Note: this post has a sequel here. I recommend that you read both this post and its sequel.
There was another big controversy on 8163m Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world, this year. It was widely reported that record numbers reached the summit during a two-day weather window on 30 September and 1 October, with around 100 reaching the top on the first day, and a further 50 on the second.
But it was reported in The Himalayan Times last week that the majority of those climbers didn’t reach the main summit at all, but one of the two foresummits. So what happened and why? In this post I try to shed a little light on the mystery, and discuss some of its wider implications.
At its heart was an unexpected problem with the rope fixing. The Nepali operator Seven Summits Treks was by far the biggest operator on the mountain this year in terms of number of clients and climbing Sherpas. They were tasked with fixing ropes all the way to the summit. But for one reason or another they didn’t do this, and fixed the ropes only to the foresummits instead.
The summit of Manaslu has long been a subject of confusion, and I wrote an entire post about it a few years ago. The summit crown contains three summits, the first a rounded snow dome, the second a slightly narrower snow dome, and the third being the main summit itself. The main summit is very small, with space for only two people. To get there you have to pass the two fore-summits and follow an exposed snake-like ridge.
Here’s a photo I took of my teammate Anne-Mari Hyrylainen heading to the summit in 2011. You can clearly see the main summit right at the back, the second foresummit in front of it, and the first foresummit rising off camera to the right of the photo.
You can see that Anne-Mari is practically tripping over the fixed rope at her feet. This line of cord runs all the way up the ridge at the back of the photo, and you can see footprints on the ridge. Anne-Mari is attached to this rope by means of a carabiner and length of prusik cord tied to her harness. It provides security for her when she ascends the ridge at the back.
In 2011 (and all years from 2008 to 2014) the rope fixing was done by the Sherpas from Himex, who were always the largest team on the mountain. Himex is owned by Russell Brice, who was kind enough to answer my questions about how the rope fixing was completed, and how the contract for rope fixing is agreed.
Here is a detail from the photo zoomed in.
Russell explained that the bottom end of the last fixed rope was attached to the big rock halfway up the ridge (no. 1 in the photo), while the top end of the rope is where you see the prayer flags (no. 2). This is where we stopped in 2011 and took our summit photos. In fact there were an extra two metres of mountain behind us, as you can see in this photo of Chongba, whom I climbed with, doing his Winston Churchill impression on the summit.
It didn’t occur to any of us to climb those final two metres. For one thing the fixed ropes had ended, and secondly they looked like a giant cornice that would collapse as soon as anyone stood on it. It looked suicidal, and as far as any of us were concerned we had reached the summit. It didn’t seem necessary to climb those final two metres, especially in the absence of a rope.
However, when my partner Edita reached the summit after the avalanche in 2012, there was a little more snow, and somebody had fixed the line up those final two metres.
Here she is holding up her Lithuanian flag. She also took a photo looking back down the ridge, which shows things a little more clearly. The two figures in blue are standing in roughly the spot where we took our summit photos the previous year.
The reason I’m showing you these things is to illustrate a point about summit photos. In the Himalayan Times article, an official from Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism is quoted as saying it’s a difficult task to verify the claims of whether climbers made it to 8163m. In fact it’s easier than he thinks. With even just a handful of photos, you can go some way to working out where a particular photo was taken from. With 150 summit photos submitted by all of this year’s summiteers, it should be even easier.
I’m going to scratch the surface in this post, and leave some unanswered questions. I contacted many of the people here to ask them where their photos were taken from. Hardly any of them responded, but I don’t read anything into this, and nor do I blame them for it. As someone who works full time and writes in evenings and on weekends, I know that it’s simply not practical to reply to every random stranger who contacts you asking for information.
I am reproducing these photos under fair use, to illustrate an important principle, but I should point out that I’m not trying to shame or undermine anyone. I have posted several to show that I am not singling out any particular operator or individual, but making a general point. Having struggled to the top myself, I have the utmost respect for anyone who climbs Manaslu, whatever summit they reach. I also sympathise with them, and feel they were let down by the rope fixing team. It was a wise decision to stop where they did. I know how exposed the final ridge is, and I’m pretty sure I would have done exactly the same thing in their place. For what it’s worth, I have also just admitted that I myself stopped two metres short for much the same reason.
I will start with some other photos as a reference point.
The above photo is Toshio Imanishi’s picture of the very summit in 1956. It was taken from roughly the big rock on the summit ridge that Himex attached the fixed rope to in 2011, looking south. As you can see, there was far less snow then, but one thing that hasn’t changed are the peaks on the skyline behind. Any summit photos with these peaks in them was taken facing south.
