Peak Collectors in Modern Himalayan Climbing

As the Himalayan climbing season begins, the various professionals who make their living out of high-altitude mountaineering begin to gather: porters, guides, operators, helicopter pilots, Base Camp crews.

But in the last few years, a new profession of climber has also become a fixture. Typically, they are members of fully serviced commercial teams. Sometimes, they hop from one peak to the next, aiming for as many summits as possible before the season ends. They are the 8,000m peak collectors.

Sophie Lavaud will try to bag her 13th 8,000m this season. Above, on the summit of Dhaulagiri last fall with Dawa Sangay.

Some context

Not long ago, summiting one 8,000m peak was a mountaineer’s lifetime dream. That dreamed peak was rarely Everest: It was too high (back when oxygen supplies were limited) and already too expensive.

Rather, mountaineers built up their skills before attempting one of the “easier” 8,000m peaks. Typically, these were the lower ones — Shishapangma, Gasherbrum II, and Cho Oyu from the Tibetan side. Success on one of these giants might grant these climbers some local fame and sponsorship when they returned home.

Chain-climbing 8,000’ers

Those times sound quaint now. Few would-be pros are satisfied today with just one 8,000m peak, at least if they want to build a career. At the same time, few are patient enough to devote the many years that all the 14×8,000’ers used to take. But technology and logistics have allowed them to vastly accelerate the 8,000m career arc.

Antonios Sykaris will attempt Dhaulagiri after a failed attempt (due to COVID) last spring. Photo: Antonios Sykaris

 

Nirmal Purja showed the world his amazing strength and tactical skills when he climbed all the 8,000’ers within a few months. He also showed local businessmen and their potential clients how to make the most of available logistics in the Himalayan climbing season, especially in Nepal.

Helicopters, oxygen, and pre-fixed routes allow fit climbers to chain-summit two or three peaks in a single season. They only need to acclimatize before the first one, and limitless oxygen shortens even that process.

On subsequent peaks, the first weather window typically prompts a summit push. The logistics are already in place: base camp, higher camps, supplies, Sherpa assistance, and fixed ropes. When the monsoon ends climbing in Nepal, some travel to Pakistan, where the season is just beginning. There, they continue to tick off their list with Nanga Parbat, K2, or another Karakoram 8,000’er.

Viridiana Alvarez of Mexico summited the world’s three highest peaks in just under two years. In 2021, she climbed Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. This spring, she has set her sights on Makalu. “Mountaineer, public speaker, executive coach, and social entrepreneur,” declares her website.

 

From Seven Summits to 14×8,000’ers

Not long ago, completing the Seven Summits was enough to launch a career, but that is so yesterday. Now, an increasing number of climbers are targeting the 14×8,000’ers, once the exclusive domain of the most elite mountaineers. And they want to do it as quickly as possible, using all the advances in logistics to further their quest.

Many of them are trying to establish some kind of first, based on age, personal circumstances, or nationality. This is why so many come from countries without a long mountaineering tradition. And there are still many firsts available for women on the 8,000m peaks.

Grace Tseng of Taiwan poses on K2 this past winter. Photo: Grace Tseng

 

Age, nationality, gender

This season, for example, Sophie Lavaud will try to make of Lhotse her 13th 8,000’er. A citizen of France, Switzerland, and Canada, she can hope to claim records in three countries. Grace Tseng of Taiwan is ready to leave behind this winter’s failed attempt on K2 by notching Annapurna. She started on the 8,000’ers list just two years ago. This spring, she is again the only client of the Dolma Outdoor Expedition team, led by Nima Gyalzen. She has further announced that she will not use oxygen.

Adriana Brownlee of the UK seems to be following the footprints (and attitude) of her mentor, Nirmal Purja. Accompanying Purja’s powerful Elite Exped team, Brownlee first set foot in the Himalaya last year. She summited Everest, Manaslu, and Dhaulagiri (in a risky, 34-hour, non-stop push).

Currently just 21, she intends to become the youngest 14×8,000m summiter within a couple of years. This spring, she intends to climb Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu. Just yesterday, she decided to add Annapurna I for starters. She calls it her “acclimatization peak”.

