What if No One Has Actually Summited All the 8,000’ers?

8000ers
How many have actually reached the true summit of Manaslu, how many purposely stopped at an easier point, and how many honestly believe they made it? Photo: Ben Tubby

Every year, there is controversy about summit claims on 8,000m peaks. In some cases, whiteout conditions or camera problems prevent climbers from gathering incontrovertible evidence. In a very few cases, it later turned out that the claimant deliberately lied. A third situation is also rather common: On some mountains, the summit is not clearly visible, or there are several nearly equal sub-peaks on a long summit ridge, or the last few steps to the final pinnacle are very technical or exposed. In this last case, sometimes climbers make mistakes; other times, a sub-peak is deemed “good enough”.

Less experienced climbers often rely on the word of their guides or Sherpas. A well-known blogger and climber recently received an unexpected comment about a Manaslu summit photo that he had shared on Twitter. “Is this Manaslu’s true summit?” the commentator asked. The climber answered: “I’ll leave that to you: XXXXX [the name of the Sherpa], with 21 Everest summits, fixed the ropes and said it was.”

Sometimes, even a highly experienced guide’s word is not definitive. First, because his impressive climbing resumé is largely built on Everest, where the summit is unmistakable. Second, Sherpas are not in the mountains for fun, but as a job, in which they try to give their clients success while keeping them safe. They have a good reason to end the fixed ropes at a relatively safe spot rather than shepherd their clients along a sharp, exposed ridge which cannot be protected and admits only one climber at a time. You can’t have dozens of clients waiting hours near an 8,000m summit for their turn at the last few steps. That would have to be the case on Manaslu, for example.

South Korean Oh Eun-Sun claimed that her Sherpa ensured her that this was the summit of Kangchenjunga. Eventually, she lost the status as the first 14×8,000’er female summiter because of lack of evidence and contradictions surrounding that expedition.

To make matters worse, experts working with mountain statistician Eberhard Jurgalski have discovered out that because of incorrect summit topography, climbers might have been claiming victory on the wrong places for decades. In a recent article in the American Alpine Journal, Damien Gildea states that “it is possible that no one has stood on the true highest point of all the 8,000m peaks.”

We are not talking of the usual “shortcuts” for tired climbers, such as Shishapangma’s central summit — easier to reach than the main point farther up the sharp summit ridge — or the extra two-kilometre snow slog on the nearly flat summit plateau of Cho Oyu. Nor does it refer to those who stop at Broad Peak’s rocky sub-summit, two hours short of the actual highest point.

Video capture by Joao García shows Annapurna north side and the various knobs along the summit ridge, from CO at the east end to Ridge Junction (RJ) in the west. C2 and C3 mark the 8,091-meter summit. (A) Upper east ridge. (B) Gully leading to C1. (C) French Couloir. (SFE) South Face exit.

Instead, the research scrutinizes three other mountains whose summits were rarely discussed in the 20th century, although they should have been. The results show that virtually no one has summited Manaslu in the last few autumns, that only half of Annapurna climbers have actually reached its highest point and that not a few Dhaulagiri aspirants believed that a metal pole on the summit ridge was the end of their journey, when the summit is actually higher up. The full report, available at 8000ers.com, will send shivers up the spine of more than one mountain celebrity.

In short, this is a huge mess. As the authors make clear, most of those who stopped at these not-quite-summits were unintentionally wrong and involve not only the usual cheater but also some of the greatest climbers in history.

Jurglaski wonders whether it would be acceptable to set a “zone of tolerance” on the 8,000’ers, in order to officially consider some of those unclear points as a true summit. The problem then is, what should the limits be and who should decide them? This is such a can of worms that it might be simplest to look the other way, at least about achievements of the past.

Dhaulagiri summit ridge with confusing points. Illustration: 8000ers.com

However, the story should be different from now on, says Gildea. “You might feel that you can stop 30m away and 10m below the very highest point and still say that you have ‘climbed the mountain’,” he writes, “but you have not been to the summit.”

Nowadays, technology allows no room for doubt, and the community should not accept any claim which is not properly verified. This is especially true for those attempting very public challenges.

“There is now no excuse for claiming a summit on these peaks without verifiably reaching the highest point, particularly for those wanting to claim all 14 of the 8,000’ers,” says Gildea, “so there should be no Tolerance Zone on any of these peaks for ascents after 2020: the summit is the summit.”

The debate is open. In fact, it has always been open, since summit controversies reach back to the very first climb of an 8,000m peak: Some still doubt that Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal reached the highest point of Annapurna on their pioneering 1950 expedition. This taint, if taint it is, continues: It does appear that some of the best climbers in history never reached certain summits that they are credited with.

While honesty is a matter of honor for climbers, the media also have a responsibility. At ExplorersWeb, we do our best to provide reliable, verified information. However, we lack the necessary resources to double-check all claims from Herzog’s onward. We generally take climbers at their word and only ask for proof if we feel there is a need for it: Perhaps a climber is pursuing some kind of record or publicized challenge. Perhaps there is some inconsistency or contradiction from other members. Perhaps the claim lacks photos, despite clear weather.

Two Indian police officers found genuine photos taken on the summit of Everest, 1 and 2, and  Photoshopped themselves into the scene, 3 and 4. They were fired when the fake was discovered. Photo: The Himalayan Times

At the same time, we are aware that some individuals might either make an unwitting mistake or cheat on their claims. There is no person or organization in charge of verifying summits: The Himalayan Database team continues the work of the late Elizabeth Hawley, and experts like Jurgalski do the best they can with limited resources. Summit certificates issued by countries profiting from mountain tourism are largely pieces of paper filled out with whatever expedition operators say.

As Damien Gildea suggests, how carefully we scrutinize a climber’s summit claims depends on their motivation for going to the mountain in the first place. Are they there to enjoy a challenge with friends or attempt a bold new line? That’s almost never the case any more with 8,000m mountains. “These are trophy peaks,” writes Gildea, “and you don’t get a trophy for stopping at 90 metres in the 100-metre sprint.”

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About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

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Ethan Thgu
Ethan Thgu
7 months ago

Surely there will eventually be some electronic device set up on the highest point of each 8000 peak. The technology is not difficult.

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