Creative peak bagging is the way forward

“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving,
A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.”
Lao Tzu

January is as good a time as any to review the last year and make tentative plans for the future. Last year was an unusual one for me. There were few real plans, and my travels ended up evolving out of necessity and opportunity, but I kind of liked it that way. It took me to some amazing places I never considered going to at the start of the year, and it makes me think that a combination of loose planning and going with the flow is the way forward in travel.

My attempt to climb Lhotse plunged into tragedy and farce (Photo: Ricardo Peña)
My attempt to climb Lhotse plunged into tragedy and farce (Photo: Ricardo Peña)

For the last few years, since I opted for a more flexible lifestyle by giving up permanent employment and becoming a contract worker, life seems to have gone in cycles. I spend a year or so working more or less non-stop to save up money for the next adventure, followed by a few months of travelling and writing.

Since 2007 this lifestyle has been dominated by my dreams of climbing an 8000m peak and ultimately Everest. It didn’t change much after these dreams were achieved and the inevitable what’s next? question arose. My sights were unimaginatively aimed at the Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each continent) and yet more 8000m peaks. But if those were my targets then on paper I’ve been a miserable failure. I’ve not climbed a Seven Summit since Elbrus in August 2012, my only attempt on an 8000m peak, Everest’s next door neighbour Lhotse, plunged into tragedy and farce, and despite numerous expeditions last year it was November before I managed to reach a substantial summit.

And yet looking back I had an extraordinary year. There was adversity, disappointment and great sorrow, yet I was blessed to have lived through it. In April I was two hours away from losing my life in what became Everest’s worst tragedy and darkest episode, but in the aftermath I made many new friends, and I hope that by being on the spot and witnessing so much I was able here in this blog to correct and temper much of the sensationalist reporting and misinformation propagated in the media afterwards, and do my bit, however little, for both the people of Nepal and the many westerners who trek and climb in the Himalayas. And if this sounds a bit too worthy, I should admit that even though our expedition was abandoned without setting foot on the mountain, I did trek to Everest Base Camp, a place I have dreamed of visiting for many years, through a beautiful Khumbu landscape of high mountains.

I wouldn't have swapped our very entertaining expedition to the Mafinga Hills for anything else (Photo: Edita Nichols)
I wouldn’t have swapped our very entertaining expedition to the Mafinga Hills for anything else (Photo: Edita Nichols)

After Lhotse it had been my intention to go trekking later in the year, but because of the absence of any climbing on that expedition I instead accepted an invitation to climb 6768m Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru. Conditions were so bad that we didn’t even attempt to climb it, but we explored a few smaller peaks from our base in a quiet valley, I renewed my acquaintance with the Peruvian Andes after a 12 year gap and gave myself many ideas for future adventures.

Later in the summer I went to southern Africa because Edita was working out in Zambia. It’s not a country known for its mountains, but this fact ended up fashioning an adventure all its own. It turned out nobody even knew for sure what the highest mountain in Zambia was, so we found it (at least I think we did), and although it was only a gentle hill walk in the Mafinga Hills it was a very entertaining trip which gave us a sense of being genuine explorers. The trip took us across the border into Malawi, where we discovered the awesome Mulanje Mountain, as amazing a trekking and scrambling destination as anywhere in the world. And of course, mountains aren’t the only things of beauty in the natural world. We saw the breathtaking Victoria Falls from both the Zambian and Zimbabwe sides, and spent a few days in South Luangwa National Park, one of Africa’s top safari destinations.

Autumn came and I returned to Nepal. Lhotse was a surreal experience which left me with many bad feelings about the Sherpas whom I owed so much to in the past. The fallout from Everest 2014 is likely to leave many of them without jobs in future. While some brought this on themselves, our own team of Sherpas had been kind and loyal. Climbing 6440m Cholatse with them reminded me of everything that is best about expeditions to the Himalayas – everything the circus of Everest and Lhotse was not.

And in case you think last year was all fun and games for me, I spent quite a lot of it sitting at a computer
And in case you think last year was all fun and games for me, I spent quite a lot of it sitting at a computer

Finally over Christmas and New Year I returned to another place I hadn’t been to in over a decade, Morocco. I only went there because I left my planning too late for anything more ambitious, and Morocco was both cheap and convenient. My previous travels there hadn’t left much of an impression, but I had gone in summer, and in winter the High Atlas is a different place. I very much enjoyed my winter ascents of its two highest mountains, Toubkal and Ouanoukrim, and I was even able to throw in a desert trek for good measure, another new experience for me.

But I’m not reeling off a list of my holidays to make you green with envy or try and convince you what an interesting person I must be. I spent an equal amount of time last year sitting behind a computer working on my book, and if you think I might be interesting you should see how anally my bookshelves are arranged by author, genre and size (also, I used to collect beer mats).