Ambitious young guns meet: Shehroze Kashif of Pakistan and Adrianna Brownlee of the UK. Photo: Adriana Browlnee

 

More all the time

Shehroze Kashif is not the only Pakistani climbing all the 8,000’ers, but he hopes to become the youngest. He acquired his “Broad Boy” nickname by summiting Broad Peak at the age of 17. Last year, he summited Everest, K2, and Manaslu. This year, like Brownlee, he plans on Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu.

Of course, many other climbers are currently working the 14×8,000m circuit: Viridiana Alvarez of Mexico, Uta Ibrahini of Kosovo, Moeses Fiamoncini of Brazil, Juan Pablo Sarjanovich of Argentina, Jackson Groves of Australia, Arjun Vajpai of India, as well as Nepalis Purnima Shrestha, Pasang Lamu Sherpa, Maya Sherpa, and others.

Kills adventure but accelerates what is possible

The use of helicopters, fixed ropes, eight litres per minute of oxygen, and heavy Sherpa support obviously kills much of the adventure as it accelerates what is possible. It also increases the odds that people will make it down safely. Yet it seems a far cry from the lonely expeditions of the past or the alpine-style climbs of self-sufficient teams on virgin routes.

At the same time, it fulfills the requirements of impatient young climbers — or older ones — without much experience or technical ability. And for the thriving expedition business in Nepal, it’s working pretty well.

Uta Ibrahini is the first Kosovo woman to summit six 8,000’ers. She hopes Makalu will become her 7th. She also attempted Lhotse South Face in Hong Sun-Taek’s team in 2019. Photo: Uta Ibrahini

Angela Benavides is a journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news working with ExplorersWeb.com.

Angela Benavides has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of national and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive, radio reporter and anchorwoman, etc. Experience in Education: Researcher at Spain’s National University for Distance Learning on the European Commission-funded ECO Learning Project; experience in teaching ELE (Spanish as a Second Language) and transcultural training for expats living in Spain.

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Frederick
Frederick
3 months ago

These so called “mountaineers” have every right to do what they’re doing, but it’s a joke compared to true mountaineers like Bonatti, Lionel Terray, Mallory, Buhl, Messner, Ed Viesturs, Gerlinde Kaltenbruner, Bonington, Boardman, Tasker, Wanda Rutkiewicz, etc. I suppose it’s a reflection of our me first/fast lifestyles we live these days. Sigh.

damiengildea
3 months ago

I think this is a good summary of the current situation, Angela. Of course, jumaring ropes that were fixed for you, on a route found and beaten down for you, with all your gear carried for you, using bottled O2 at 4-8l/m carried for you, travelling by helicopter, removes so much of the skill, challenge, dedication and perseverance that made Himalayan mountaineering so revered as a worthy challenge, something that garnered respect from the wider world. If people understand that, understand that this 8000m shopping bears little resemblance to actual alpinism or traditional mountaineering, or even commercial mountaineering, of even… Read more »

B.G.
B.G.
3 months ago
Reply to  damiengildea

Safari Climbing is the best term I’ve heard used for it.

Alexander Pancoe
Alexander Pancoe
3 months ago
Reply to  B.G.

Hate this. It’s definitely important to distinguish that not all climbers are equal. That being said “safari” implies anyone can do it. Even fully supported — climbing an 8000m requires a very high fitness level. It’s possible even on oxygen to burn 10k calories on a summit day. That’s like running 3 marathons. Is a heavily supported climb in the same league as self supported or no oxygen? Ofcourse not. That doesn’t mean it’s not extremely hard and should be termed a “safari”. Maybe instead of knocking how people climb, climbers need to be transparent about how they climbed and… Read more »

Ed Conboy
Ed Conboy
2 months ago

No one is bashing them but what have they accomplished on their jaunt if everything has been provided and is done for these ‘climbers’? My grandma could do it if every step had been previously marked, like a drive across Route 66. Where is the adventure or discovery of merely following in someone else’s footsteps? But go ahead kids, Nepal needs your money.