Contrast it with this one of Chedar Sherpa.
This was taken by my teammate Karel in 2011, from the point where we all took our summit photos. He is looking north, and you can see some of us climbing the summit ridge behind Chedar. I am actually the first of the three figures in yellow. There is a distinctive dome-shaped peak close to the horizon above Chedar’s head. I’m not sure, but I think it might be Kangguru, or Himlung, a couple of 7000m peaks close to the Tibetan border. This peak appears in several of this year’s summit photos, and is an indication that the photographer was looking north.
My third reference point is a photo from this year.
This is a photo of Manaslu’s summit crown, taken by the rope fixing team of Seven Summits Treks, and posted on their public Facebook page. You can actually see people on their way up the summit ridge, including one figure almost at the summit, proof that not everyone this year stopped at one of the foresummits.
You can also see a distinctive notch of rock on the left hand side of the second foresummit. This notch clearly identifies many summit photos that were taken on the second foresummit, including this one, posted on the Himex website.
Meanwhile, Seven Summits Treks posted this one of one of their clients on what looks to be the gentle snow dome of the first foresummit.
One person who undoubtedly did go beyond the foresummits was the Canadian Christopher Manning, who posted the photo below on his public Facebook page. You can even see people taking summit photos on one of the foresummits behind him. The angle of the second foresummit suggests it may have been taken a little lower down the ridge from the place where Karel took his photo of Chedar in 2011, but very close.
Because it was taken facing north it’s not possible to say for certain how far up the summit ridge he is, but there is a distinctive rock on the left that should be identifiable from other photos. I believe it may be the big rock on the summit ridge that Himex tied the lower end of the rope to, or perhaps the black rock triangle in Seven Summits’ photo of the summit crown. Of course, I could be wrong and he may have other photos that provide more clarity.
The Italian endurance athlete Danilo Callegari posted this fantastic photo of himself standing on one of the summits, and from the evidence of Christopher Manning’s photo, it appears to be the second foresummit.
More evidence is revealed in this video posted on YouTube by the Swedish climber Carina Ahlqvist. I believe this was shot from almost the same spot as Christopher Manning’s photo. As the camera pans from left to right you can see what looks to be the same distinctive rock to the left, and the distinctive dome-shaped peak on the northern horizon.
My final example is this summit selfie posted by Willie Benegas of Benegas Brothers. There are just too many people in it to have been taken right on the tiny main summit, but I’m sure that a respectable operator like the Benegas Brothers would be happy to provide an answer to the right person (they didn’t reply to me).
Does it matter which summit anyone reached?
At the end of the day, does it matter which summit anyone stood on? When Joe Brown and George Band made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955, they deliberately stopped just below the summit at the request of the local people, who believed the very summit was the abode of mountain gods. Nobody has ever questioned their ascent.
When I reached the summit of Cholatse in Nepal in 2014 I posted a slightly unusual summit photo, which featured somebody trying to get up a 5m cornice behind me. There was no way I was ever going to try and get up that cornice myself, and as far I was concerned I had reached the summit. On the other hand many people will look at that photo and tell me that the evidence is clear: I didn’t actually reach the summit, the very highest point on the mountain. That’s OK too; I can accept that other people may have that point of view, and I can understand it.
And then there’s Mera Peak, a popular trekking peak in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal. Operators have been taking their clients to its second highest summit for years without telling them they’re not going to the highest point, and no one seems to care.
It’s more of an issue for people who are claiming records. For example, in her summit video Carina Ahlqvist tells us she is the first Swedish woman to climb Manaslu. Her ascent may well be scrutinised in much greater depth by the second Swedish woman to get there. In any case, she is also one of many, and she can still be proud of her achievement.
People who are trying to bag all fourteen 8000ers are more particular about which point they reach. Several of the peaks, including Shishapangma, Broad Peak and Cho Oyu, have foresummits that are more easily accessible. For everyone else it doesn’t matter so much. More tragically it mattered enough to one Japanese climber, who was so keen to reach the true summit on 7 October this year, even without the fixed rope in place, that he fell to his death trying to get his summit photo.
It’s not clear how much scrutiny of summit photographs will be done by Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism, but I believe they will issue the summit certificates anyway, even to those who stopped on one of the foresummits.
