So you’ve done a few high altitude mountaineering expeditions and you’re ready to climb your first 8000 metre peak, but there are many options and companies offering their services at a bewildering disparity of prices. How do you tell them apart? Is the company you climbed Aconcagua with the right one for Cho Oyu? Not necessarily.
In this post I will try to point you in the right direction by sifting through the options available. Not all the services companies offer are necessary for all people, and many are simply luxuries. By highlighting what’s available it should help you make your own choice of which company to use. I will also cover which 8000m peak to consider climbing. What I won’t cover is what experience you need and what training you should do in order to climb an 8000er, though this is something I may consider for a future post.
- What is an 8000m peak, and which one should I climb?
- Full service vs. base camp only
- Choosing an operator
- A list of 8000m peak expedition companies
What is an 8000m peak, and which one should I climb?
First some background. There are 14 mountains in the world more than 8000 metres (26,247 ft) in height. All are found in the chain of mountains running through the spine of Asia from the Karakorams in Pakistan to the Himalayas of India, Tibet and Nepal.
Not all of the 8000ers are suitable for commercial expeditions (although that doesn’t necessarily stop operators running commercial trips to them). K2, for example, is generally considered to be one of the toughest mountains to climb in the world, suitable for elite climbers but not amateurs of moderate climbing ability. At the other end of the scale, Cho Oyu has very few technical obstacles on its standard route, and is a good option for relatively novice climbers who have done their time at high altitude but may not necessarily be great climbers.
So which 8000ers are suitable for commercial expeditions? It’s not just about how difficult the mountain is to climb but how safe it is. The standard routes on some of the 8000ers are full of objective danger from avalanche or icefall, not just on transit between camps but at the campsites themselves. For anyone but an elite climber to attempt them is therefore a bit like playing Russian Roulette. Traditionally the following 8000m peaks have been considered relatively safe and are therefore suitable for commercial trips: Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Everest and more recently Manaslu. Note my use of the word relatively, however. None of these mountains are free of risk: I failed to climb both Cho Oyu and Gasherbrum II because of avalanche danger during the season I was there.
In the last couple of years commercial operators have become better at assessing risk, and peaks that in the past have been considered too dangerous are now having commercial trips run to them, including Makalu, Kangchenjunga and Lhotse. At the time of writing you won’t find anyone running commercial trips to Nanga Parbat and Annapurna, and although you will to K2, many people will tell you this should be in the same bracket.
Full service vs. base camp only
The first decision you will need to make is whether to sign up for base camp only services or opt for a full service expedition. In the first case the expedition operator will provide you with logistics and transport to and from the mountain, including a bus or flights to the trailhead, animals or porters, group equipment such as tents, and food and catering for the trek in. They will also take care of paperwork such as climbing permits and visas where appropriate. At base camp they will provide group equipment, food, catering, and toilets. Above base camp climbers are on their own, however, which means you will have to provide your own tents, food and cooking equipment, carry it up the mountain and pitch camp yourself. If you need help with this you will have to hire you own Sherpa (some base camp only operators will provide Sherpas as an optional extra). Be careful if you choose this option: many base camp only operators will not help out if you find yourself in difficulty on the mountain, and you should enquire what contingencies they have in place before joining.
The decision to choose base camp only services is primarily a financial one. Many climbers consider themselves to be independent, however, and even though a full service expedition may be affordable to them, they wouldn’t consider joining one because they want to have more autonomy during the climb. If you’re in this group then you should still look at some of the more commercial operators, as many are unguided and give their climbers a great deal of autonomy above base camp. By choosing a full service expedition you will have the benefit of other services the operator provides, such as specialist weather forecasts and more importantly full support if anything goes wrong.
Full service is perhaps a misleading term, for operators provide a range of different services, both at base camp and higher up. What distinguishes full service from base camp only is support during the climb (ie. above base camp). This will include group equipment such as tents, food and fuel, and porterage by Sherpas (or HAPs – high altitude porters – in Pakistan).
