When is a summit not a summit?

Much to my surprise last week I managed to reach the summit of 6440m Cholatse in Nepal’s Khumbu region, which despite being classified as a trekking peak by the Nepal Mountaineering Association has a reputation for being one of the country’s most challenging technical peaks.

But there’s a bit of a twist. If you look closely you might notice something funny about my summit photo:

Me on the summit of Cholatse last week, but can you spot anything funny about the photo?
Me on the summit of Cholatse last week, but can you spot anything funny about the photo?

Can you see what it is?

Yes, that’s right, I don’t appear to be standing on the summit, and what on earth’s going on behind me?

As you can see there aren’t many rocks on the summit, and the nearest one is probably a few dozen metres below me. The current summit of Cholatse is a 5m ice mushroom consisting of a certain amount of solid ice and an awful lot of unstable powder snow. At some point in the not too distant future most of it will probably fall off, and the summit will look very different to what it does in this photo. There’s quite a good chance it will fall off while someone is standing on it, and I wasn’t too keen for that someone to be me.

We’d come so far that expedition leader Phil Crampton was determined at least one of us should stand astride that final ice pinnacle, but climbing up it safely wasn’t so easy. Behind me in the photo Phil is being belayed by UIAGM guide Pasang Ongchu Sherpa. We watched him for around 15 minutes, not entirely convinced we wanted to follow if he managed to get up.

“Ice … I’ve found solid ice,” he cried every so often, swinging his pick and disappearing beneath a mini powder avalanche.

“I can climb up it very easily, Phil,” said assistant guide Samuli Mansikka from a nearby snow promontory, “but everybody wants to go down now.”

At least half this statement was true. Cholatse was an incredible climb. Never before have I felt such exposure for such an extended period of time as I experienced climbing from Camp 1 to Camp 2 the previous day. For 600m of ascent I scaled a knife edge snow slope at angles never less than 45° and sometimes up to 60°. At one point I was stuck for 20 minutes trying to get up an overhang. On summit day we frequently found ourselves tiptoeing along razor edged snow ridges so ludicrously fine that one of our team mates Chad insisted they must have been crafted in snow by fairies.

As far as I was concerned, I reached the summit, and I didn’t need to shin up that tapering ice needle and risk falling through a cornice just to prove a point.

My Manaslu summit photo looks like there could be a 100m ridge behind me, but in reality it's just a 2m cornice
My Manaslu summit photo looks like there could be a 100m ridge behind me, but in reality it’s just a 2m cornice

Not everyone would agree. Samuli is currently nine fourteenths of the way through a project to climb all of the world’s 8000m peaks. Several of these are renowned for having false summits not everyone who reaches them is aware of. Many people who climb Cho Oyu in Tibet stop at a set of prayer flags with views of Everest and believe they’ve reached the top, unaware they still have to walk for 15 minutes across the summit plateau until they can see the Gokyo Lakes in Nepal. Broad Peak in Pakistan has a notorious foresummit just 17m lower than the main summit at the start of a kilometre long summit ridge. Samuli intends to climb Shishapangma in Tibet for a second time because he reached one of its summits in a whiteout, and he can’t be sure whether it was the main summit or the central one (he also intends to climb Everest and Lhotse again because he climbed them using bottled oxygen, and apparently that doesn’t count).

On the other hand most reasonable people allow some leeway when it comes to corniced and otherwise inaccessible summits. Lhotse’s summit isn’t big enough to stand on, and touching the top with your hand is considered enough. When Joe Brown and George Band made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955 they deliberately stopped a few feet short of the top because the local people believed the summit was sacred and asked them not to sully it. When I climbed Manaslu in 2011 there was a dangerous cornice on the summit and we all stopped just short. Several people have remarked on my summit photo, which looks like there could be a 100m ridge behind me, when in reality it’s just a 2m cornice. In a previous post I wrote at some length about how Manaslu’s summit has changed in the 60 years since it was first climbed.

Cholatse’s summit ice mushroom is perhaps a little bit more than these, and we believe just out of reach of Phil’s ice axes we could make out the footsteps of a pair of German alpinists who climbed the mountain a couple of weeks before us. They must have taken a bit of a risk and fair play to them.

But as far as I’m concerned I reached the summit of Cholatse, and anyone who disagrees can piss off and climb it themselves.

The usual photos and full trip report for our Cholatse climb will be coming up next week.

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7 thoughts on “When is a summit not a summit?

  • November 12, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    I agree with you, that a few meters of ever changing wind blown snow don’t count as part of the mountain. Again, I personally agree with you, but it is a proverbial ‘slippery slope’. Solely by definition, you did not reach the summit. Just because there was an inherent risk of falling doesn’t make up for not going to the top. Most mountains have a risk of falling all the way up. That’s like justifying an Everest summit by stopping at the icefall because above it “was too dangerous”. Where does it stop?

  • November 12, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Yeah, yeah, looks like you didn’t get as far as reading the second to last paragraph ;-p

  • November 13, 2014 at 6:50 am

    As far as I’m concerned the summit is the highest point of rock (actual mountain). So in my book this is a summit. We don’t need more people climbing out on unsupported cornices or ice spires just to be on the highest possible point.

  • November 13, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Good points Mark. We often cross similar dangerous terrain to reach summits and the risk is managed. LOL, I still don’t know if I could overcome my instincts on some of those knife-edge ridges and leap off the opposite side should someone on my rope plunge through! Just returned from Bhutan and still jet-lagged, so your stimulating discussion is most welcome.

  • November 13, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    Hi Mark,congratulations! I agree with Dean, the fact that the extra bit of ice could disappear at anytime (hopefully without anyone on it!) Surely means it is not “the summit” as “the summit” has to be the highest point of the mountain. If someone built a snowman on the top of Everest, would you have to sit on its head to truly reach the summit? I think not! Have a safe journey back, looking forward to reading all about it. Bev

  • November 14, 2014 at 7:51 am

    Heehee, thanks. I don’t know about a snowman but if someone built a snow yak I’d definitely try riding it!

  • June 7, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    I know I comment late but I haven’t read this blog before. I just want to say that I agree that the summit of a mountain is of course the solid ROCK. Not any ice or snow, that is not actually any part of the mountain (and changes constantly).
    About accepting to touch the summit with your hand I fully agree. That is absolutely enough.
    I am very thorough when I ascend mountains and I truly get in for touching the highest point. I will not settle for less. Snow and ice not counted, even if I try to really, really get to the highest point anyway. But that is more about being absolutely sure of have been to (or above) the highest rock. The snow and ice in itself has no value, considering the hight. It just gives different conditions, different time you ascend the mountain.
    Some other above have made good comments on this (like the snowman example).
    Take this question but look at a lower mountain, that has now snow or ice during the summer but has it in the winter. If a person make a winter ascention and is on (or above, considering the snow) the summit but has not put his foot on some ice or snow reaching just higher than the rock, has that person then not reached the “summit” ? But if he reach exaktly the same spot in the summer he has reached the summit !
    In this case I hope everyone can see the absurd in talking about ascend the very highest snow or ice ball on the summit to be able to call it a true ascention of the mountain…

    Thanks for all your interesting articles and stay safe !

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