The lure of adventure in high mountains is something that is almost irresistible to anyone who has tasted adventure, or even dreamt about, such places. For decades, centuries even, men have been fascinated by the forbidding ramparts of ice and snow clad peaks, and the challenges in conquering them. Many people do not get the magnetic irresistible allure of mountain to mountaineers, and a famous quote is when one such uninitiated asked Mallory, the legendary climber why he wanted to climb Everest, his answer, succinct but quirkily explanatory was “Because it’s there!”
And in Nepal it’s there in spades! Most people think mountains when they think of Nepal. More specifically, they tend to think Everest. The fame of Everest comes from its being the highest mountain in the world and from mountaineering exploits most of us have heard/read about/seen on TV/film. Mountaineering is a very active part of visitor activity in Nepal, with most expeditions focusing on Everest, but with 8 of the worlds 14 peaks that are over 8000 meters high within, or partially-within Nepal, expeditions also head for these peaks during the climbing season. Straddling over a third of the Himalayas, Nepal also has innumerable peaks in the 6-7000 meter range and as the Himalayas are synonymous with mountaineering, it is quite the thing to do here. Mountaineering however is a serious undertaking for people fit enough for its rigors’ who understand that it involves the use of technical gear, significant time and resource commitments, and inherent dangers associated with snow, ice, rocks, altitude, weather and logistics. Mountaineering therefore is an undertaking rather than a holiday experience, but if that’s your thing, Nepal offers the best of mountaineering, and many experienced companies and personnel organizing expeditions are based in Kathmandu itself.
1. What is mountaineering?
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines mountaineering as the sport or technique of scaling mountains. To expand on that, mountaineering in Nepal involves climbing snowbound peaks in the Himalayas at heights ranging from around 6000 to 8850 meters – the last height being mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Most climb are in the nature of expeditions where one is a paying member of a team and is so supported by staff with equipment, supplies and logistics as well as guiding and medical care.
2. What kind of gear do I need?
Technical mountaineering gear. You would ideally own your gear as what you wear and carry is life supporting/safety gear, without which your attempt at climbing would probably fail. Gear includes personal gear like sleeping bags, specialized clothing etc as well as common gear like ropes, tents, cooking gear, communication equipment etc. Common gear is usually provided in trip price by the expedition organizer.
3. Is it for me?
Mountaineering is a serious activity requiring commitment of time and resources and levels of fitness, if not skill, commensurate with the challenges that climbing technical ice and rock sections at high altitude demands. If mountaineering is a passion, the mountaineering is for you. If it is just a one off thing you want to add to your done-that bucket list, you should first have a clear idea about your goal, how much you are willing to spend for it, and what level of risk you are willing to accept. More importantly, you should know what level of risk you are not willing to take. Next you should chose an outfit that can cater to your needs, and understands your goals and risk management requirements. People as young as 15 have climbed, as have people as old as seventy, but that’s a result of their motivation, support and resources to command. Examine these factors, if you have time, money, physical capabilities and the motivation – and you understand the risks and are willing to accept them, mountaineering is yours to try.
4. What does it cost?
A typical expedition to Everest costs around 65,000 US$ and lasts for about 2 months. This will not include international flights or personal insurance or gear.
5. Where can I climb and what is the best season?
The Nepal government and the mountaineering governing body the Nepal Mountaineering Association has a list of mountains that it allows expeditions to, and include all 8000 meter plus peaks within its jurisdiction. These 8000 meter + peak west to east are Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga. Besides these eight big ones, there are a much larger number of peaks above 6000 and below 8000 meters in Nepal, most of them as yet unnamed, many in the regions of the big eight. So you can climb in any of these regions, as well as 7000 meter peaks in the far west of Nepal like Api and Saipal.
As far as seasons go, most of the big three are climbed around May as the summit weather is the most favorable about then. Expeditions start about April, with summit dates set around May. Winter climbs are also possible, but are weather conditions tend to be harsher during this time.
6. Who organizes expeditions?
A number of companies, both Nepal based as well as foreign ones organize expeditions. All have to get appropriate permits from government agencies and pay fees accordingly. These are include in total expedition price. All professional agencies organizing expeditions use local staff including cooks, porters and Sherpas. Sherpas actually are an ethnic group from the Everest region, but most high altitude climbing staff (most who actually are sherpas) are giver that title regardless of ethnicity.
7. What kind of help is available in an emergency on the mountains?
Unlike in many parts of Europe or America, emergency services are not institutionalized, and you will firstly have to pay for your own rescue, or make sure it is covered by your insurance policy. Rescue flights will almost never take off unless payment guarantees are made prior to departure. Also, Nepal does not have any sort of mountain rescue unit run by official agencies, so any rescue will have to be organized by your company/embassy/friends/yourself!
At altitude around 7000 meters, the best rescue is self rescue, or the availability of manpower available and capable of bringing sick/injured/trapped to lower altitudes. Base camps have camp clinics that can stabilize most climbing related injuries/illnesses, but are usually located around the 5000 meter mark. Hospitals in Kathmandu, about 40 minutes from base camp by helicopter, are the fastest way back from base camp to more advanced medical facilities.
The highest helicopter rescue ever recorded was at a height of 6900 meter by a Nepali pilot Captain Sabin Basnyet , but this is a dangerous undertaking both for the pilots as well of the person being airlifted. Underlying this is the fact that the same pilot, with over 5000 hours of flying in Nepal, met with an accident and died in 2010 while on another high altitude rescue mission.