Choosing an operator
So you’ve decided which of these two types of expedition is for you, but there are still too many options. How do you make up your mind? I will now look at the range of services available in more detail. I recommend you make a list of which of these you consider essential and which are just nice-to-haves. Armed with this list you can then check the expedition operators’ websites and match up the ones which are right for you. The best sites will make explicit what’s included and what’s not included in the price to make it easier for you.
A notable omission from the list is summit success rate. I thought long and hard about including this as an indicator and decided not to. So many factors come into play, not least of which is safety (bad luck, weather, client selection, and style of leadership all play a part as well) that it isn’t necessarily the best way of choosing an operator. More disreputable operators are prepared to make false summit claims in any case. Far better is to add up all the services provided and follow the simple rule of thumb: the more support an operator provides then the greater your chance of summit success.
I have divided the list into six categories:
- Logistics to and from the mountain
- Base camp services
- Support on the mountain
- Expedition details
- International flights – While larger operators will include international flights as part of the package or provide you with help matching your flights to the itinerary, most have a global client base and will expect you to arrange your own flights to and from Kathmandu or Islamabad.
- Accommodation in Kathmandu or Islamabad – The quality of accommodation provided in these two gateway cities at the start and end of your expedition varies enormously. Because of the hardships suffered on the mountain, many of the bigger operators like to provide a taste of real luxury before and after. Meanwhile in order to reduce advertised prices some of the budget operators will expect you arrange it yourself. Make sure you check the website to see what’s being offered.
- Permits and visas – Operators should include national park and climbing permit fees in the cost of the trip, and arrange the paperwork for you. For expeditions to Tibet they should also arrange the Tibetan visa, though they will often ask for payment in cash when you arrive in Kathmandu. Visas for Nepal and Pakistan you will normally be expected to arrange yourself. In the case of Nepal this can be paid on arrival in US dollars.
- Transport to the trailhead – This should be included in the price of your trip and could involve a bus (for Tibet and Pakistan) or internal flights (to Lukla in Nepal for Everest or Skardu for Pakistan’s peaks). In some cases it could be by helicopter (for example, Samagaon in Nepal for Manaslu). For longer bus journeys such as Everest’s north side or the Karakoram Highway for Pakistan’s peaks, the operator should also provide accommodation en route, which can vary in quality. From time to time there is a security risk on the Karakoram Highway, in which case an operator who flies to Skardu might be preferable.
- Porterage – Many of the 8000ers, including Pakistan’s four main commercial peaks and Everest south side, involve a long trek into base camp. Operators should all provide porterage for this, whether by porter, mule, yak or dzo.
- Accommodation on trek – If there’s a trek into base camp then accommodation will be required. Usually this will be camping, in which case the operator should provide tents, but in the case of the Everest Base Camp trail, bigger operators will put you up in tea houses. Tea house accommodation is also available on the Manaslu Circuit these days, though this is more rudimentary and camping may be preferable.
- Catering – Operators should provide food and a cook for a camping trek. If staying in a tea house then food is usually provided by the lodge owner. In these cases it may be preferable to choose off a menu rather than have a set meal, in which case it won’t be included in the price and you will need to take extra cash with you.
- Tents – All operators will provide sleeping tents at base camp, but the quality can vary. You will be spending a great many days there acclimatising, resting and recovering, and many operators recognise the value of providing an individual tent for each client at base camp. Most will expect you to share with another person, however, so it’s worth checking what size the tent will be. A 3-man tent for 2 people will be extremely cramped with all the equipment you require for an 8000m peak expedition. A 5-man tent for 2 people on the other hand provides plenty of space and is much more suitable for a long stay.
- Catering – Appetite loss at high altitude means you won’t be eating much higher up the mountain. It’s very important therefore to eat well at base camp. Some operators have now started sending western gourmet chefs to base camp to ensure their clients are well fed. Although there are many excellent Nepali chefs, a chef with a western palette is likely to provide a greater variety of western cuisine. At the other end of the scale, budget operators will tend to provide more tinned and processed food, and less fresh produce, particularly meat, meaning clients eat less well and have less energy when it comes to the climb.
