Spirit Mountain: my attempt on Manaslu

If at first you don’t succeed, go and lie on a beach next time and get yourself a nice sun tan … is not a phrase you hear many mountaineers saying. In fact, once bitten by the mountaineering bug your holidays tend to get more extreme, not less so. And so tomorrow I leave for Nepal bound for what will be my fourth attempt to climb an 8000 metre peak. With me will be two regular climbing partners, Mark Dickson also making his fourth attempt to climb an 8000er, and Ian Cartwright making his third. Yes, that’s right: between us we’ve made no fewer than eight attempts on 8000 metre peaks and share precisely zero summits. But have we thought of jacking it all in and going to spend a month in Ibiza instead? Is Colonel Gaddafi thinking of returning to Tripoli with his Pentax for one last sightseeing nostalgia trip?

Trekkers in Timang on the Annapurna Circuit, with Manaslu behind
Trekkers in Timang on the Annapurna Circuit, with Manaslu behind

Four attempts is about par for the course on an 8000er. It’s how many the Austrian climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner needed on K2 before she became the first woman to climb all 14 of them without supplementary oxygen last week. We’ve kind of figured that after our combined tally of eight attempts, most of which have been thwarted by bad weather, we’re due some good luck, and if we get that good luck together we can all of us break our duck at the same time. That’s the theory, anyway. In reality I expect we’ll have god-awful weather again, but you never know.

Our target this time around is Manaslu in Nepal, at 8163m the 8th highest mountain in the world, and a mountain which itself took five expeditions before it was climbed. Its name is derived from the local manasa, meaning spirit or soul, which means it translates loosely as Spirit Mountain. Bill Tilman was the first climber to have a look at it when he was exploring the Annapurna region in 1950. He had a look at the west face from the Marsyangdi Valley on what has now become the popular Annapurna Circuit trail, and concluded that it was too difficult for his small party to attempt. A couple of years later a Japanese team had another look at both the west and east sides, crossing the Larkya La from the Marsyangdi Valley, and thought they could identify a reasonable route up to the summit plateau from Samagaon on the northern side.

The Japanese returned in 1953 for what was to be the first serious attempt on Manaslu. Following the route they had identified the previous year, up to the North Col between Manaslu’s north peak and main summit, they reached as high as 7750m before turning back on their summit attempt due to the lateness of the hour.

Their next attempt in 1954 was cut short for a more unusual reason. Indeed, legend has it that they had to retreat half-naked after an angry mob armed with stones and knives met them at Samagaon and subjected them to what in public schoolboy parlance is termed a de-bagging. The explanation for this humiliation was because the local people believed them to have upset the mountain gods by reaching as high as they did the previous year. Shortly after they left an avalanche destroyed a nearby monastery and killed three monks. I’ve attempted a few mountains in my time, and luckily I’m yet to return from any of them trouserless.

The west face of Manaslu from the Marsyangdi Valley
The west face of Manaslu from the Marsyangdi Valley

In 1956 things had calmed down a bit, and on 9 May Toshio Imanishi and his Sherpa Gyalzen Norbu found themselves at their high camp in good shape for a summit attempt. Setting off at 8am they found a straightforward snow slog up a relatively gentle snow plateau, till at midday they found the highest snow point they had been heading towards wasn’t in fact the summit. For reference I will call this point the fore-summit. The summit itself stood a short distance away up a shattered rock tower, and they reached it at 12.30.  Having climbed Makalu with the French in 1955 Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa became the first man to climb two 8000ers, and the following day two of their team mates, Minoru Higeta and Kiichiro Kato, made use of the trail they had broken, and reached the top in just three hours.

While quite benign in good conditions, the featureless summit snow plateau takes on a different complexion when the weather closes in. In 1972 after reaching the summit without bottled oxygen, the great Reinhold Messner returned to his camp as a storm blew up. He struggled back to his tent only to find that his climbing partner Franz Jäger, who had turned back during their summit attempt, wasn’t there. The support party of Horst Fankhauser and Andi Schlink were, however. They went out to look for Jäger, but became disoriented in the storm and had to dig a snow hole. During the night Schlick decided to leave the shelter, and he too never returned.

More recently Manaslu has been the subject of controversy between competing climbers. Until recently it has not been considered a suitable mountain for commercial expeditions, but this all changed in 2008, when the Chinese government were cagey about handing out permits for nearby Cho Oyu, across the border in Tibet, because they were nervous about any negative publicity coming out of Tibet during the Beijing Olympics, when all the world’s media were due to be converging on the country. Consequently, all of the dozen or so commercial teams due to be climbing Cho Oyu decided to turn their attention to Manaslu instead. Since then there have been commercial expeditions on Manaslu every year.

Mark Dickson contemplates Manaslu on the horizon from the summit of Chulu Far East in the Annapurna region of Nepal
Mark Dickson contemplates Manaslu on the horizon from the summit of Chulu Far East in the Annapurna region of Nepal

I myself was one of those climbers who had been intending to climb Cho Oyu in 2008. Ian and I, and a friend of ours Bunter Anson, were due to be climbing with British mountaineering company Jagged Globe. I decided to cancel when the expedition was switched to Manaslu, but Ian and Bunter chose to continue. Leader of that expedition was Adele Pennington, who was looking to become the first British woman to climb Manaslu. After six weeks of heavy snow Ian had to return home, but Bunter remained, and he and Adele reached the fore-summit the following week. With no fixed ropes along the summit ridge to the shattered rock tower, Adele took the wise decision of taking her relatively inexperienced commercial expedition team back down again, happy with the achievement of reaching over 8000m and getting to the fore-summit.

The following day Valerie Parkinson of the adventure travel company Exodus was being guided by Phil Crampton, owner of the high altitude expedition operator Altitude Junkies. With just one relatively experienced client on the rope with him, and a very experienced Sherpa Tarke, Phil chose to take Valerie all the way along the summit ridge without fixed ropes.

A few days later Mark and I happened to be drinking in a bar called Delima in Kathmandu with both Phil and Valerie, and he introduced Valerie to us as “the first British woman to climb Manaslu”.

“But I thought Adele Pennington was the first?” I replied.

The controversy has continued ever since. Although Adele was there earlier, because she turned back at the fore-summit, some say her achievement doesn’t qualify as the first ascent, while Valerie’s does. I’ll let you make your own mind up, but Adele’s decision to stop at the fore-summit was a sensible one in the circumstances. Of the 8000ers she has also climbed Everest, Cho Oyu and Makalu, so I expect she could easily have continued to the true summit had she wanted to. In any case they both got up there, which is a great achievement; which day they went on’s not really that important.

Our drinking session in Delima had a sequel, too. During it we hatched a plot to climb Gasherbrum with Phil and Altitude Junkies the following year. And here we are two years later attempting Manaslu with him as well. I’m hoping to be able to blog from base camp, so you can follow it here (and sign up for emails at the top of this page), or by subscribing to my RSS, Twitter or Facebook. The Altitude Junkies website will also be publishing regular expedition dispatches.

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