Fall Himalayan Climbing Season Begins

Makalu, a popular Himalayan climbing site this fall. Most mountaineers, both actual and armchair, know that for two months each spring, Everest and the other big Himalayan peaks become the epicenter of the climbing world. From April to June, hundreds of mountaineers from around the globe descend on Nepal and Tibet with the expressed goal of scaling one of the tallest mountains on the planet. As a result, Base Camps across the region can become noisy, dirty and overly crowded, which dramatically detracts from the experience, to say the least. But not everyone knows that there is a second climbing season that arrives in the fall, after the monsoon has departed for another year. The fall season is much quieter and more tranquil than the spring, affording climbers more solitude in the mountains.

The 2012 fall Himalayan climbing season officially got underway at the end of August when teams began arriving in Kathmandu. Most spent a few days in Nepal’s capital city organizing their gear and putting the final touches on their preparation before they begin the trek to their respective Base Camps throughout the Himalaya. That hike generally helps to start the acclimatization process that will prepare them for living at high altitude over the coming weeks.

Often times the fall season is used to hone technical skills in preparation for bigger challenges to come. For instance, climbers who are planning a spring ascent of Everest will often visit the Himalaya in the fall to gain valuable experience and assess their body’s ability to adapt to the thin air. For some it will give them the valuable tools they’ll need for taking on the world’s tallest mountain, while others will learn that the Big Hill is ultimately out of reach.The two mountains that will receive the most traffic this fall are Makalu and Manaslu, the fifth and eighth tallest peaks on the planet respectively. Of those, the 8481 meter (27,825 ft) Makalu is considered a more challenging climb. The lone peak, located along the border of Nepal and Tibet, features a distinct pyramid-shaped summit that provides plenty of technical challenges including a final approach that mixes both rock and ice. Manaslu, on the other hand, features a double summit, the tallest of which extends 8156 meters (26,759 ft) into the sky. While not quite as difficult as Makalu, it does indeed make an excellent testing ground for climbers looking to move on tougher peaks.

Cho Oyu, another popular destination for fall Himalayan climbers, is off limits this year due to the continued closure of the Tibetan border by the Chinese. That 8201 meter (26,906 ft) mountain is also a good tune-up in preparation for a spring attempt on Everest. But because of on going protests inside Tibet, no entry visas are currently being approved. That has caused several expeditions to change their plans and move their climb back into Nepal instead.

While the fall season is much less crowded in the Himalaya the weather also tends to be more unpredictable as well. At the moment it is calm and warm there, but winter tends to arrive early in that part of the world, which means climbers could easily be dealing with high winds and heavy snows before they’re through.

Most of the fall expeditions will be between a month and six weeks in length. In the early weeks the climbers will mostly be concentrating on acclimatizing to the altitude while they slowly build a series of camps that they’ll use in their final push to the summit. Once that process is complete, they’ll simply wait for the weather to be right to facilitate their summit bids. If they’re lucky they won’t have to wait long, but more often then not they can end up waiting for a number of days before conditions are right to go for the top.

And when they’re done, they’ll head home rest, recuperate and begin planning their return to the mountain in the spring.

[Photo credit: Ben Tubby via WikiMedia]

Is Mt. Everest Unsafe To Climb This Year?

Mt. EverestAt 8848 meters (29,029 feet) in height, Mt. Everest is a significant challenge for climbers even under the best of conditions. Thin air, the threat of altitude sickness and physically exhausting technical challenges are commonplace on the mountain, which has seen more than its fair share of fatalities over the years. But unusual weather conditions this spring may make climbing Everest more unsafe than ever and those conditions have even prompted one of the largest commercial climbing companies to cancel all attempts on the summit this year.

Yesterday Himalayan Expeditions, or Himex as it is known in mountaineering circles, announced that it was cancelling its Spring 2012 Expedition due to concerns over the safety of the guides, Sherpas and climbers. Team leader Russell Brice feels that it is simply too unsafe to climb Everest this year and rather than risk the lives of his team or clients he has elected to go home instead. As you can imagine, this was crushing news for the climbers, many of whom have dreamed of this expedition for years and have spent upwards of $55,000 for the opportunity to scale the world’s tallest peak.

What makes this season different from others in the past is that it has been unusually dry on Everest this spring. You would think that that would actually be a good thing for the climbers, but it turns out that without snow and ice on the slopes the mountain becomes much more difficult to climb. When climbing across snow or ice, mountaineers use crampons – small spikes that are attached to the bottom of their boots – to climb more safely and effectively. Those spikes can become a detriment when used on bare rock. Additionally, the snow and ice help make the route up the mountain safer by firmly keeping rocks locked into place, without it the rocks can dislodge quite easily and tumble down the side of the mountain, striking those below.The excessive amounts of loose rock aren’t the only problem, however, as Brice has also voiced concerns about the stability of the Khumbu Icefall, which is widely considered the most dangerous section on the South Side of the mountain. The icefall is a result of the Khumbu glacier breaking up as it moves down the valley. Due to the ice shifting and collapsing, a new route must be built through that section each year. A special group of Sherpas known as the Ice Doctors are charged with building and maintaining that route, which is created by laying down a series of ladders over the open chasms. Climbers then walk across those ladders as they navigate to the base of the mountain located on the far side. The Himex leader feels that the route could collapse at any time, stranding the mountaineers on Everest, or worse yet, taking the lives of those in the icefall at the time.

The other big commercial guide services seem less concerned about the dangers of climbing Everest this spring and there are some indications that conditions are actually improving. Snow fell on the mountain over the weekend, which has brought a measure of stability to the peak and has allowed climbers to go as high as Camp 3, located at 7470 meters (24,500 feet), as part of their altitude training. Those climbers are hoping that conditions will continue to get better over time, allowing for safe passage to the summit in a few weeks.