- Toilets – These vary enormously from just a hole in the ground, to proper sit down flush toilets. Toilet tents can also vary, and many operators now provide carpets and sinks with hot running water.
- Showers – Also vary hugely. Some won’t provide showers at all, others just a tent and a bucket of hot water. At the top end of the scale operators provide a dedicated shower tent with full shower heated from a gas cylinder.
- Communications – Many operators these days will post expedition dispatches to their website so that friends and family can follow your climb. Some will even have an RSS feed of dispatches so that if you are sufficiently technically inclined you can post the dispatches elsewhere, such as to Facebook (see my post 8 useful tools for expedition base camp for more information about this). Even better than this some operators provide a communications tent at base camp, with satellite phones for your own personal use and expedition laptops with internet access. Check what the deal is on payment for this. While 3G connectivity is available on both sides of Everest, on other peaks internet access is by satellite, which can be very expensive (up to $10 USD per megabyte, so you won’t be wanting to share with someone who downloads a lot of large file attachments). Check also how many laptops will be provided: if 15 clients who blog a lot are sharing a single laptop you won’t be getting much use out of it.
- Storage – You need a lot of kit for an 8000m peak expedition, so you may find the interior and vestibule of your tent is a bit cramped. Many operators solve this problem by providing a dedicated storage tent at base camp where you can hang up your down suit and harness and leave crampons and other wet kit to dry.
- Leisure facilities – This is very much in the nice-to-have column, but you’re going to have a lot of downtime at base camp waiting for a weather window, so boredom can kick in and often go on for extended periods, particularly if you haven’t brought enough books to read and your team mates only have trashy thrillers to swap with you. Many operators now provide DVD players, digital projectors and dedicated cinema tents. Although drunkenness is not to be tolerated operators who provide alcohol in moderation as part of the expedition cost often have a happier team. At the top end of the scale, some operators have started taking along huge dome tents to provide their clients with a ‘leisure dome’ complete with armchairs, board games and fake palm trees. Some even host parties with enough food and drink to invite most of the climbers in base camp. I’m not joking.
- Weather forecasts – No matter how well prepared you are and how strong you feel on the mountain, summit success is entirely dependent on the weather, and picking the right weather window is therefore critical. While many companies use the free services available on sites such as mountain-forecast.com, the best expedition operators will be paying to receive specialist weather reports from services such as Meteotest and West Coast Weather, that tend to be more accurate because they’re provided by a full time expert dedicating themselves to particular mountains during expedition season.
- Rope fixing – How and when this is carried out differs greatly from mountain to mountain. In Tibet, for instance, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association takes responsibility for fixing ropes each season. Sometimes the biggest team will fix the ropes and charge a set fee per climber to everyone else on the mountain. Sometimes several teams will chip in, each providing a Sherpa to fix ropes who will work together as a team, while on less popular peaks nobody takes responsibility and ropes don’t get fixed at all. It’s worth checking whether your team will have the capacity to fix ropes in the event of it not being done by anyone else.
- Tents – While you may have a tent to yourself at base camp, most operators will expect you to share with someone else higher up the mountain to reduce the amount load carrying required and provide a safety net in the event of team members becoming ill from altitude sickness. Pitching tents and breaking camp is an exhausting task at very high altitude, so you will stand a greater chance of summit success with an operator who provides Sherpa support to pitch the tents for you. Bigger operators will provide separate tents for each high camp so that clients can move independently from camp to camp without needing to take down, load carry and repitch tents, providing a great deal more flexibility in the itinerary.
- Food and fuel – Most operators will provide dehydrated meals, soup, tea and coffee for eating on the mountain. Some will provide snacks such as peanuts and chocolate as well, while others will expect you to bring your own snack foods. Cooking equipment and fuel is usually provided, but some operators will ask you to bring mug, bowl and spoon. Usually you will have to do your own cooking, though some companies now ask their Sherpas to share a tent with clients, cook for them and keep them hydrated by boiling water when they’re exhausted at the higher camps.
