed Zimbabwean’ or the ‘oldest dyslexic dentist’ to climb Everest). The casual observer might assume this is because there are no real climbing challenges left. That is absolutely not the case. 

Let us start with Lhotse, which essentially has three faces and three ridges. None of the ridges have ever been climbed, and almost all ascents have been by a single route on the North-West Face. The South Face was climbed 33 years ago, and waits for a repeat. This is a very wide wall on which multiple different lines would be possible. The North East Face of Lhotse has not even seen an attempt.

Some of the other 8,000ers have had the most obvious routes picked off, but there are other climbing objectives to last a few centuries at the current rate of progress. The high 7,000ers in Nepal are mountains which differ from the 8,000ers only by being slightly below an arbitrary height line. 

Read also, “Without Sherpas, there is no mountaineering”, Bhadra Sharma

Gyachung Kang, the world’s 15th highest mountain, is less than 50m short of being an eight thousander, but it has only had 10 ascents and no attempts for 18 years. 

Next is Annapurna II, which has been climbed only 5-6 times. For some Annapurna II may sound like a minor sub-peak of Annapurna, but being 30km away from Annapurna I and with a prominence of nearly 2,500m makes it indisputably a separate mountain. 

But these days hardly anyone attempts Annapurna II. There were 16 expeditions to it in the 1980s, three in the 1990s and three in the 2000s, but only one since 2008. 

Dhaulagiri, like Annapurna, is a name given to a series of mountains in a massif with Dhaulagiri II, III, IV and V -- all above 7,600m. Dhaulagiri III, IV and V may be considered subsidiary tops of Dhaulagiri II, but Dhaulagiri II is every bit as independent as Annapurna II, yet has received only 10 ascents, the last in 1986. None of Dhaulagiri III, IV or V have been attempted since the 1970s. 

If you Google ‘what is the most dangerous mountain in the world?’ you will get an answer based on the somewhat nonsensical measure of dividing the number of deaths by the number of successful summit climbers. It is declared to be Annapurna I followed by K2 and Nanga Parbat. 

Read also: Letters from Everest Base Camp 1

Dangerous mountain

This is wrong because it only looks at 8,000m peaks. Annapurna is often quoted as having a ‘fatality rate’ of 32% (although the large number of commercial climbs in the last few years have brought this down to under 20%). 

That certainly does not make it the most dangerous mountain in the world. Twelve climbers have summitted Dhaulagiri IV, but 14 have died while trying, so the fatality rate on that peak is 117%.

But Ngadi Chuli (Peak 29) is the world’s 20th highest mountain at 7,871m. It has had only two summiteers, but five people have died while trying, giving it a fatality rate of 250%. It has not even been attempted for more than 40 years.

There is plenty of scope for new routes on all of these mountains. Excluding variants, Annapurna II has been climbed by two routes, Peak 29 by two, Dhaulagiri II by only one. 

And then there are mountains that have never been climbed like Shartse, a 7,591m peak on the East Ridge of Lhotse Shar. 

There are still some bold climbers making fantastic ascents, like Ukrainians Nikita Balabanov, Mikail Fomin and Viacheslav Polezhaiko on the South-East ridge of Annapurna III in 2021. 

The French pair of Boris Langenstein and Tiphaine Duperier last year explored the possibility of ascending the huge and untouched North East Face of Dhaulagiri II. Their plan to climb up and ski down was thwarted by route finding difficulties and bad weather, but this was a real pioneering attempt. 

Read also: Chopper vs Chauri below Everest, Bhadra Sharma

One of the finest climbs on a high 7,000er was the alpine style ascent of a partially new route on the daunting North Face of Jannu by Americans Matt Cornell, Alan Rousseau and Jackson Marvell last autumn.

If we compare the proportion of expeditions to the seven 8,000ers and the highest seven 7,000ers in the Nepal Himalaya by decade, we can see the picture very clearly.

Mostly non-guided climbing of 7,000ers, making new routes and first or early ascents, peaked in the 1980s and has been much lower since, while 8,000m climbing, mainly by commercial expeditions, is growing almost exponentially. 

While ‘real’ Himalayan Climbing is not dying, it is declining and carried out by a relatively small number of highly talented climbers. 

That situation is masked by the large numbers of climbers on commercial routes on Everest, the other 8,000ers and a handful of popular mountains and by the publicity these climbs receive.

The lack of such ‘adventurous climbs’ is not because there are no worthwhile objectives. Himalayan climbing is dangerous even on the heavily populated and well equipped mountains, and it is even more so for those who venture away from well-trodden paths to seek new challenges. 

Anyone who attempts such exploits needs to make their own mind up about the risks and difficulties involved. But if anyone believes there are no climbing challenges left in the Himalaya or that all mountaineering in Nepal involves long queues on fixed ropes, then they are absolutely wrong.  

Read also: Himalayans on the frontlines, Ang Tshering Sherpa

Edward Morgan Book Details

Edward Morgan is the author of Lhotse South Face – The Wall of Legends.  

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