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Climbing 8000m Peaks - Part One

Article by Roland Hunter
Sunday 28th March 2010

At some stage, most climbers will ponder the idea of summitting an 8000m peak. But how do you go about actually doing it? In this two-part article, Roland Hunter highlights some of the things to consider if you are thinking of joining an expedition, or of planning your own. You can use this information to decide on your best approach, or to contact a commercial company about the services they provide. Roland is an experienced Himalayan mountaineer and expedition organiser, and is the founder of The Mountain Company.


Looking towards the summit of Everest

Five years ago I felt it was time to venture further afield and attempt one of the 8000m mountains. There are fourteen of these giants, located in the Himalaya of Nepal and Tibet and in the Karakoram of Pakistan. I ended up joining two expeditions, one to Everest in 2001 and the other to Kanchenjunga in 2003, and then organised an expedition to Broad Peak in the summer of 2004.

Many people think that you need huge sums of money to go on these trips but this is not always true. There were fourteen of us on the Broad Peak team and the expedition ended up costing each member US$4000 (the climbing permit was half price in 2004).

The normal expedition approach is siege style with established camps linked by fixed rope, although over the last ten years some groups have adopted an increasingly lightweight approach by using no supplemental oxygen or high altitude sherpas.

Expedition Organisation

Your first choice is to think about what type of expedition you would like to join. There are several western-based companies which can organise either a professionally led or fully guided expedition, and there are local trekking agencies based in Kathmandu and Islamabad who provide logistical support.

There are a range of factors which might influence your decision: your previous mountaineering experience (in particular above 8000m); cost; whether you have a group of like-minded friends to go with; and the amount of time you have available for organising the expedition. The planning for an expedition might start a year or more before departure and will probably involve a lot of work but can also be very satisfying.

 

The planning finally pays off... the Rongok glacier seen from Everest

 

Typical Expedition Organisation

1) Locally operated:
There are many local agencies based in Islamabad for climbing in Pakistan, and in Kathmandu for both Nepal and Tibet. It is worth obtaining in writing exactly what services are included although generally this will be travel to base camp and base camp support. You will pay extra for supplemental oxygen and climbing sherpas/high altitude porters.

This is the cheapest option but you will have to organise all of the logistics on the mountain such as fixed rope, mountain tents and rescue equipment. A liaison officer will be assigned to your expedition and you will be responsible for paying him and providing his equipment.

2) Professionally led expedition:
A professionally led expedition will include a western leader to organise the logistics. He will not be guiding on the mountain but will help coordinate the group’s movement between camps; i.e. you should be confident in your ability to make independent decisions while climbing at altitude. There is a range in the quantity and quality of services provided – some will include weather reports, internet service at base camp, climbing sherpas, satellite phone, mountain communications and safety/first aid facilities.

3) Fully guided expedition:
A fully guided commercial expedition should include a comprehensive range of services and a western guide with a strong team of sherpas on the mountain. The main differences between the guiding companies will be the ratio of guides to clients, the amount of supplemental oxygen (if required) and their experience of guiding on a particular mountain.
Clearly the downside of all expeditions to 8000m peaks is the time and the expense involved, but it is interesting to note that there have been very few expeditions cancelled due to lack of funds. It is often the case that at the last moment some innovative way of raising the cash is found.

I am surprised how often expeditions run out of time. This happens frequently on Everest resulting in many disappointed and frustrated team members – especially when they find out another team summitted the week after they left base camp! Ask for the exact dates of the expeditions and find out if it is possible to extend the time if required.

 

Which 8000m mountain?

 

Broad Peak (8047m) – a possible objective for a first 8000m expedition

Now that you have an idea about the type of expedition you might like to join, the next question is where to go.

The 8000m mountains are located in Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet (China) with the heights ranging from Shishapangma at 8012m to Mt Everest at 8848m. There is a significant difference in climbing the lower 8000m mountains compared to the highest five – climbing with no supplemental oxygen feels exponentially harder for every step above 8000m!

Good objectives for a first expedition to an 8000m peak are Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II. These four are at the lower end of the altitude range and their standard routes are less challenging than some of the others. But they should not be underestimated. For example, there is a low rate of success in climbing to the very top of Broad Peak as there is a long ridge above 8000m from the foresummit to the true summit at 8047m; and on Shishapangma there is also a difficult climb from the Central summit to the Main summit.

Your choice of suitable objective should take into account both your previous experience and the type of experience you are looking for. If your main objective is to summit an 8000m mountain then it might be better to go on the standard route of one of the popular mountains in peak season (pre monsoon in Nepal and the summer in the Karakoram). Your chances of getting to the top will be higher with several other expeditions out there at the same time; you can share the task of fixing rope and you might team up with other climbers for a summit push.

If you are looking to avoid the crowds and to climb independently on an 8000m peak it is still possible. For example there are relatively few expeditions going to Kanchenjunga each year, and if you decide to keep away from the standard routes on the north or south side you would definitely be on your own!

