Manaslu’s Can of Worms: Did Anyone at All Reach the True Summit?

8000ers Manaslu
A climber on the true summit of Manaslu, 2012. Photo: Guy Cotter

“There is not a single alpinist who properly summited Manaslu, not a single one, nor did Sherpas reach the true summit,” wrote Federico Bernardi on October 18 in his blog, Montagna Magica.

In fact, controversy regarding the highest point of Manaslu and whether climbers reached it is neither new nor surprising. Back in 2016, the Himalayan DataBase determined that only 15 of the 175 claimants truly summited. (Check the list here.)

Mountain guides and outfitters decline to make public statements, but off the record, they admit that in the last few years, teams have often stopped short of the highest point. “Every operator is aware that the true summit was not reached this year,” one of them told ExplorersWeb. “It’s something everybody knows, but no one wants to talk about it.”

Considering this precedent in light of 2019’s hundreds of summit claims, the situation could be equally murky. It is, at any rate, worth a close look.

ExplorersWeb contacted several Manaslu summiters from previous years, checked reports and pictures and, of course, tried to get in touch with climbers who allegedly summited during this post-monsoon season. We have received no answers from this year’s claimants; hopefully we can include them in a later update. But Eberhard Jurgalski’s team at 8000ers.com, and the Himalayan Database — the worldwide institution credited for keeping track of Nepal’s summit successes and founded by the late Elizabeth Hawley — together paint both a confusing and a discouraging picture.

What is a true summit?

Tobias Pantel  is one of HD’s staff members who interviews climbers upon their return to Kathmandu. This is what he told ExplorersWeb:

“In the interviews, I ask climbers for summit pictures. And I know where the ropes are fixed to. They were fixed to a fore-summit. Clients go as far as the ropes go. But I have to clarify one point: No one summited the true summit of Manaslu this autumn 2019 [but] what is regarded as a summit is a controversial topic. For some, it’s only the true summit, for others it should be a “tolerance zone”, including fore-summits. The Himalayan Database, for instance, has always recorded autumn ascents (ending at that fore-summit) as successful summits and continues to do so this year.”

So, where is Manaslu’s true summit?

Traditionally, Manaslu’s false summit claims were those by climbers who reached only the col leading to a sharp, angled snow ridge. Those claims were easily discounted, and climbers now make sure that they are seen and photographed ascending up the ridge which leads to a snow-capped top. But is this “the” top or just “a” top?

Again, the answer lies in Pantel’s thorough report on Manaslu Summit Topography, available at 8000ers.com (free to download and a must read for all past and future Manaslu climbers).

Manaslu has a reputation as an “easy” 8,000’er, but this is only true until one reaches the summit area. The snow ridge mentioned above leads to an outcrop (usually snow-covered in autumn) which is usually taken as the summit, but the true highest point lies beyond and out of sight. From the top of the outcrop (C2 in the photos), the ridge turns sharply 90 degrees, then goes up and down in exposed, corniced terrain until a final, slightly higher point.

The confusing, controversial summit picture of Manaslu. Explains Tobias Pantel: “The final ridge extends in a northwest-southeast direction. It is roughly 20m in length. The altitude difference between C2 and 4 is approx. 3-6m. Two small cols separate C2 from C3 and C3 from 4 (5-6m deep) on this final summit ridge.”  Photo: Paulo Grobel

Although the true summit stands only three to six meters higher than the fore-summits (depending on snow depth), that last short section is steep and exposed, usually on snow-covered rock. It is particularly daunting in fall, because the earlier monsoon blanketed the mountain with loads of snow, which the wind shapes into sharp cornices.

The final 20 metres of truth to the main summit (4). Photo: Guy Cotter/Adventure Consultants

“I think the most important thought and conclusion of the Manaslu report is that climbing Manaslu in autumn is very difficult and dangerous due to snow conditions at the summit zone,” Pantel told ExplorersWeb. “If we look at the final summit ridge, it is not such an easy 8,000’er as many people think. Autumn teams usually climb up to one of the fore-summits (C2). That’s where the Sherpas fix the ropes to. This place is at least 30 metres from the true summit.”

Oddly enough, Manaslu is most crowded in autumn, partly because climbs like this one are easier in deep, post-monsoon snow (apart from the final 30m), and partly because of marketing: In spring, operators devote most of their efforts and personnel to the most profitable of the 8,000’ers: Everest. Most of those guides and BC staff are, however, available later in the year. Its scenic, easy trek in and straightforward normal route (until the last bit) make Manaslu the perfect choice for a first 8,000m experience, a cool preparatory climb for those eyeing Everest or a relatively quick trophy for peak collectors wishing to end their year with one more 8,000’er before winter.

Climbers approaching Manaslu’s fore-summit, often mistaken for the true summit, which is out of sight. Photo: https://www.himalayanexploration.com/tours/manaslu-expedition/

Highest or nearly — does it matter?

