It’s not always wise or worthwhile to respond to a rant, but occasionally something you hold dear is attacked so mercilessly that you can’t help yourself. There’s been quite a lot of nonsense published about last month’s avalanche on Manaslu, most of it by people who are determined to find someone to blame. We’ve had the usual tired stories about mountains being overcrowded with novice fools with more dollars than brain cells. We’ve also had some new ones, like the avalanche was China’s fault because they wouldn’t let anyone climb Cho Oyu this year (there were more climbers on Manaslu as a result of China’s refusal to issue visas for Tibet, but to blame an avalanche on the Chinese is like blaming the Government of San Francisco for an earthquake because they’ve let too many people live in the city). Most of this isn’t worth responding to because it’s clearly written by people who don’t know any better (and I responded to some of these arguments in a previous post, 5 media myths about Everest busted).
But last week there was a rant against commercial climbing on Manaslu in Outside Magazine by somebody who should know better, having climbed 40 peaks over 6000m including Manaslu. The gist of the article The Problem with Climbing Manaslu is that the accident on 23 September was inevitable, and the mountain is much too dangerous for commercial mountaineering groups because of the severe risk of avalanche and the inability of commercial clients to make decisions.
I’m not familiar with the writer, and I don’t claim to be as experienced or as good at assessing avalanche risk as he is. I am a commercial client rather than a guide, and I have only climbed around 15 peaks over 6000m, including Manaslu. But while I’m not an expert, I’m not stupid either (I hope); I do have some experience, and I’m perfectly capable of taking responsibility for my own actions. I’m in a good position to provide an alternative commercial client’s perspective on the commercial mountaineering debate.
I hope this post won’t be seen as a personal attack on the writer of the article in Outside magazine. His article is merely one of many that completely disregard the voice of commercial climbers, and is consequently disrespectful not only to those who died in the avalanche, but pretty much anyone who climbs commercially. I picked on his because it’s topical, and happens to regard a mountain I know a thing or two about.
How dangerous is Manaslu?
Pretty much the whole route between Camp 1 (5800m) and Camp 3 (6800m) contains avalanche risk during adverse weather conditions. Between Camp 1 and Camp 2 at 6400m is a steep wall of seracs which is prone to collapse in places. Climbers mitigate against this by climbing early in the morning before the ice has had a chance to melt, and climbing quickly through any areas where the risk is greater. Between Camp 2 and Camp 3 is a huge snow slope which is prone to avalanche at any time after fresh snowfall. Climbers mitigate against this by climbing it a few days after any snowfall to give the snow time to consolidate. Above Camp 3 there is another short section of seracs at around 7200m. It was one of these seracs which caused the fatal accident on 23 September, when a 600m section broke off and triggered a huge avalanche on the snow slope between Camps 2 and 3. Above these seracs the route is relatively safe. The route is also relatively safe between Base Camp (4800m) and Camp 1. The article in Outside magazine describes this section as being unsafe because it “travels up a heavily-crevassed glacier” and “a solo fall would have resulted in a climber disappearing forever”, but this strikes me as an odd thing for a mountaineer to say, because this is a risk of crossing almost any glacier. Sure, some have more crevasses than others, but the risk is reduced significantly by travelling roped together so that if anyone falls into a crevasse others on the rope should hold them, or by providing a fixed rope that climbers can clip into. Sure enough the article goes on to say that “commercial guides had attempted to reduce the danger by placing fixed lines across the slots, but few people used them, guides included.” Again, a slightly odd statement. Perhaps the glacier was drier when he was there, and crevasses were therefore more visible, but in general, and certainly while I was there when crevasses were often hidden beneath fresh snow, I’d suggest that if you don’t clip into a fixed rope provided for your safety on a heavily crevassed glacier then you’re an idiot (and when I was on Manaslu pretty much everybody did!).
As you can see, there is certainly a large avalanche risk on Manaslu, and probably more than on some of the other 8000m peaks, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more likely to die on it – just that you’re less likely to get up. You climb when conditions are right, and if they’re not then you stay at base camp until they are. No 8000m peak is free of avalanche risk and other objective danger. When I was on Gasherbrum in 2009 I travelled six times through an icefall which contained far more crevasses than any section on Manaslu. None of my team got above Camp 2 on Gasherbrum II because there was never a sufficient break in the snow to give the slope between Camp 2 and Camp 3 time to consolidate. When we turned our attention to Gasherbrum I, we got as far as Camp 2 and then watched an avalanche come down the fixed ropes of the Japanese Couloir above us. At this point I decided to turn round, but some members of our team chose to continue, and some people went onto summit. When I was on Cho Oyu (supposedly the easiest and safest 8000m peak) in Autumn 2010, four hundred climbers left the mountain en masse because weeks of heavy snowfall followed by suddenly colder conditions made virtually the entire mountain above Camp 1 an avalanche risk. Two rope fixing teams were avalanched and lucky to survive, but thankfully there were no fatalities. A handful of teams stayed around, but only two independent climbers summited that season in conditions others considered unsafe. The only 8000m peak I’ve climbed which seemed to be relatively free from avalanche risk was the north side of Everest this year, but the same can’t be said for people on the south side of the mountain, who were experiencing significant risk on the Lhotse Face and in the Khumbu Icefall.
