When does trekking become mountaineering?

I was thinking about this question last week, when a friend emailed me after returning from an expedition to Island Peak in Nepal to say he hadn’t been able to reach the summit because a section of ice climbing on the headwall which leads to Island Peak’s summit ridge had proved too difficult. Although he was on a guided expedition, he told me that the guides hadn’t offered much assistance in overcoming the difficult section, and three clients turned back while two more technically experienced ones continued to the summit.

The headwall and summit ridge of Island Peak crawling with climbers
The headwall and summit ridge of Island Peak crawling with climbers

My friend is a trekker with some some climbing experience, rather than a climber. He and I climbed nearby Mera Peak together without any major difficulty a few years ago, but Island Peak is an altogether harder mountain technically. A question many people in a similar position might be asking is, was he technically experienced enough to be climbing Island Peak, was he travelling with the wrong company, or were the conditions not right and he was just unlucky? There are lots of trekkers out there who want to move onto climbing more difficult mountains, but at what stage does a trek become a mountaineering expedition needing a different set of skills? I will try and answer each of these questions separately.

What’s the difference between trekking and mountaineering?

Both Mera Peak and Island Peak fall into an official category defined by the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) as Trekking Peaks. This is a slightly misleading term, however, because all of them involve climbing to varying degrees of difficulty. I think of the phrase trekking peak as meaning more that the trip as a whole consists of mainly trekking with perhaps a couple of days mountaineering, involving ascending a glacier to a high camp followed by a summit day with some technical climbing, rather than the type of mountaineering expedition which involves establishing a base camp and using siege tactics to climb a mountain in a series of load carries to higher camps.

For me, a trek becomes mountaineering when technical climbing equipment is needed to get you up the mountain, whether that means crossing a glacier roped together, crossing a snow field unroped but wearing crampons, ascending a steep slope clipped into a fixed rope, or climbing a vertical ice wall using the front points of your crampons and an ice axe. Clearly some of these things are easier than others, but all of them are mountaineering.

Should trekkers be considering signing up to a mountaineering expedition?

Siling Ghale of The Responsible Travellers on Island Peak's fantastic knife-edge summit ridge
Siling Ghale of The Responsible Travellers on Island Peak’s fantastic knife-edge summit ridge

Absolutely, there’s nothing wrong with this. I myself am a walker who’s moved onto mountaineering, picking up my technical skills gradually from expedition to expedition. Although I’ve done my time on indoor climbing walls and rock climbing courses, this was only after I’d climbed a few easier peaks and decided to develop my skills. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a rock climber, and would far rather spend a day walking along an easy footpath enjoying the scenery than be glued to a rock face practising a difficult move. The key is to research the mountain beforehand, know what you’re letting yourself in for, and don’t try to climb anything too difficult too soon. And be careful of adventure travel companies overselling a particular trip, which brings me onto the next question.

Which company should I go mountaineering with?

My friend climbed Island Peak with Exodus Travels. While they’re a well-respected adventure travel company who run some particularly good treks, they wouldn’t necessarily be a company I’d consider for something as technical as Island Peak. One reason for this is because they tend to employ only local guides and leaders in the countries they operate, including Nepal. While this is a laudable policy which provides good employment for locals and a closer proximity to the culture for clients, it isn’t necessarily appropriate for a technical climbing trip where the client’s main priority is to reach the summit. In these situations a trained western leader who is focused on getting inexperienced clients to the summit within reasonable safety margins, adds significantly to your chances of summiting.

