The true summit of Manaslu: a long-standing mystery solved

A few days ago, a reader sent me the following video of a man climbing up a steep bank of snow, reaching the top and seeing two summits beyond. The video was a bit of an eye-opener for me, and solved a mystery that has been bugging me for several years.

Watch on YouTube

The video was of a Japanese climber reaching the summit of Manaslu in 2013, then crouching down on top while his teammate took his summit photo.

Except, he didn’t reach the actual summit. As you can clearly see in the video, there are two more summits behind him, including the last one, which is the actual true summit of Manaslu.

I can’t blame him for stopping where he did. It is clear from the snow conditions that it would be dangerous to proceed along the heavily corniced ridge behind him. There would be a high chance of the snow collapsing beneath him and casting him into the void either side of the ridge.

A frame from the above video, with a snowy ridge and two more summits behind (Photo: tokyo hutte / YouTube)
A frame from the above video, with a snowy ridge and two more summits behind (Photo: tokyo hutte / YouTube)

In any case, he had already done more than I had. The video demonstrated quite clearly that I hadn’t reached the true summit of Manaslu either (as I always believed) – I had only reached the fore-summit.

Which was a bit of a bugger, because I had been warned about Manaslu’s fore-summits when I climbed the mountain in October 2011, and I was determined that when I got to the top I would go to the true summit.

So when I reached Manaslu’s summit area at 11.30am on 5 October 2011, and saw two false summits on my right, I made a particular point of skirting beneath them to an obvious higher summit further back where somebody had planted prayer flags to mark the top.

In fact, there were two more metres of mountain behind us, but as I said in a previous post about (ironically) people not reaching the true summit of Manaslu:

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.

But those two metres are the same two metres that we saw the Japanese climber staggering up in the video. Had I climbed those two metres myself (which wasn’t possible at the time), then I would have had a surprise – two more summits behind.

You may be thinking, why the hell didn’t I go up those last two metres? It’s a fair question. It seems obvious that you keep going up until there is no more up to go up. But with the snow conditions we experienced in 2011 it is quite natural for climbers to stop where we did, at prayer flags erected beneath a cornice. The fixed ropes had ended and none of us were roped together to provide security should any of us fall. It’s actually quite unwise for unroped climbers to climb on top of a cornice, because there may be nothing beyond and they risk falling through.

This revelation of the extra two summits made sense to me. Six years ago, I read Toshio Imanishi’s account of the first ascent of Manaslu in 1956. Neither Imanishi’s account nor his summit photos bore much resemblance to my own experience, as I wrote in another blog post in 2013:

The route he described was unrecognisable from what I experienced. I had to read it several times before I could piece together the facts, and even then I could not be certain.

And yet, I had seen it all with my own eyes!

On his way to the summit, Imanishi described seeing two snow peaks on the right and a triangular rock pinnacle on the left. He continued beyond them and went up and over two more summits until he reached the main summit, which was a shattered rock tower.

This contrasted with my own experience, where instead of going over two summits I had skirted beneath them and reached a summit covered in snow.

It was hard to reconcile these two different experiences. I had attributed it to the snow conditions. Imanishi had climbed in the spring, pre-monsoon when the mountain was drier. I had climbed in the autumn, after monsoon clouds had deposited a lot more snow on the summit. It was conceivable that Imanishi’s rock tower and my snowy cornice were one and the same.

But now it all makes sense. The two snow peaks that Imanishi had seen were the same two snow peaks that I had skirted beneath. The rock pinnacle on the left was buried in snow when I passed that way, but the fixed rope that I was clipped to was anchored to it. The two summits that he climbed up and over, I had never reached – instead I had stopped just beneath the first one.

The classic shot of Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa on the summit of Manaslu, a shattered rock tower, after the first ascent (Photo: Toshio Imanishi)
The classic shot of Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa on the summit of Manaslu, a shattered rock tower, after the first ascent (Photo: Toshio Imanishi)

What an idiot – and yet, I’m not alone. Such is the nature of its summit ridge that Manaslu presents two characters – one in the spring, when its summit is bare and rocky, and one in the autumn, when it has a knife-edge snow ridge hidden behind a cornice. In the autumn the true summit is much harder and more dangerous if not impossible to reach.

To complicate matters, rope-fixing teams from commercial expeditions have been fixing the ropes only as far as the cornice, and leaving prayer flags at the end to give the impression of a summit. It seems that for years now, people who have climbed Manaslu in the autumn season have been returning home believing that they’ve reached the summit, when in fact they have only reached the fore-summit.

And it’s possible that these people don’t just include mediocre climbers like myself who travel with commercial groups, but also the best of the best – the 8,000m completists (those who have climbed all fourteen of the world’s 8,000m peaks).

The impetus for this reassessment and better understanding of Manaslu’s topography is mountaineering statistician Eberhard Jurgalski, who runs the site, a labyrinthine website containing all manner of facts and statistics about ascents of the 8,000m peaks.

My summit photo, standing in front of a snowy cornice
My summit photo, standing in front of a snowy cornice

Last year Eberhard published a series of PDFs about three 8,000m peaks with particularly confusing summit profiles – Manaslu, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. For the last seven years, Eberhard and a team of volunteers have been analysing photographs of historic ascents.

‘We have worked through about half of the mountaineers on the list of those who climbed all 14 eight-thousanders,’ he told mountaineering journalist Stefan Nestler last year. ‘I’m assuming that less than a handful have really stood on all the highest points.’

Because so many climbers appear to have been mistaken, he has proposed the concept of a tolerance zone alongside two separate lists of summiteers. The first is a general list that includes those like myself who have stopped at a summit within the tolerance zone and who don’t need to stand atop the absolute highest rock or snow pinnacle to feel a sense of achievement. The second is an elite list of summit collectors and record holders who absolutely must get to the highest bit.

This is going to be annoying for some people, who were happy to reach the summit (or so they thought) and had no intention of climbing the mountain a second time just to get a few metres higher. I don’t think I’ll be one of these; I’m happy to have a mystery solved.

For more on Manaslu’s summit topography, you can read Eberhard’s PDF here, which contains a number of historical photos.

For more about my own climb you can read my diary The Manaslu Adventure here, or see my Flickr photo album here.

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