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.
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?
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.
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.