Mark Dickson climbing the summit dome of Mera Peak, hardly a walk-up
Mark Dickson climbing the summit dome of Mera Peak, hardly a walk-up

Secondly, there is the issue of clients. It may sound obvious, but a trekking company is going to attract trekkers, while a specialist mountaineering company is more likely to attract clients with more highly developed climbing skills. When my regular climbing partner Mark Dickson and I climbed Mera and Island Peak in 2009, we found ourselves sandwiched between a Jagged Globe group (a specialist mountaineering company) and a KE Adventure group (more of a general adventure travel company). It was noticeable that what was straightforward for the Jagged Globe group turned into a bit of an epic for the KE group. This was perhaps not surprising. At the time KE were advertising their Mera Peak trip as a “walk-up peak”. Walk-up, that is, until you reach the summit dome, when you have to climb a steep section of ice on a fixed rope. This was a misleading marketing slogan clearly designed to attract trekkers to the trip. There’s nothing wrong with trekkers attempting Mera Peak – it’s an easy and natural progression for them – but it helps if they know what they’re letting themselves in for. On the positive side, the KE group did have a good western leader who got them up and down both mountains safely.

There are exceptions to all of this, of course. In 2009 we were travelling with The Responsible Travellers, an adventure travel company who, as far as I know, have only ever run mountaineering expeditions for me and Mark (and a few of our friends). Both our sirdar and climbing guide were Nepali, but we were running a private trip and both considered ourselves experienced enough to make a few of our own decisions. And it worked out better for us because of this, for we ended up climbing the higher Mera North as well as Mera Central, which very few commercial operators ever consider.

So where does the weather fit into all this?

Anywhere and everywhere. With all the above taken into consideration, there remains the question of whether my friend was just unlucky with the conditions on Island Peak. He reported a lot of snow on summit day, which delayed their start from camp. And ice conditions change from year to year. There’s every chance the ice wall which turned him back simply wasn’t there when I climbed the mountain, although the 100 metre headwall on Island Peak means ice climbing is always going to be necessary. While the fact that two clients did reach the summit that day tells us that weather conditions weren’t insurmountable, it remains true that mountaineering is an activity where sooner or later the weather is going to be against you.

The subject line of my friend’s email was “My first peak failure”. I’ve had plenty of those, and I’ll have plenty more. It’s part and parcel of mountaineering.

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24 thoughts on “When does trekking become mountaineering?

  • May 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    really liked this post, i am a fairly newbie to trekking. but i hope to build up experience and ability to attempt somthin like this.

    keep writing.

  • May 28, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for posting, Martin. In terms of building up, Mera Peak is probably a good step up for a trekker who has climbed Kilimanjaro. Island Peak is a little more technical, and it’s useful to get some ice climbing experience first.

  • May 30, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Good article and I agree that trekkers can and should climb Mera and strongly agree that they should be informed of what they have signed up for. But companies like KE and Exodus are commercial companies and the “Bum on Seats” means trips runs, local staff employed and they make money. Providing that clients are informed and looked after then why not let them have a go especially on Mera which is a relatively staff hill. I would agree that a good western leader is a good idea, but then I would.

  • May 30, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Hey, wasn’t expecting you to read this one! Quite glad I didn’t slag off KE’s leader now. 😉

  • July 13, 2011 at 5:21 am

    Hi Mark – great post and website. I am attempting Mera in October this year as a relative beginner having only really climbed to 3000m in Switzerland and a few peaks in the UK. What sort of fitness training do you recommend in terms of benchmarks to be able to complete Mera. I am currently focusing on basic aerobic fitness and endurance. Any advice as to your physical condition before Mera would be appreciated.

  • July 13, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Hi Joe

    I run into work each morning (about 4 miles or 6.5 km) and go out walking most weekends here in the UK. I occasionally go out backpacking in the hills to get used to load carrying, but on Mera this shouldn’t be necessary as you will be using porters. A combination of running and hill walking is very good training for this sort of activity.

    Good luck with your climb – it’s a great mountain!


  • January 26, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Yeah, trekking and mountaineering are two different things. Which one do you think is more enjoyable? Do you think mountaineering is more fun or trekking?

  • January 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    For me, each has its own satisfactions.

    There’s nothing to match the easy, relaxing pace of life on a big expedition, the challenge of patiently waiting for the weather, looking down at a blanket of cloud from on high, and the sense of achievement in reaching the summit.