Well, yes, it does. Sure, climbers are free to make their own decisions about where is enough, what they consider the summit and what they choose to claim. After all, they receive no prize or payment other than their own sense of achievement. If they purposely cheat, they are simply fooling themselves. But it is also true that many climbers may be unaware that they’re not on top. They simply stop climbing where the ropes end.

In an interview with ExplorersWeb some months ago, the Himalayan Database’s Billi Bierling said:

“There are climbers who really think they’ve summited and they haven’t. That’s very common on Manaslu, for instance. I wonder how many people have actually reached the real summit of Manaslu. In 2016…there were 15 real summits against dozens of claims. And some were really upset when they only found this out back in Kathmandu! Those people were not lying, they were mistaken. Mountaineers must do their research and find out where the real summit is, but so often they rely on Sherpas or mates or other teams instead. They feel they’ve paid their guides to lead them to the finish line.”

Bierling also made it clear that the Himalayan Database’s work “is based on trust: We are a database, not a certifying body.”

However, there are two groups of people who have to know where the true summit stands and be honest about whether they reached it or not: First, guides and others who are paid to lead others to the (true) summit, including Sherpas and outfitters; and second, those climbers seeking some sort of record.

And here is where the can of worms spills its contents. As Eberhard Jurgalski points out, “Many mountaineers, including some well-known ones, have definitely failed to reach the very highest points on one or more of these mountains, because of their uncertain topography. Instead, climbers have stopped, knowingly or not, on a selection of lower points — some near to the main summits in altitude and distance, some not so much.”

That is why the German mountain stats expert suggests adopting a “Summit Zones of Tolerance” approach, in which a certain amount of fudging is permissible, particularly on tricky mountains such as Manaslu, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, all with several points or not-so-clear summits. He readily admits that this would be acceptable for some people, but not for others. He also admits that this broadening of allowable “summits” may affect the historical record of Himalayan climbing.

At the edge of one’s strength above 8,000m, it is understandable, especially for the less experienced, to stop at the end of the rope and take it for granted that one is on top. However, mountaineers seeking records cannot afford such a casual approach.

Sergi Mingote, currently devoted to his no-O2 14x8000m project, was in the first summit group on Manaslu the previous fall, together with Moeses Fiamoncini, Temba Bhote, Tenji Chumpe, Mingma Tengjen, Gyalje Sherpa and Chirring Sherpa. He confirmed the summit location as described above. In his opinion, the highest point offers no doubt:

“Yes, it is only visible from the first pinnacle after the initial ridge, but the ridge continues on rather delicate terrain across a rocky section, then along a corniced ridge to the summit behind it: a really aesthetic point with stunning 360º views and nothing higher around. Moeses and I went to the edge of the cornice, and there was nowhere else to climb. This hidden summit…can be really dangerous, depending on conditions, but it’s otherwise unmistakable.”

Sergi Mingote’s 2018 Manaslu summit picture. Photo: Sergi Mingote

To verify his own summits, Mingote has his GPS InReach device on at all times. “It has never failed, although in some cases it gives an altitude some metres higher than the official one. But I also look for topographical references, older flags or poles, take pictures and, of course, look around to make sure there is no higher ground.”

After Mingote’s group, the Himalayan Database lists hundreds of Manaslu summiters in autumn 2018. While stats for 2019 are not yet available — the Himalayan Database publishes its report six to eight months after the end of the season — operators report a similarly large number of summits this year. Or are they near-summits? The 2019 names provided by operators included many anonymous climbers, but also popular characters such as Mingma G and Iceland’s John Snorri, allegedly preparing for winter K2, and Nirmal Purja!

In fact, Manaslu was one of the few mountains where Purja didn’t lead the first group fixing ropes to the summit: He was speeding up Cho Oyu when the Sherpas fixed the upper sections of the route on September 24. By the time Purja and his team began climbing Manaslu, they could only join the crowds.

It is also suspicious that with all those summiters, photos from on top are conspicuously absent from outfitters’ reports.

ExplorersWeb published supposed summit videos of Stefi Troguet dancing and singing and Nirmal Purja denouncing global warming. Both captured a great moment. But it now seems that neither of these were shot at the true summit of Manaslu. Nirmal Purja seems at the same place where Troguet shot her video.

It is not certain whether the climbers headed down after taking their “summit” videos or whether they continued upward. As with other climbers on Manaslu that day, we also don’t know their understanding of the location of the actual summit. Both Troguet and Purja are strong, reliable climbers who make an effort to properly document their efforts, so it’s not a question of pointing fingers but of trying to clarify.

A frame from Stefi Troguet’s summit video, which shows climbers on the first leg of the summit ridge, thereby locating her at the fore-summit (C2 in Pantel’s report). Video frame from Stefi Troguet’s Facebook page

We’ve reached out to both Seven Summit Treks, whose Sherpas led the way to the top, and Stefi Troguet. No response as yet. As for Nirmal Purja, he is currently climbing Shishapangma, the last of his 8,000’ers. For now, all we can do is to open a debate and welcome input from the mountaineering community, especially from any 2019 Manaslu climbers.

