The single biggest climbing accident in the Nepal Himalaya just took place on a ‘trekking peak’. What’s in a name…
The tragic accident on Pisang Peak (6091m) in the Manang Himal during the 1994 post-monsoon season in which eleven climbers were killed highlights the dilemma of calling a Himalayan mountain a ´trekking peak´. The name seems to imply something non¬technical, as if they were suitable for non-mountaineers without an experienced, qualified mountain guide to lead and look after them. It is a name that seems to suggest that they can be climbed by any strong walker—not so. The truth is they are all serious undertakings and given the wrong conditions or lack of skill can be as difficult and dangerous as any other Himalayan mountain.
I have never felt easy about the term ´trekking peak´. In the introduction to my book The Trekking Peaks of Nepal, I stated it was a misnomer and that Non-Expedition Peak or Himalayan/Alpine Peak would be better alternatives to distinguish these mountains from the higher Expedition Peaks like Ama Dablam, Everest, Annapurna and Makalu which are open to mountaineers, at a price. Expeditions to these higher peaks demand a liaison officer, sirdar and a lot of bureaucratic hassles. The joy of the trekking peaks is that they are ideally suited to small groups wishing to enjoy some interesting climbing, perhaps doing a new route, at relatively low cost, without a lot of red tape.
The trouble is that the 18 trekking peaks (first opened in 1978 by the Nepal Mountaineering Association, NMA) are often confused in the minds of trekkers and commercial trekking com panics with high viewpoints found on many of the great treks; of instance Gokyo Ri and Kala Pathar on the Everest trek, and even Poon Hill on the Annapurna circuit. These are in factlowsummits,hills really, not peaks at all, and are inavariably the highlight of a trekker´s achievement. These hills are often erroneously referred to as ´trekking peaks´ but are of course no more than fantastic viewpoints where yaks graze and goraks scrounge particles from packed lunches.
Those from a non-mountaineering background continue to publicise trekking peaks as suitable for strong walkers. Certainly, there have been plenty of non-climbers getting to the top of Island Peak, Tent Peak, Chulu East, Mera and Pisang. I know, because I have guided some of them. In recent years with the growth of commercial expeditions, even Everesthas attracted non-climbers to its summit.
The fantastic increase in the number of trekkers in Nepal since the peaks were first opened has produced a highly competitive scene in the commercial trekking market. The best companies which pioneered the trekking routes carefully planned their itineraries to ensure the health, safety and enjoyment of trekkers and used skilled professional staff to guide them. When I first got interested in the trekking peaks there were only a couple of agencies capable of running climbing trips to them. They employed highly skilled Sherpa staff and Western leaders with a track record of Himalayan climbing to ensure safety and a high probability of success.
Things have changed. I now see too many agencies offering trekking peak climbing which have little understanding of mountaieering. They imply in their literature that the ascent of an Island Peak, Tent Peak, Ramdung or Paldor is well within the grasp of a fit walker and often include them in ill-conceived itineraries that allow little time to acclimatise and even less for poor weather or difficult snow conditions.
Many would-be trekking peak climbers remind me of skiers who have learned their skiing within the safe environment of well-groomed slopes. Protected from the real mountain environment by the lift company and the resort managers, they need only consider what to wear and when to stop for lunch; they remain shielded from danger. Occassionally, they duck under the ropes and find themselves off-piste and out of their depth in ´real snow´ and a savage environment.
It is the same on the trekking peaks. They may seem small in the context of an 8000er, but by most standards they are very high. All are glaciated and exposed, which makes them serious. Combine all of these factors and you have real mountains that demand mountaineering decisions that only experienced climbers can make. True, some of the peaks involve little technical climbing by their ´via normale´, other than to crampon along an exposed arete or kick steps up a steep slope—simple skills. But that is only part of the game. What about crevasse rescue, avalanche assessment, altitude, and the myriad of other obstacles that are part and parcel of high mountains?
Many trekkers beguiled into going for a peak on their trek of a lifetime have never considered the risks and the consequences of high altitude mountaineering. It´s a serious game, one of the most serious that climbers play and one that the epithet ´trekking peak´ dangerously disguises.
Commercial companies and many trekkers seem to have missed the point and real pleasures of the trekking peaks. Theyarrogantlyapproach them as though they are little more than bumps along the way. In fact, they offer a wonderful opportunity to enjoy some affordable Himalayan climbing amongst the finest mountains in the world—surely this is what the NMA realised when they made them so easily available. The trekking peaks also hold the potential for new route exploration at an altitude that will allow technical climbing of high order.
New routes on Kwangde, Lobuje, Mera and Kusum Kangguru have shown this, and some of world´s best climbers have taken full advantage of the no-fuss and low bureaucracy climbing they offer. Jeff Lowe, Doug Scott, Reinhold Messner and many other famous mountaineers have attempted new routes on trekking peaks, not always successfully. But that is the nature of mountains and adventure—the outcome is never certain which is why they are so desirable, so addictive.
Of course, even on the best run expeditions—and every trip toa trekking peak is an expedition—things can go wrong, errors can be made and a price has to be paid. Perhaps it is time for a rethink; perhaps accessibility has made us complacent. Perhaps it is time for a change in the name? Perhaps trekking agencies should re-evaluate what they have on offer, thestaff they employ,andtheserious nature of Himalayan climbing—even when it is only a ´trekking peak´.