My aim is to demonstrate that while I didn’t tick many boxes, or climb any mountains that might impress people, I did have adventures worth describing that left me with many happy memories, and this leads me on to the purpose of this particular blog post.

If you’ve read more than a few of my posts then you will know that I’m never going to be one of the world’s great climbers, any more than people are going to remember Boris Johnson as one of the world’s great statesmen. There are those whose future as writers lies with climbing famously difficult mountains or completing death-defying ascents of new routes and writing about it, but I’m not one of them. And while some of you reading this nurse the same ambitions as I do to climb 8000m peaks or complete the Seven Summits, I hope to reach a wider audience than that. Those of you for whom the thought of climbing an 8000m peak is as ludicrous as passing an audition to star in a porn film is for me, hopefully you can find adventures like Toubkal, Mulanje or the Mafinga Hills equally inspiring.

My two month expedition to the Gasherbrums in Pakistan in 2009 cost only four figures
My two month expedition to the Gasherbrums in Pakistan in 2009 cost only four figures

And there are other considerations. I have enjoyed my 8000m peak expeditions, and I would like to climb another one, but they are becoming very expensive. In 2009 I spent two months in Pakistan trying to climb both Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II, and the whole expedition cost less than $10,000. Nowadays you would be lucky to find an adequately supported 8000m peak expedition for less than $20,000. Not so long ago an Everest expedition might cost $25,000; now the average price is over $50,000. There are many more commercial expeditions to K2 in 2015 after the successful season last year, but you will be lucky to find one for under $50,000. If this is the trend then I’m out of the game. 8000m peak expeditions will be no longer affordable, unless I become one of those free loaders without the talent to climb independently who climb on the cheap by using the fixed ropes, tents, weather forecasts and rescue services of well-supported teams.

7000m peaks on the other hand are much cheaper, and there are hundreds more of them, many of which you have never heard of. Lots of people climb and write about the 8000ers and the Seven Summits. Wouldn’t you find it just as interesting, if not more so, if I wrote about other peaks instead?

Peak bagging and peak lists have their uses. The Seven Summits, the 8000m peaks, the US 14ers, Alpine 4000ers, and Scottish Munros, for example, have drawn people to mountains they would never otherwise have considered. I spent a very funny day last year exploring an obscure range of hills in a remote location on the Zambia/Malawi border purely because it happened to contain the highest point in a particular country. I wouldn’t have swapped this experience for anything. I can think of many similar examples: the highest mountains in Ethiopia, Guatemala and Mexico, for example, would not be particularly noteworthy but for a random fluke of international boundaries, but I enjoyed climbing all of them, as well as the journeys to get there. I could say the same about the highest points in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even Cornwall (which has the additional distinction of having an amusing name).

Volcan Tajumulco in Guatemala was as memorable a summit as any
Volcan Tajumulco in Guatemala was as memorable a summit as any

Life is more interesting if the purpose of peak bagging is not to tick boxes or impress people, but to have enjoyable experiences which enrich your life. They can be a good starting point, but completing a well-known list is not so important. It’s better to be a bit more creative with your choice of destination and be prepared to deviate if events send you on another course. Last year a fabulously rich Chinese lady contributed significantly to the Everest debacle by flying a helicopter into the Western Cwm after all the other expeditions had gone home. She had to do this because she had made a pledge to complete the Seven Summits in the shortest possible time, and waiting another year to climb Everest wouldn’t have worked for her. This absurdly extravagant method of box ticking can be likened to those male politicians who try to impress female fans by posting pictures of their genitals publicly on Twitter. Most people weren’t that impressed, but she did attract quite a bit of ridicule. By contrast my aim is to complete the Seven Summits in the longest possible time. I climbed my first one, Kilimanjaro, in 2002, and so far I’ve managed four, so 20 years should be feasible.

All of which is a long winded way of saying I’m going to keep peak bagging, but I won’t get too hung up on the Seven Summits and the 8000m peaks. Above all, I hope you will continue to read this blog if I write about more obscure mountains which you may not have heard of.

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5 thoughts on “Creative peak bagging is the way forward

  • January 21, 2015 at 6:15 pm
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    Well that is the best you have written so far,very honest and sincere,I loved it,well done.

  • January 22, 2015 at 12:42 pm
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    That’s a lovely post. I bagged six Munros in a couple of weeks’ holiday a while back – but it wasn’t the fact they were Munros that made the experience worthwhile, it was the views, the variety (Schiehallion, Nevis, the Loch Tay horseshoe of peaks), a bit of a challenge, and something that’s not in the hiking books, the very memorable fish suppers and some excellent Scottish beers.

    I hope you will enjoy 2015. And please, keep writing about it.

  • January 23, 2015 at 6:27 pm
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    An unusually tactful way of alluding to our Brown Willy, mate.

  • January 23, 2015 at 7:15 pm
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    Haha, you know you’ve made it as a blogger when your dad starts commenting on your posts!

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