Amazing drone photos of the summit of Manaslu help to set the record straight

On Monday last week, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa (known as ‘Mingma G’) and his team from mountaineering operator Imagine Nepal made what has been described as an historic ascent of 8,163m Manaslu.

Here’s a nice video of the moment that Mingma stood on the summit.

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog then you may be thinking, ‘oh no, here we go again. This is only about your 8,163rd blog post about the summit of Manaslu!’ Yes, that’s true. I have written a lot of posts about the summit of Manaslu, each one building on the last, the latest of which was here.

So why write another one? This particular ascent was accompanied by some outstanding drone photos of the summit ridge which clearly illustrate why the summit of Manaslu has caused so much confusion. In a minute, I will explain.

But first, why was this climb historic? The main summit of Manaslu has been climbed many times before. It was first climbed in 1956 by Toshio Imanishi of Japan and Gyalzen Norbu Sherpa of Nepal. However, the main summit has rarely been climbed in the autumn season, when snow conditions turn its approach into a dangerous corniced ridge.

Since 2008, when commercial expedition teams first started taking guided clients to Manaslu en masse, it has become standard for climbers to go only as far as the fore-summit. While guides have taken clients to the main summit in the spring season, when the mountain is drier, it’s quite possible that this was the first time the main summit has been reached in autumn with a commercial group (this possibility still needs to be verified).

What is certain is that large numbers of people who believe they have reached the summit of Manaslu, only reached the fore-summit (I was one of those people – I climbed it in 2011 and only discovered the truth last year). This is not only the case for commercial clients, but for elite climbers as well. Statistician Eberhard Jurgalski has studied the ascents of 35 of the 44 climbers who have climbed all fourteen 8,000m peaks, and he believes that only 6 of them reached the true summit of Manaslu.

Some of you will be asking, ‘how the hell can you not know whether you’re standing on the main summit? Surely you can just look and see if there’s a higher bit of mountain nearby?’

Fair point, but easier said than done. Now, thanks to Mingma G, and in particular thanks to one of his clients, Australian adventure photographer Jackson Groves, we can understand why.

Jackson was one of Mingma’s 8 clients who reached the true summit. I have to take my hat off to him. Reaching the summit – main or fore-summit – is no mean feat. I was knackered. It was enough for me to take a couple of summit photos and stagger back down. But Jackson actually had the energy and mental capacity to fly a drone and take some truly unique and stunning images of the main summit. At 8,200m, it was his highest ever drone flight. He has posted several of these images to Facebook to help us set the record straight.

The first of the images that I’d like to highlight is this one, that clearly illustrates Manaslu’s horribly corniced summit ridge and horribly fluted east face beneath it:

Manaslu's fluted east face and three summits shot by drone (Photo: Jackson Groves / Facebook)
Manaslu’s fluted east face and three summits shot by drone (Photo: Jackson Groves / Facebook)

As you can see, there are essentially three summits: the main one (and true summit) on the left, a slightly lower one in the middle, and a much more modest bump on the right. This bump is what we are calling the fore-summit. Most climbers stop about a metre below this. Unless you climb on top of the bump, you will not be able to see the other two summits beyond. But if you are standing a metre below, this bump looks alarmingly like a snow cornice that will collapse down the east face if you stand on top of it. Commercial operators have only fixed ropes to just beneath this bump, without telling their clients that there are two more summits beyond. When I climbed it, there were even some prayer flags to fool me into thinking I’d reached the top.

The second photo I would like to highlight is this one, of 7 climbers approaching the fore-summit, while 4 climbers traverse below it to the main summit:

Climbers approach the fore-summit of Manaslu while others traverse beneath it to the main summit (Photo: Jackson Groves / Facebook)
Climbers approach the fore-summit of Manaslu while others traverse beneath it to the main summit (Photo: Jackson Groves / Facebook)

If you look at the climber in red who is leading the group of 7 up to the fore-summit, you can clearly see the footprints above them stopping just beneath fore-summit. This is the point that most commercial clients (including myself) reach. This climber in red will not be able to see the figure who is just about to reach the main summit, and unless they climb above the top of the footprints to peer over the cornice, they will not know there are two summits beyond.

Now, if you look to the right of the climber in red, you will be able to see a rope descending a few metres beneath the right-hand side of the ridge, enabling the other group of climbers to descend beneath the ridge and make the traverse across to the main summit. This is a much safer approach than shuffling along that horribly corniced ridge.

Mingma G and Imagine Nepal deserve plaudits for making this small addition to the route, which enabled their clients to reach the true summit. It’s something that other commercial operators should have been trying to do years ago. Hopefully they have now set the template for future attempts. Of course, by sticking this extra bit onto the route, they have increased the risk somewhat, but climbers can still stop at the fore-summit if they don’t want to take that risk. At least they now have the option of going further.

The final photo I would like to highlight is this one, of the final summit approach shot from high above the west face:

Manaslu's summit approach photographed by drone, with climbers approaching the fore-summit (Photo: Jackson Groves / Facebook)
Manaslu’s summit approach photographed by drone, with climbers approaching the fore-summit (Photo: Jackson Groves / Facebook)

The presence of the line of climbers approaching the summit adds some scale to the photo and helps to  illustrate the distances involved. Contrary to what some of the comments on the post say, there really isn’t much distance between the fore- and main summit at all. The main summit is estimated to be 6-7m higher than the fore-summit, and not much more than that horizontally. People will continue to argue the toss about whether a fore-summit is a summit or whether we all need to climb the mountain again to say we climbed it, but from my own perspective I answered that question in another post.

I will end with a big thanks to Jackson, Mingma G and all the Imagine Nepal team. Congratulations on your great achievement – you have done the mountaineering community, and particularly those of us in the commercial mountaineering community, a big favour.

It’s been a big year for Mingma, who also made the first winter ascent of K2 in January. Nepali mountaineering continues to go from strength to strength.

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4 thoughts on “Amazing drone photos of the summit of Manaslu help to set the record straight

  • October 2, 2021 at 7:13 pm

    Thank you for putting all of that together. I can see that crossing the ridge between the foresummit and the true summit would be horribly dangerous. Mingma G chose a much safer route, I can see. Clever.

    Personally, I don’t see that most climbers need to care, but some do, and now they can know.

  • October 2, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    To be honest, the extra bit of climbing required to reach the true summit doesn’t look tougher than what a climber has already done to get there. However, I appreciate that at that altitude, and having already expended a massive amount of effort, and with still the descent ahead of you, ANY avoidable extra effort will require you to summon a huge amount of physical, mental, and emotional strength. And if a deterioration of conditions is on the cards, stopping at the fore summit would be a sensible choice. Good to have the choice; hats off to Mingma!

  • October 5, 2021 at 3:29 am

    Thanks for the explanation and illustrative photos.

  • October 10, 2021 at 9:04 am

    Just a small correction. Jackson Groves was not a member of Mingma G’s team but of Nim’s Elite Exped and he did not reach the real summit. Thanks.

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