I also contacted the team from the Himalayan Database, custodians of the archive of Himalayan chronicler Elizabeth Hawley, to ask them for their views. Richard Salisbury told me they distinguish between the foresummits and the main summit, based on consensus among climbers and operators who have been there. He provided the following definition.
We grant success if they get to the very top or within a few meters of the top, and fore-summit success if they get only to the lower fore-summits (about 8125m).
I hope that the majority of the 150 people who climbed Manaslu this year will make the jobs easier for Elizabeth Hawley’s team by being honest and open about which point they reached, for the benefit of everyone.
How about the rope fixing?
While summits and foresummits matter to some people, others will be more concerned about the rope fixing. This is perhaps the real controversy of Manaslu this year, given that it deprived most of this year’s climbers of the main summit. Had the rope fixing been completed as it had in previous years, then we wouldn’t be discussing what is a summit and what isn’t.
Russell Brice explained to me that the rope fixing is usually done by cooperation between the various teams, with one team taking the responsibility to organise equipment and manpower. Each team pays a rope fixing fee to the Expedition Operators Association (EOA) and those teams who also supply gear and manpower are reimbursed by the EOA for what they supply. For the past few years Himex has been the team doing the organising, operating and the bulk of the work in fixing on Manaslu, with some assistance from other teams such as Altitude Junkies.
This year the EOA decided to give the rope fixing contract to the Nepali operator Seven Summits Treks, as they were by far the biggest team on the mountain. It’s not clear why Seven Summits Treks didn’t put ropes in all the way up the summit ridge, as Himex had in previous years, but it had consequences not just for their own clients, but everyone on the mountain.
Seven Summit Treks has been steadily gaining market share on the 8000m peaks in recent years. In theory this is a good thing. Western operators have been competing on luxury over the last few years. This has driven up prices and made trips unaffordable to many people. The appearance of reliable Nepali operators in the market is potentially beneficial, not just for Nepal, but for western climbers who need a cheaper option.
But you get what you pay for. Unfortunately some people paid rather more for their expeditions, but they were all let down equally by one budget operator’s failure to complete the task they had been set. In the ideal scenario the appearance of a cheap Nepali operator taking business from established western operators should cause the western operators to examine their prices and find ways of providing their clients with better value for money. I discussed this in a previous post, but it needs to work both ways. The cheaper Nepali operators also need to try and raise their standards up to that of the western operators, or the only consequence will be to drag everyone down.
It appears that all of the operators on Manaslu this year ended up letting their clients down because of the actions of one. I can’t imagine Seven Summits Treks were very popular, and it seems that the summit ropes were not the only mistake they made.
When I climbed Manaslu in 2011 we climbed up a great big snow slope between Camps 2 and 3. This slope was swept by an enormous avalanche in 2012, killing 11 people. The following year the route was moved to a safer but more difficult line to the right, which isn’t threatened by the seracs which caused the avalanche in 2012. But this year Seven Summits Treks fixed the ropes straight up the snow slope again, against the wishes of other operators more concerned about the safety of their clients. There were also reports that inferior quality ladders were used to span the crevasses between Camps 1 and 2.
This story is set to continue. The Chinese government recently raised permit fees for Cho Oyu and Shishapangma, across the border in Tibet. This could make Manaslu more popular, causing more congestion on that tiny summit.
I really enjoyed my expedition to Manaslu and was lucky to climb it when I did, but there are other mountains.
Note: this post has a sequel here. I recommend that you read both this post and its sequel.
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19 thoughts on “How to verify a Manaslu summit claim”
Russell Brice commented on the lack of reaching the true summit this year in his last Manaslu Newsletter at http://himalayanexperience.com/newsletters/manaslu-2016/manaslu-expedition-8
The money quote is :
“And before our teams left C4 to go to the summit we asked if they had fixed rope to the main summit and they told us that they had…so we never took any extra rope. But in fact they had not fixed to the main summit. They fixed to the final ridge…but not the main summit.
So in fact for a second year in a row…. nobody actually reached the true summit of Manaslu Despite Seven Summits making big claims that so many of their members and Sherpas reached the summit of Manaslu… they told lies and none of their members reached the summit. Nor did anyone else.”
Thanks, Alan. It must be hard for Russell having done so much over the years to make Manaslu a better experience for all teams, to find he’s no longer able to fix the route adequately for his own.
Judging by the latest edition of the Daily Moraine, Seven Summits Treks weren’t his only gripe this year though!