If their clients weren’t on the true summit, why did the Sherpas not fix ropes a little further? Were conditions on that final ridge too dangerous? Were they even aware that the summit they guided to was not the highest point? Such an oversight would be particularly troubling in the case of Purja, who is about to break an historical record.

Supposing a climber does stop 20m short —  should it be considered a summit after all, or not really? Should there be Summit Zones of Tolerance, as Eberhard Jurgalski proposes?

If so, this would open a number of questions:

Where and how should the limits be set? What if a man or woman celebrated for a particular first ascent actually fell a little short? What if some records have not been broken after all? And, leaving history for a moment and getting into current mountain affairs: What if climbers pursuing records have one peak more to go than expected?

Related stories:

Summits and Lies: Interview with Liz Hawley’s Successor

Manaslu Summits Begin

To the real top: Guy’s Manaslu debrief, “I’m glad I’ve travelled this road”

About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Sport journalist, published author and communication consultant. Feeling back home at ExplorersWeb after five years exploring distant professional ranges.

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15 Comments on "Manaslu’s Can of Worms: Did Anyone at All Reach the True Summit?"

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Trish
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Excellent article Angela!

Craig Quigley
Guest

Great article… And definitely a can of worms.

As you touched upon briefly in your article, I think it can be split into two camps. Professional mountaineers should be looking at the highest point, as these summits are the ones that are for the record books.

The 2nd camp – the ‘day trippers’, well, when you’ve used supplementary oxygen, had hand rails fixed up the full route, and used extensive sherpa, and porter support… Does a couple of metres really matter in the overall picture of their ‘summit’? Probably not.

Not an Everest Climber
Guest
Not an Everest Climber

Won’t matter for the Instagram climbers. Anywhere where you can get a decent view is good enough for them to boast about their “summit”.

Robert
Guest

My question, near the same area. When summiting Everest from both sides, Nepal and Tibet, does the twain meet?

Scott
Guest

Like the previous comments about professional climbers vs instagram climbers – the professionals know the difference and will not consider the mountain summitted until they reach the true summit. Climbers like Ed Viesturs come to mind – he only got to one of the fore-summits on Manaslu the first time, wouldn’t consider it complete, and went back again another time to reach the real summit when it was “safer”.

Steve
Guest

Was the first winter assent of Manaslu to the true summit?

Mark
Guest
Interesting point. Here’s the difference between the professional climbers and Instagram sensations: Maciej Berbeka was the first man to summit Manaslu in winter 1984. Four years later Berbeka thought he reached the tip of Broad Peak (06.03.1988), only to find out few months later that he’s only been to Rocky Summit (8028 m). Even though he was the first person in the world to have reached 8000 m in winter in Karakoram, he’s stopped climbing – until 2013. Then he joined an expedition to… Broad Peak. This time he did reach the very top of the mountain. He was reported missing on… Read more »
Pol
Guest

Here summit photo which You could compare with Toshio Imanashi or Ed Viesturs
comment image

damiengildea
Editor
Many ‘professional’ climbers have failed to reach the true summits of various 8000ers, including Manaslu. In fact, maybe no one has truly reached them all. So many of the ‘professionals’ do NOT know the difference – that is one of the roots of the problem. See the relevant three dossiers at http://www.8000ers.com/cms/index.php It is a false dichotomy to differentiate ‘professional’ climbers and ‘Instagram climbers’. Most current pros use Instagram and other social media. Most current ‘pros’ use the fixed ropes if they are there. Posting on Instagram should not excuse you from being honest. The top is the top, regardless… Read more »
Damien Francois
Guest
Thank you… Damien :-)) I am so fed up of this commercialxp bashing. Sure, there are too many novices on the big peaks, what I briefly discuss here: https://www.nepalitimes.com/here-now/because-we-are-there/ https://www.nepalitimes.com/banner/overkill-on-everest/ How many times have pros begged for help on the big mountains, when they ran into trouble? Ask Russ Brice how often he and his team had to step in to help… How many pros have cheated? Even the great Ueli Steck’s Annapurna feat has been debunked by Rodolphe Popier (Himalayan Database). How many times have pros stolen O2 from commercial xps? Etc. I am working on a book on… Read more »
Damien Francois
Guest

Where’S my comment?

Justanotheroldclimber
Guest
Justanotheroldclimber

I would suggest it is a bit silly to allow summits other than the main summit to be considered as sumitting. Oh, the way is dangerous, the way is difficult, they say; get real, that’s why one climbs! What’s needed is greater clarification and guidance as to where the true summits lie, not a devolution to what a guided tour climber can or cannot do.

Brad Johnson
Guest
Very well written article. How can you claim to have “summited” if you have not truly climbed to the highest point? This is just another example of most people not being “real” climbers but only “Bucket Lister’s”, and not doing their research on where the summit is and not believing in being truthful. They only want to claim they climbed Manaslu and then go onto something else. If climbing was/is really your passion in life then you should know how to use and ice axe and bring a rope, and make sure that you stand on the true summit. For… Read more »