It is hard to fault any guided climbing company for being overly cautious when keeping their customers safe but I’m sure there are more than a few Himex clients that are wondering if they’ll ever get another shot at climbing Everest. Hopefully the teams that remained on the mountain will get up and down safely in the days ahead.

[Photo credit: Pavel Novak]

Climber To Fulfill 88-Year-Old Olympic Pledge On Everest

The South Side of Everest in NepalThe spring climbing season is about to get underway in the Himalaya where teams of mountaineers are already descending on Kathmandu in preparation for their expeditions to come. Amongst them is veteran British climber Kenton Cool who is not only seeking his tenth successful summit of the world’s tallest peak, but is also looking to fulfill an 88-year-old Olympic pledge before the games return to London this summer.

Back in 1922, the Himalaya mostly remained a blank spot on the map. Those wild and rugged mountains seemed nearly impassable at the time and explorers spent years mapping their jagged peaks and high passes. One of those explorers was Lt. Colonel Edward Strutt who led one of the first expeditions that attempted to climb Everest. His team actually reached a height of 27,000 feet, which was well below the 29,029-foot summit but still managed to set a new altitude record at the time.

News of that record spread around the globe and gave hope to many that Everest would soon be conquered for King and Country. It wasn’t of course. It would be another 31 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would become the first men to stand on the summit, but Strutt became quite the celebrated figure. So much so that in 1924, at the Olympic Games in Paris, he and his team were awarded gold medals for their accomplishments on Everest. When he received his medal from Baron Pierre du Coubertin, the Lt. Colonel promised he would carry it with him when he eventually went to the top of the mountain. Later that same year, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine would go missing on their famous Everest expedition and it would be another nine years before another team of Brits attempted the climb again. As a result, Edward Strutt never got the opportunity to take his Olympic gold to the highest point on the planet.

Now, nearly nine decades later, Cool wants to fulfill Strutt’s pledge at last. Today Kenton begins his trek to Everest Base Camp on the south side of the mountain. That trek will take upwards of ten days to complete and once there he’ll begin the long and grueling process of climbing a mountain that he already knows very well. Depending on weather conditions, it could take Cool about six weeks to deliver the gold medal to the summit.

You can follow Kenton’s progress on the expedition’s Facebook page by clicking here and hitting the “Like” button. We’re likely to get daily updates from the trek and climb as well as some stunning photos and videos from the breathtaking Khumbu Valley.

Video: Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal


In 1994, I hiked to the Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. It was one of the high points of a yearlong trip across the Middle East and Asia and my memories of that trek are still vivid today.

The Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Base Camp treks were popular even back then and although I walked alone, I met several other hikers along the way. There were few guesthouses though, and mostly I stayed in spare rooms in local villages. Now I’ve heard that there are Internet cafes along the way. I haven’t confirmed this; I don’t want to know. I love adventure travel because it takes me away from my day-to-day life. The last thing I want to do while trekking in the Himalayas is to check Facebook.

Two memories stick out the strongest. The first happened three or four days into the hike. I was at a high altitude, puffing along with a forty-pound pack and all bundled up to stave of the bitter cold. I made steady but rather slow progress thanks to the high altitude. Then a Sherpa passes me wearing only thin trousers, a shirt and flip-flops. He was carrying a roof beam over his back, secured into place with a harness and forehead strap. The Nepalese are a tough people!

I got to the base camp and stayed in a stone hut that night. The next morning I went exploring. Pretty soon I came across some mysterious tracks in the snow. They looked for all the world like the footprints of a barefoot man, except very large and strangely rounded. I followed them for a few hundred feet until I reached a part of the slope shielded from the sun by an outcropping of rock. This part of the slope hadn’t received any sunlight, and so the snow hadn’t melted at all. The tracks suddenly became much smaller and were obviously animal in origin. To me they looked like a fox’s, although I can’t say for sure.

The explanation is simple: the sun warmed the snow on the exposed part of the trail and the tracks partially melted, becoming wider and rounder. The claws became “toes” and the pads of the feet joined into one oval mass. So. . .no yeti sighting for me!

Still, that did not dampen my excitement and awe of being at the breathtaking location surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan peaks. Put this video on full screen, sit back, and enjoy.

Impact of climate change on the Himalaya far less than estimated

Climate change in the Himalaya is far less than previoiusly thoughtA new climate change study, released this past Thursday, has surprised some experts and blown some major holes in the doom and gloom predictions that have been given out in recent years. In fact, the new study, which was published in the scientific journal Nature, found that there has been virtually no ice lost in the Himalaya over the past decade, which runs contrary to reports that many climatologists have given over that same time period.

In this new study, satellites were used for the first time to track the loss of ice in glaciers and the polar ice caps. Previously, teams of scientists would have to visit the glaciers themselves, and measure the changes manually. This was a time consuming and challenging process, and only allowed them to visit a few locations. The satellites gave researchers the opportunity to see the big picture more fully, and what they found was quite surprising.

Previous climate change studies estimated that the loss of ice in the Himalaya Mountains was quickly approaching 50 billion tons per year, but the satellites showed that the actual loss was closer to 4 billion tons annually, which one scientist in the study labeled as insignificant. That means that while the glaciers are indeed still melting, they are doing it at a far less alarming rate than we’ve been led to believe in the past. Researchers went on to say that the contribution to rising sea levels, from these melting glaciers and the ice caps, was less than half what had been predicted by other recent reports.

This research project began in 2003 and ran through 2010, giving the scientists involved an opportunity to observe changes over a substantial amount of time. Their findings fly in the face of predictions from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which once predicted that the Himalayan glaciers could be completely gone by 2035, a statement they were forced to retract later.

All of these different climate change reports just indicate to me that we really don’t know what the hell is going on with our planet.