    But then you get that relaxed feeling on a trek as well, ambling slowly with your day pack as you admire the view, a view which changes from day to day as you pass through different climate zones. A warm mug of tea when you arrive in camp. You can’t beat any of that either.

    Perhaps this is why I enjoy the trekking peaks of Nepal so much. A 6000m peak climbed in alpine style from a high camp may not be the same challenge as climbing an 8000m mountain where you spend weeks camped at its base while you establish higher camps, but you can combine the two activities – trekking and mountaineering – into a single expedition, since often you must trek for days to reach the mountain in the first place. These have been some of my favourite trips.

  • February 6, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Thanks Mark for a very useful article. This is a question that a lot of my clients regularly ask!

  • February 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Hi Mark, thanks for writing this… It is really helpful… Loved the line – It helps when they know what they are letting themselves in for… Mental preparation is as important (if not more) as physical preparedness be it a trek or a mountaineering expedition… Thanks again for sharing this…

  • January 11, 2013 at 4:40 am

    What is the difference between trekking shoes and mountaineering shoes? Which of these two should be used when it comes to walking or climbing in near to sub zero degree centrigrade temperatures on a surface covered up with snow?

  • January 11, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Mountaineering boots have rigid, inflexible soles which don’t bend, making them more comfortable for steep ice climbing when a crampon is attached to the sole. They also tend to be multi-layered with a soft inner boot and a plastic outer boot, which makes them much warmer. The most extreme also have a third outer layer of an inbuilt ‘yeti’ gaiter over the top which covers the entire boot.

    Whether to use a mountaineering boot or an ordinary walking boot would depend on how much snow there is, how cold it is, and whether you will be doing any ice climbing. While most mountaineering boots require a special sort of crampon that clips over a ridge on the heel and sole of the boot, it’s also possible to buy crampons that can be fitted to ordinary walking boots.

  • March 31, 2014 at 10:40 am

    Thank you so much for this helpful article, Mark! I was initially thinking of doing Island Peak first before Mera, but it seems now that it’s better to start with Mera if I’m still transitioning from a trekker to an alpine climber.

  • August 16, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Loved your article! In June 2001, two of my friends and I climbed the lower of the Kang Yaze summits in Ladakh, India. This peak of around 6400 m dominates the Nimaling Plains – a regular stop on the Markha Valley Trek – and the lower summit is offered as a “trekking peak” option by some adventure travel / trekking tour operators.

    In our case, we had 3 days of snowfall at Base Camp before we could attempt the climb.

    We took 13 hours to reach the summit from a high camp, ploughing through knee deep snow all the way. One friend had to stop midway when he became sick and my other remaining companion was so exhausted by the time we had reached the final stretch that I had to continue alone. The last 35 metres of vertical height gain along a very corniced ridge took me an hour to negotiate!

    All three of us had plenty of high altitude Himalayan trekking and some mountaineering under our collective belts. We went fully equipped with climbing gear, ropes, etc. and did not use support staff.

    Two days later, a group of 7 people (mostly trekkers) from Austria on a commercially guided trip, followed literally in our footsteps with a guide to climb to the top!

    This is just an illustration of how a “Trekking Peak” can change its nature, based on things like weather!

  • January 7, 2015 at 6:37 am

    Absolutely fantastic post! I had thought of this often as well…and you answer it well. I have been a trekker and often refrain from anything which says mountaineering but maybe its time to move on and try it out 🙂

  • January 13, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Excelent post! Really i started hiking(sigh) couple years ago and if i absolutely loved!I dont know many people that would go trekking because of shear physical strain, most my environment are city folks. So whenever i find free time and willing friends i choose trekking. Dont have financial means to go mountaineering, hope that will change someday 🙁

  • February 22, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    It is such a fine line between trekking and mountaineering that there are bound to be some grey areas that pop up, especially when safety is involved and you bring up a prime example of that with your friend. He’s definitely not a failure as it could have happened to any trekker out there.