From a statistician’s point of view, I’d rather quote Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn here, when we discussed a [false] Manaslu summit claim earlier this year, “being flexible with all of this (stopping few meters below summit) then you might as well stop doing statistics altogether, because that will open up the door for making a complete mess the lists of people who did, and others who didn’t do, what has to be done to be able to claim a summit “beyond any reasonable doubt”.”
For a climber’s personal experience, I am sure, last “few” meters wouldn’t matter a lot. But for a certificate [from a historian, not the ministry], they do.
P.S. I usually find myself silently but eagerly waiting for your next blog post. Just thought to share this, as I am not so good at commenting.
Hello there, am a novice mountain enthusiast. Enriching myself with these Debates & Dialogues….and eagerly waiting for the nest issues of your write-ups. Thanks so so much.
The Nepali Government has now decided to give them all summit certificates anyway! http://thehimalayantimes.com/…/nepal-issue-manaslu…/
Very interesting post.
I just read a similar article of Manaslu true summit written by 8000ers.com. Based on it; it looks like your “main summit” photo was actually C2 photo (meaning there was still C3 and main summit behind)?!
I am not here to criticize but trying to find out where is actually the true simmit of Manaslu, given I would like to go there to stand on the final point..
This post may help you then:
It’s all very explicit in the post, so read it again if you’re still confused. 😉
Pingback:ExWeb’s Links of the Week
Mark, the summit that many people summited during the last years is another Foresummit, then, after another Foresummit and a nice col the true summit apperars, very hard to reach in autumn, but probably possible in spring, because of much lesser snow on the dangerous ridge. On my website 8000ers.com you can find each detail in a PDF file. Have agood start into 2020! All good wishes, Eberhard.
This post comes up among the first about Manaslu summiting and is highly misleading as myself and others (among them one of the best authorities you can find on the topic) have pointed out. The same is true for other posts you have made on the topic.
You cannot claim ignorance on this now, so why don’t you correct it? Just as another author above, I came here looking for the correct information on summiting, and thought you information was correct as it sounded pretty authoritative and had been up for so long.
Only later did I realize I had been 100% misled here and that you are spreading exactly the misinformation that is leading to so much confusion – even for people such as yourself who leave the mountain thinking they have actually reached the summit.
Now that you do know, I find it highly irresponsible not to correct the info, and it makes me question your motives and character I must say. As you can see in Eberhard’s pdf, even Ralf Dujmovits made the same error on the mountain and had no problem correcting it, so no shame in that.
What on earth are you talking about?
As I and many have pointed out, this post is very misleading. You were not at the summit as is very evident when you study the history of misunderstanding regarding the Manaslu summit area. You are perpetuating the main mistake people are making instead of clearing things up with this post.
Even great climbers have not been able to get to the summit (and in some cases have not even understood that they had not reached the summit), do you really think that would be the case if what you describe was what the confusion?
No one with any kind of knowledge could misunderstand that or mistake the pre-summits you describe for the summit. What you describe is obvious as the top of the ridge can be seen as a clearly higher point all the way in all photos and so on. Also getting to the top of the ridge would not be very hard for anyone with some skills.
You say the area must have changed and they had to pass these pre-summits, but that of course was not the case, the explanation is that pre-summits they described lie entirely beyond the part of the ridge visible in your pictures. They are hidden as the real summit is one small and one major gully beyond what you describe as the summit.
As I and others have been telling you (including Eberhard himself in his post) It is very well described by Eberhard Jurgalski with pictures and all in the pdf found here: http://www.8000ers.com/cms/en/download.html?func=fileinfo&id=242
If you would have climbed to the top of the ridge, this is what you would have seen in the conditions you had: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9W9iNNn4nI
These climbers went further than you did, but they still did not get to the final pre-summit (c3 in the pdf), and certainly not to the summit (c4). It was however clearly visible to them as they climbed to the top of the ridge where you stopped and beyond.
The problem is it would be very dangerous for even the best climbers to try to reach it in these conditions. Guided expeditions certainly would never try in the types of conditions you had.
Like I said, as this comes up as one of the top results when searching for Manaslu summit information, I think you should correct the information, at least with a disclaimer. As things stand, you are adding to, not mitigating, the confusion.
And the same goes for this post which spreads the same misinformation: https://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2013/summit-day-on-manaslu/
Here is another recent resource describing the issue: https://explorersweb.com/2019/10/25/manaslus-can-of-worms-did-anyone-at-all-reach-the-true-summit/
You are talking about “a”, “b” and “c” in your post – the real confusion is about c2 to c4. You got to just below c2, from where you cannot even see the actual last pre-summit (c3) and the true summit (c4).