Or how about climbing Everest in the post monsoon period? There are very few expeditions to Everest in September and October so you would probably have the route to yourself – hardly what most people expect on Everest these days! The conditions are generally not as good as pre monsoon but it is still possible (Bonington’s 1975 Everest southwest face expedition summitted on September 24).

Looking towards the summits of the Kanchenjunga massif

And if you are searching for a real adventure then why not climb an 8000m satellite peak? They might not have the cachet of the main summits but are worthy objectives nevertheless. Take the Kanchenjunga massif for example; here there are three other mountains over 8000m next to the Kanchenjunga Main summit at 8586m: Kanchenjunga Central has had only twenty-five ascents, Kanchenjunga South thirty-one, and Yalung Kang fifty. I recommend the excellent guidebook ‘Kanchenjunga Himal’ by Jan Kielkowski for more information on the huge possibilities in this region.

Personal equipment

I won’t give a detailed equipment list here, but will mention a few items that have worked well for me. I believe one of the most important factors when selecting equipment for high altitude climbing is the weight.

Down gear:
I do not take a heavy sleeping bag on the hill but prefer to go for a lightweight bag with quality down and good design (PHD Minim 400 Down Sleeping Bag 670g). At higher camps I wear a down suit so a warmer bag is not necessary and at lower altitude I wear my clothes along with a down vest (PHD Minimus Down Vest 250g) and down booties (Xero Down Boots 180g). Click here for sleeping bags available from planetFear.

Tents:
A good mountain tent is required for Camps 1 and 2, and I normally use a Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 (4.14kg). These camps get the most use and will be pitched for weeks at a time so the weight is less important than having a strong tent capable of handling high winds.

It is useful to have a lightweight tent that can be used at top camp to launch a summit attempt. One of the strongest tents around is the Bibler I tent (2.25kg) but another option would be a Black Diamond Firstlight (1.2kg). The design of the Firstlight is based on the Bibler tent (as Black Diamond now own Bibler) but uses ultra-light materials. The Firstlight is a bivouac tent that would be ideal to carry on a summit attempt to get out of the wind for a while and make a brew. Click here to browse the mountain tents available from planetFear.

Ice axes:
I like to bring a mountaineering iceaxe and a third tool so that I can move in a variety of snow and ice conditions. I do not use the third tool very often but it is useful to have when climbing on ice at slopes of over 35-40 degrees with a heavy pack. There is a significant weight saving compared to bringing a technical tool. I use an Ushba Altai titanium (335g) and Camp Micro 2 (400g). Click here to browse the axes available from planetFear.

Pack:
I like to take a simple lightweight pack for load carrying on the mountain. I use a Berghaus Extrem Expedition 80-litre pack (1.7kg). Click here to browse the packs available from planetFear.

Boots:
I have used Everest Onesport boots on all 8000m expeditions and they have always kept my feet warm. The disadvantages are they are quite heavy and bulky so are not very effective for technical climbing. They are also expensive. I believe there are some new high altitude boots on the market, which are less heavy, but I have not yet used these. Click here for mountaineering boots available from planetFear.

 

Base camp

View of Everest from base camp

Like the walk-in, base camp is a good time to meet people and consolidate friendships. But it can become a frustrating place to sit out poor weather. On all three of my 8000m expeditions I waited for three weeks in base camp for conditions to improve on the mountain.

Be prepared for this! Bring along books, music, cards and games – some people even bring coursework or learn a language. The boredom associated with long periods of inactivity is often one of the main reasons for people giving up and going home early.

Find out whether you will be sharing a tent with another team member at base camp. I believe it is important to have your own personal space and most expedition organisers will supply personal tents but some still expect people to share. It also reduces the chances of catching flu or a cold from your tent mate.

Food

An expedition can last many weeks. Food is vital not only for maintaining energy levels but also for keeping group morale high. On Broad Peak we bought a yak and had steak for evening meals, often with a pepper sauce thanks to our great cook!

Before you end up at base camp, ask about the cook’s experience and his range of menus. Also find out if there is going to be a resupply of fresh vegetables and other items during the expedition.

Snacking at base camp

Often it is not the main meals that people complain about but the lack of snack food available during the day – you might spend days at a time in the mess tent and it can be a long wait between meals! A well-provisioned expedition will have crisps, biscuits, chocolate and nuts for everyone to eat throughout the day.

While on the hill the altitude will affect your appetite but it is still possible to eat well by thinking carefully about what food to bring with you. Try to avoid oily or greasy food or anything with a strong flavour. There are a number of options for meals but my preference is boil in the bag (e.g. Wayfarer meals). The drawback is that, at 300g for a main meal, they are quite heavy but I think they are well worth it as they taste so good and are easy to prepare. Cooking at altitude is always difficult but with these meals one can heat the packet then use the water for a brew afterwards – and there are no dirty pans to wash up!

 
In the second part of this article, we will look at the essential ingredients for success on any 8000m mountain: climbing strategies and acclimatisation, altitude medication, rescue precautions, good communications, and porter welfare.

 


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The Mountain Company specialise in organising expeditions and treks in the Himalayas and to Kilimanjaro. For more information have a look at their website: www.themountaincompany.co.uk or give them a call on 0207 4980953.

 

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