Risk is inherent in all mountaineering, but everyone who climbs mountains makes an assessment of the risk and chooses to accept it. Some take more risks than others, but everyone has a choice. Which brings me on to the next point.
Commercial climbers aren’t capable of making their own decisions
Not surprisingly as a commercial client this is the argument I have the biggest problem with. It’s an inaccurate stereotype that has blighted the reputation of commercial mountaineering ever since Jon Krakauer published Into Thin Air in 1997 – the idea that all commercial climbers are so naively inexperienced they’re not capable of acting on their own initiative or taking responsibility for their actions, and if we can get these people off the mountains they’d suddenly be a whole lot safer.
I’ve done most of my 8000m peak expeditions with a company called Altitude Junkies, who advertise their commercial trips as full-service but unguided. This means they will provide climbers with all the logistics and support they need, both at base camp and above, but they expect clients to make their own decisions on the mountain and be capable of travelling independently most of the time. This year on Manaslu most of the team were at Camp 2 when the avalanche struck. They were catapulted inside their tents and thrown a few metres down the mountain, but they all survived with minor injuries. After the avalanche five members of the team elected to go home, while seven stayed for another attempt after conditions improved. I would probably have been in the first group, but I have total respect for all of them. One of those who stayed, Mila Mikhanovskaia, explains in her blog her reasons for staying and makes a very valid point that her team “had the leadership, the support and the resources to allow those willing to try for the summit to do so”. They weren’t morons being ordered around by a guide: each individual team member made their own decision. One of the ones who eventually summited was a mountain rescue volunteer, as capable of assessing avalanche risk as any guide.
Of course, not all commercial climbers have the same degree of experience, and not all commercial operators give their clients the same level of autonomy. Russell Brice’s Himex, mentioned in the article, is one of the operators who tends to attract less experienced clients, and consequently more decisions will be made by guides rather than clients. I did my Cho Oyu expedition with another one, Jagged Globe. But statements like, “the guide rules, no matter what. If he says go, you go; if he walks through the crevasse field unroped, you do too” are such patent nonsense they’re almost laughable. Nobody is going to order their clients into a death trap against their will, and a statement like this insults the intelligence of clients, most of whom are highly educated people who for one reason or another are climbing commercially because they have chosen to put their careers ahead of their hobby. If anything, these operators will err on the side of safety and call an expedition off early, as Russell Brice did controversially on Everest this year. For the record Jagged Globe’s Manaslu team did not make a summit attempt after the avalanche this year but, according to their dispatches, the decision to leave was a collective one made by their clients.
Finally some statistics
A few people have started using death rates to assess the danger level of 8000m peaks. This is usually a ratio of deaths to successful summits. The Outside article quotes Manaslu as having a death rate of 35%. I’m not sure where this figure comes from, but it’s wildly inaccurate. I’m going to use that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, as my source. Their list of 8000m peaks contains some interesting statistics about ascents and deaths on each one.
According to the list there have been 53 deaths on Manaslu and 297 successful summits. This gives it a death rate of 18%, which is still clearly quite high, and makes it the 5th most deadly 8000er. There have also been 36 confirmed deaths from avalanches, higher than any other 8000er (though there are many fatalities where we don’t know the reason). Unusually nearly half of Manaslu’s deaths have been as a result of two catastrophic incidents, the avalanche on 23 September, when 11 people died, and an avalanche in 1972 when 15 people died.
The list on Wikipedia contains two other columns that are interesting. As well as overall death rate, it lists the death rate prior to 1990, and the death rate between 1990 and 2003. This is interesting because 1990 is roughly when people started climbing 8000m peaks commercially. If, as the article implies, mountains are more dangerous as a result of commercial mountaineering, then we should see an increase in death rates in the second column. In fact the reverse is true by a massive margin. On nearly all the 8000m peaks the death rates have halved; in some cases they have been reduced tenfold. The one significant exception is Shishapangma, one of the 8000m peaks considered “safe” for commercial teams.
This isn’t really that surprising, for many reasons. Many of the early deaths occurred while pioneers were still exploring new routes; more experienced climbers may be better at assessing risk than amateurs, but they’re arguably much more willing to accept risk as well (Boardman and Tasker were both highly experienced climbers, but there was much more of an inevitability about their deaths on Everest in 1982 than there was about those who died in the avalanche on Manaslu). In fact, when an accident occurs on commercial peaks, it’s nearly always the big commercial teams that help with the rescue. IMHO, their presence makes the mountains safer.
It’s certainly true there will be more deaths on mountains if more people are climbing them, but that’s not an argument for saying they shouldn’t be climbed. If it was you could make the same argument about roads or earthquakes; I haven’t seen the statistics for vehicle ownership or population in San Francisco, but I’d be surprised if they’re going down. We live in an overcrowded planet, for sure.
Is Manaslu a dangerous mountain? Well, it’s more dangerous than Cho Oyu, but a good deal safer than K2. Should commercial clients be climbing it? Well, if you start with the premise we’re all mindless idiots not capable of taking responsibility for our own actions then absolutely no, but in that case why not go the whole hog and put us all in a zoo.