They lay some 30 to 60 meters beyond where you were, separated by a first smaller gully before c3 (were the summit shots in black and white and Viesturs shot of Gustafsson was taken from) and a major gully that is clearly visible in winter as well before the true summit c4, which Gustafsson was standing on in Viesturs shot that you posted.
“Winter” was a sloppy use of the term by me in the previous post, I should have written “snowy conditions during fall/autumn” of course.
Thanks, Erik. This is interesting stuff and clears up a couple of things. I hadn’t read the PDF (which you seem to have assumed), so thanks for posting the link and the video.
Yes, you’re right, I appear to have reached a point 2m below the place described as C2 in the PDF. The prayer flags had been erected here and the fixed ropes ended with what appeared to be a cornice above. This is actually quite clear and explicit in my post with no intent to deceive. The post is based on my own experience of the summit, both of which pre-date the PDF by several years.
What the PDF points out (and I had no idea about) is that had I climbed over that ‘cornice’ I would have seen two more summits beyond. In fact this makes perfect sense – I’ve had difficulty reconciling Toshio Imanishi’s description of the final section, and his and Ed Viesturs’ summit photos (as described in the other post of mine that you refer to as ‘misinformation’: https://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2013/summit-day-on-manaslu/) with my own experience. I had always assumed this was because of the differing snow conditions. Now that mystery is solved.
There’s a useful quote from Billi in the ExplorersWeb link that you posted: “There are climbers who really think they’ve summited and they haven’t … Those people were not lying, they were mistaken.” With the snow conditions we experienced in 2011 it is actually quite natural for climbers to stop where we did, at prayer flags erected beneath a cornice. In fact, it’s unwise for unroped climbers to climb on top of a cornice, because there may be nothing beyond and they risk falling through. In Eberhard’s PDF he makes a similar point by stating that the summit is nearly impossible to reach post-monsoon.
To me, this is very different from stopping short and saying that you’ve reached the summit when there is obvious higher ground beyond (as may have happened with some of the examples cited in this post). I’ve written about this before too, and been quite explicit when it has happened to me: https://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2014/when-is-a-summit-not-a-summit/.
I’m grateful to you for posting the links and I’ve had an enjoyable time reading them. But I think you need to chill out a bit and not be so quick to judge. Contrary to what some people suppose, most of us who climb these peaks do so for no other motive than enjoyment and a sense of achievement. 🙂
It is great that you clarify that here Mark, as you have a lot of readers.
The reason I said I questioned your motive and character on this is that I have written several posts about it about a month ago that came up as “pending review” or “awaiting moderation” or the like, and then never showed up.
I have also sent several emails using your contact form (with affirmation of them being sent) with all the detailed information, but without hearing back or seeing any acknowledgement of the facts.
Since others have posted the same thing above, to which you were somewhat dismissive, I assumed you were simply ignoring the information and I thought that was wrong for your visitors – it is now evident that was not the case, it must instead have been messages getting lost in transit. Kudos for that Mark, my hat is off for your acknowledgement.
And I naturally also tip my hat to Eberhard who has made such efforts into detailing the information about the summit area to all our benefit.
The important thing is not to point out where others were who has been on the mountain (we climb only for ourselves after all, and the experience hardly lie in those last 5-10 meters of altitude). But instead to make it easier for climbers who are going to know the actual facts and make decisions accordingly.
In the case of the last few meters up to this summit – it simply won’t be reached in the time you were there by guided expeditions. Nothing you can do about that, so that fact in no way takes away from your great experience and achievement.
Thanks, Erik. No problem and no hard feelings. I’m grateful to you for persevering until the message got through. I think WordPress flags as spam anything with more than one or two links. I only noticed your message above with the PDF link because I was looking out for it and retrieved it. I need to check my spam folder more often!
Likewise I now see the message above that looks dismissive. I think I was confused by the mention of C2 and C3 (to me that means Camp 2 and Camp 3) so I advised him to re-read the post which I felt was clear. Now I have read the PDF I can see that he meant something completely different.
And I didn’t even notice that Eberhard had posted! I was on holiday in Colombia at the time. I agree with you; he’s done an amazing, much more thorough job than I have. 8000ers.com is a mine of interesting information, but it’s not always easy to find things there, so thanks once again for the link.
Anyway, no harm done. I now have lots of interesting and useful info to wade through, so I will revise all this and re-post soon.
Thanks Mark, all the best and climb safe.
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