  • July 22, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Thank you for this article, it gave me a lot to think about.

    As the owner of a mountaineering outfit based in India, please let me ask you to reconsider your section on which company to choose. May I suggest that you’re comparing apples and and oranges – western apples to indian/nepali oranges. You are comparing Jagged Globe, which is a well known mountaineering outfit, to local trekking outfits. There are, in fact, more than a few rather technical mountaineering outfits from India and Nepal, which are more than capable of guiding technical climbs.

    I think it’s a bit unfair to ask people to choose their mountaineering outfit based on country of origin. The next time you come to this side of the world, i’d be happy to introduce you to some cool companys!

  • October 22, 2015 at 1:45 am

    Hi Mark, Thank you soo much for your write ups, in such a short space of time you have answered so many questions, which clears huge questions in a such a foggy area of trekking/Mountaineering/climbing etc. As everyone is of different opinions.
    My question is please, with regards to boots Im off to my first winter ( TREK) i hope this is the right term, to Morocco in winter for Mount toubkal , then naturally I hope and desire to progress. My Dilema is BOOTS! I don’t want to have to keep buying different boots , What you suggest for a boot for ladies to take to Morocco and will also to do lets say Mera Peak. The company said I must have at least a B1 rating boot, but then will a B1 do Merak Peak . So I have found not only the terminology for Trek and Mountaineering confusing also the BOOTS and equipment can be misleading from companies and outlets as they push for sales – THANK YOU

  • October 22, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Hi Natty, A B1 boot is effectively an ordinary walking boot with a sole which is rigid enough to take a strap-on crampon (if the sole flexes too much then the crampon will work loose). This sort of boot is fine for Toubkal. It will be more comfortable than a rigid mountaineering boot, and can also be used for ordinary trekking and hill walking. However, it is not suitable for Mera Peak, where it can get much colder, especially in the autumn season.

    If you are looking to get a boot which will work on both mountains then you will need to get a more rigid boot, which may slow you down and will be less comfortable on Toubkal. I wore my Scarpa Baturas when I climbed Toubkal in winter, which were fine and comfortable enough, but more heavy duty than I needed, and with hindsight I would have been better off with a pair of B1 walking boots.

    Baturas may be warm enough for Mera Peak, but they are not double lined, and if you have not climbed a mountain that cold before (could easily be -30C in Oct/Nov, slightly warmer in Apr/May) then I recommend a pair of double plastic boots instead. It’s a while since I have bought any in the Mera Peak bracket. The last pair I bought years ago were Scarpa Omegas, but there may be better and lighter versions available now.

    The bottom line is that Toubkal in winter and Mera Peak are very different mountains. Although you can use boots suitable for Mera Peak on Toubkal, the reverse is not true, and you are better off using different boots.

  • October 25, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks Mark for a very useful article,Mental preparation is as important as physical preparedness be it a trek Thanks again for sharing this article

  • April 25, 2017 at 6:28 am

    Thank you for this Article!
    I really enjoy it and gave me many information!
    I am an adventure lover, you can check my Blog of detailed expedition on Shisha Pangma, 14th highest peak of the world!

  • June 3, 2017 at 5:26 am

    I climbed Island Peak last month. It was by far the most physically demanding thing ever ever done. I see why you would classify it as mountaineering; it requires technical equipment, glaciers, and high altitude.
    Although I say it was difficult, I’m very an inexperienced climber. Prior to the trip, I had only been to 4000m and maximum of 2 days trekking. My base level of fitness is ok (Run 10km in <50mins and can rock climb at 5.11c)
    Given this, maybe the trekking peak classification stems from inexperienced climbers being able to climb it.

    p.s. I used a local guide, much cheaper than foreign guides and by no means inexperienced (4 Everest summits). He spoke English well too.

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