- Load carrying – The amount of equipment that needs to be transported up and down the mountain can be huge: separate tents for each camp, food, fuel, pots, pans and oxygen cylinders. The more assistance provided for load carrying, the less time you will be spending going up and down the mountain yourself, the less tired you will be and the greater will be your chance of summit success. Most operators expect clients to carry their own personal kit, though many at the top end will provide Sherpa support to help clients with heavier equipment such as sleeping bags.
- Oxygen – While it’s standard practice for operators to provide oxygen on Everest as part of the service, this is not always the case on other 8000ers, where oxygen is often provided as a optional extra. As oxygen has such a huge impact on performance and reduces the risk of frostbite, the number of bottles provided is crucial. While on many 8000ers just 2 bottles for summit day is normal, bigger operators on Everest will provide as many as 6 or 7 for use from Camp 2 onwards and to sleep on. Even where oxygen isn’t provided, the more reputable operators should be carrying some in their group kit for use in an emergency.
- Radios – While radios can be heavy and an annoyance to carry, they can also be a life saver. Not only might you need one if you get separated while climbing, but teams often split themselves between camps during a rotation, and need to know how climbers in other camps are faring and what their plans are. Some operators issue all climbers with a radio and expect them to carry them at all times, others will just issue them to guides and Sherpas and expect clients to accompany them. Budget operators may not provide radios at all.
- Medical kits – Reputable operators should all have a group first aid kit containing all the necessary high altitude medicines, and issue kits to their guides who will be trained first aiders. Some operators will also provide each of their clients with a small kit containing emergency drugs such as dexamethasone and tramadol, and brief them about which should be used and when.
- Expedition doctor – Bigger operators have their own expedition doctor, who will either climb some of the way with the team or remain at base camp.
- Leadership – Good leadership is critical to the success of an expedition, and all full service expeditions will have an overall expedition leader. Usually this will be a western leader who will have climbed 8000m peaks before, though this may not always be the case. Not all leaders are the same, of course, and which leader is right for you is a very personal thing. Some favour a laid-back leader who allows them plenty of autonomy, while others prefer a more forceful leader who will make decisions for them. Some people like to have a lot of advice from their leader while others just prefer to climb. You will need to spend several weeks with them, so if you can find out who they are and a little bit about them before you book it will be worthwhile.
- Guides – While all full service expeditions have a leader, not all of them will provide guides, and in many cases the leader themselves will not expect to guide. On the other hand, even on expeditions that are advertised as unguided the leader will often provide a lot of advice and assistance to clients when they need help. If all this sounds confusing, it is. This is because it’s often down to the personality of the leader. If guiding is an issue which is unclear then talk it over with the operator before you book. Another consideration for guided trips is that often skills training will be provided during expedition rest days, which may be mandatory or optional depending on the inclination of the leader.
- Sherpas/HAPs – Most expeditions, whether guided or unguided, will provide Sherpa support to varying degrees. While much of this has been covered above in the section about support on the mountain, there are many cases, particularly on summit day, when Sherpa support extends into the realms of guiding. Many operators will provide a personal Sherpa for each client on summit day, who will stay with the client throughout the day, look out for them and provide additional assistance such as carrying their spare oxygen bottle, monitoring oxygen levels, and changing bottles when required. Many will help their clients get ready, such as helping them with their crampons. This may sound like mollycoddling, but generally Sherpas don’t feel the cold as much and are less susceptible to frostbite, and on a bitterly cold summit night when manual dexterity is required and mittens need to be off, it can be the difference between keeping your digits and losing a finger. If things like this are important to you then check the Sherpa-to-client ratio before you book.