Tony Hackett
Tony Hackett
3 months ago

I’m off on my next climbing expedition tomorrow. I’m climbing Mount Damavand, the highest volcano in Asia. It will be my 5th peak of the volcanic seven summits. Honestly, I think I’m happier doing these peaks than I would be doing the 8,000ers. These volcanoes are much less crowded, more remote and interesting to climb. Only about 30 people have done the volcanic seven summits. So, I’ll also join a pretty unique club of people when I complete it. One last thing. I don’t remember her name now. But, this lady is planning to try and climb all 14 8,000ers… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Tony Hackett
Apy
Apy
3 months ago
Reply to  Tony Hackett

I believe this lady is @kristin.harila. At least that is what she honte at
https://www.instagram.com/p/Ca-f2vRKjr7/?utm_medium=copy_link

Apy
Apy
3 months ago
Reply to  Apy

*she hints

Doug Shelby
Doug Shelby
3 months ago
Reply to  Tony Hackett

Best of luck with your plans and be safe.

Hugo Torres
3 months ago
Reply to  Tony Hackett

Excellent choice for enjoyable climbing alternatives. I suggest you to try the volcanoes of Ecuador, including Mount Chimborazo, the highest peak on the world measured from the center of earth. http://www.ecoandestravel.com is our 33 experienced adventure company operating in South America.

Doug Shelby
Doug Shelby
3 months ago

I’m sorry for offending anybody with what I’m going to say…in fact I’m pretty much the prototype of the armchair climber. The highest mountain I’ve ever climbed under my own power was in reality a sorta tallish hill in the Appalachian foothills. I’ve rode a few ski lifts and then rode in a car to the top of pikes peak. So… I just want to make that clear first. Okay… the very first thing that got me personally interested in mountains and the incredible people who try climbing them, was the sheer difficulty and danger of it. Then the endurance… Read more »

Ed Conboy
Ed Conboy
2 months ago
Reply to  Doug Shelby

My sentiments exactly.explorers, geologists, astronomers, physicians, photographers, cartographers, astronauts have made these climbs conducting scientific studies without the luxurious climbing outfits and equipment… the hard way! Lives have been lost and bodies remain where they fell. It has become a cemetery. But as long as people are willing to risk life and limb Sherpas got to Sherpa.Their families incomes are dependent upon this folly. What consideration and compensation is given to them?

bagra
bagra
3 months ago

I still got a lot of respect to all of them.
however just one thing, about Viridiana Alvarez.
does anyone feel like this:
comment image?ezimgfmt=rs:678×453/rscb1/ng:webp/ngcb1
is the K2 – TOP ?
because this page:
https://www.guinnessworldrecords.es/news/2020/8/alpinista-latina-rompe-record-por-subir-los-tres-picos-mas-altos-del-mundo-en-el
says it is.
just a little bit puzzling.
or maybe just a small glitch.

damiengildea
3 months ago
Reply to  bagra

It’s the imbedded image caption but it’s not specifically said in the text that it’s K2, so presumably just a glitch in the editing.

Guinness are not great with mountaineering. Many of the ‘records’ are contrived claims and in a sense, not really ‘records’ at all, in the sense that an old mark has been surpassed, that new person has beaten an old record.

If you are the first to do something, then there is no record to beat.

bagra
bagra
3 months ago
Reply to  damiengildea

thank you for your answer Damien
I agree about your opinion about those (world) records. pretty pointless.
however, about the pic…
the page did said specifically that that’s the top of K2, that’s why I’ve been asking on first place, the title of that pic is, and I quote “viridiana-on-top-of-K2-mountaintop_tcm29-626196.jpg” :-S

damiengildea
3 months ago
Reply to  bagra

bagra, this is how it looks on my browser – the photo has no title or caption printed in the text.

But yes, the image name, visible if you mouse over it, is obviously incorrect.

Screen Shot 2022-04-02 at 9.06.20 am.png
Ed Conboy
Ed Conboy
2 months ago
Reply to  bagra

Whose dead body lies below?

Steve
Steve
3 months ago

Here’s the thing… none of this is easy. Period. It’s extremely challenging both mentally and physically, regardless of how it’s achieved. People can sit back in their armchair and hurl insults all they want at these climbers but at the end of the day… if it was so easy, it all would have been done before several times. My gripe is the “why.” Why exactly these people are doing this. Social media has made the world and the small climbing community into a “look at me” universe. I hate that aspect of it. It just seems as if a lot… Read more »

Ian L
Ian L
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve

Totally agree with you Steve. the world these days is about, Wow watch me ! I have been on a few expeditions and I have experienced great conversations with past mountaineers and they are genuine.

fred west
fred west
2 months ago

Risk of death with or without O2