- Itinerary – Not all itineraries are the same. Generally speaking the longer an expedition is, the more time is available for a summit window, and therefore the more chance you have of getting up. For most people there’s an optimal length, however, and if you spend too long waiting you start losing motivation to climb and just want to go home. Most expeditions to 8000m peaks last for 6 weeks, so a 7 week trip will therefore provide a slightly higher chance of success. Everest expeditions are usually slightly longer, while anything less than 6 weeks may mean that not only are you denied a weather window, but you may not have sufficient time to acclimatise. As well as trip length, see what the itinerary is at the beginning and end of the expedition. Some 8000ers such as Manaslu provide the option of either a trek in or a helicopter flight most of the way to base camp. While I would personally opt for the trek every time, many prefer the helicopter ride and certainly at the end of the expedition after an exhausting summit push.
- Client selection – A tricky one. Most operators have a client vetting procedure, though it’s not always as rigorously enforced as they claim it to be. Different operators also have different philosophies. Some take pride in the fact they are able to get relatively inexperienced clients up big mountains, while others like to think their clients are stronger and more experienced than everyone else’s. Which of these is best for you depends on your own level of confidence and ability. Try to read between the lines of company mission statements and About us pages to get a feel for the company, or better still ask somebody who’s familiar with them.
- Group size – These vary enormously from just one or two clients and a guide to as many as 30 or 40 clients for some of the bigger operators on Everest. In the case of the latter groups are so big that they’re usually divided into smaller units, with separate group sittings at meal times and separate guides on the mountain. If group size is a consideration for you, ask the operator who else has booked and what their maximum group size is.
- Safety record – While deaths can happen to any operator at any time, and often it’s just bad luck, not all operators take client safety as seriously as they should. No company will make reference to client deaths on their websites, so you can only find this out from news sites such as Explorersweb and EverestNews. If an operator seems to have unusually high death rates which can’t be explained then don’t use them.
- Staff insurance – While it’s compulsory for operators to provide insurance cover for all their staff, including porters and kitchen staff as well as climbing Sherpas, some break the rules. This means if an accident occurs they can’t pay for emergency evacuation or provide for families in the event of death (usually of the family’s bread winner). Failing to provide insurance for some of the poorest people in the world who are doing a dangerous job is deeply unethical. If you find out that an operator is doing this then don’t use them.
- Tips and summit bonuses – Most operators will expect you to provide a substantial summit bonus to your summit day Sherpa if you’re successful. While this practice is commonplace, it’s also a little unethical as it compromises safety by tempting Sherpas to push their clients to the summit when they should be turning them round. It’s also unfair on Sherpas who provide the equally valuable service of escorting ill clients down, denying themselves a summit bonus. Some operators now recognise this and include provision for summit bonuses in the cost of the trip, but divide it equally between all their climbing Sherpas irrespective of whether they escort a client to the summit. On a similar note some operators will ask you to provide a compulsory “tip” to staff for essential services. A compulsory tip is not a tip – it’s a hidden cost which isn’t advertised and is unethical.
- Environmental credentials – It’s also worth getting a feel for a company’s environmental credentials by reading any environmental statements on their website. All operators should follow leave no trace principles by packing all their trash, including human waste, out with them when they leave.
- References – I’ve probably spent too much time telling you how to suck eggs in this post already, but it goes without saying that if you can get a personal recommendation about a company from somebody you trust then you should.
A list of 8000m peak expedition companies
Below is a list of companies who run expeditions to 8000 metre peaks for English language speakers. The list isn’t comprehensive and is purely alphabetical. It does not amount to a personal recommendation – while most of these companies are highly reputable, not all of them have the same record for safety or ethics. You should always try and get a reference from someone else if you can.
Base camp only
- 7 Summits Club
- Adventure Consultants
- Adventure Peaks
- Alpine Ascents
- Altitude Junkies
- Dream Guides
- Field Touring Alpine
- Himalayan Experience (Himex)
- International Mountain Guides (IMG)
- Jagged Globe
- Kobler & Partner (Kari Kobler)
- Mountain Madness
- Mountain Trip
- Peak Freaks
- Project Himalaya
- Rainier Mountaineering (RMI)
- Tim Mosedale
Phew, that ended up being a much longer post than I intended. Is there anything I’ve forgotten or do you have any other questions or corrections? Please feel free to post in the comments below and I will try to answer if I can.