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Summit Fever

Chapter Text

"Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end." 
— Edward Whymper, "Scrambles Amongst the Alps" —


Company policy dictates that employees should be recognisable from an official logo at all times, so John zips open his thick, thermal fleece to reveal the worn official Summit Fever T-shirt underneath. He agrees on the necessity of such rules at trade fairs and when guiding on crowded peaks such as Everest, but where he is heading next, such things seem superfluous.

He wishes he hadn't put off restocking his expedition pharmacy; a pounding headache produced by yesterday's all-nighter catching up with colleagues-slash-friends at the Rum Doodle could use paracetamol. He digs a water bottle out of his backpack; at least he can fix his dehydration.

This isn't the sort of luxury hotel from which commercial Everest expeditions often start these days. Those who can splurge on the astronomical prices of Nepalese climbing permits won't hesitate to throw in a couple of comfortable nights before and after spending months in a tent. No, this is Hotel Yambu—a clean, trusty outfit that has served trekkers and mountaineers for a venerable number of years. It's a place for those who'd rather spend their hard-earned money on bottled oxygen than millionaire-worthy cotton thread counts.

After taking a quick survey of the small group gathering in the foyer, John clears his throat and squares his shoulders. First impressions are important: he has minutes to convince this group of experienced climbers that he's a man who can help them beat downright frightening statistics. He is painfully aware of the scrutiny he will soon be under; instead of being a twenty-plus motley group of varying experience levels and mixed motives heading up Everest, these six climbers are here because they've already proven their worth. Having the money isn't enough: to join this particular expedition, they were required to have experience of scaling several eight-thousand-metre peaks.

John has summited an impressive number of the fourteen mountains on Earth reaching up to such heights; his first attempt on Annapurna I ended in tragedy. As much as the mountain frightens him based on that experience, how could he not try to reach for the missing piece? There is no way that he could have refused this assignment; he has a lot more experience now than he'd had the last time, and there's no one else in the firm who could have taken the lead on this one.

He won't repeat his mistakes. It'll be better. Safer.

He knows, of course, that little is under his control—least of all the weather. But, if he's a good enough leader, he should be able to lessen the risk of human error costing the lives of their clients of his staff. It would be risky just to risk his own life trying to climb a peak that has claimed every third life gambled on in; taking it upon himself to try to ensure the safety of others on a mountain much more treacherous than many of the higher eight-thousanders is not a burden many guides would accept. There are warring factions in his brain: one is trying to warn him off, the other lusting after the clear mountain air and the solitude of the glaciers and the looming towers of ice and snow up above. The Annapurna Sanctuary attracts a lot of trekkers, but  the area surrounding the peaks that have given the region its name attracts very few climbers compared to the circus at Mount Everest.

John is glad he won't be going there for this season. There's only so much of that commercialised madness a reputable mountain guide can take. The infighting, the scams, the inexperienced idiots getting themselves killed for a summit selfie, the crowds, the tourists at base camp, the traffic jams near the summit... The world's highest mountain has stopped being a temple of tranquillity and become the playing ground of former Playboy Playmates, people wanting bragging rights to be, say, the first left-handed Polish person to stand atop it, reality TV crews, celebrities expecting to be carried up on the shoulders of a Sherpa lest their French manicure get ruined using a jumar. Some climbers pick the Chinese north side, but the crowds are spreading there now, too, since the permits are cheaper. Six months ago, when they'd been planning this year's expeditions, John had begged to be sent somewhere else than that cash cow, hoping that the CEO of Summit Fever would be hankering for a few expeditions to some of the favourite starter eight-thousanders such as Cho Oyu.

Instead, he got the exact opposite. John really hadn't expected Annapurna I, but here he is.

The climbers—his clients—have all noticed him, now. Most look expectant, some mostly just tired after their long flights.

"Morning," John says, and six pairs of eyes combined with smiles of varying warmth are directed at him. Hands are shaken, introductions made.

There's a Norwegian couple—young, fit, meticulous planners, earnest about their plan to climb all the eight-thousanders. Next up, a Japanese woman who has pioneered several astoundingly tricky rock climbing routes in the Cordilleras. Two British climbers stand by a potted plant—as a British-owned company, Summit Fever is understandably the go-to outfit for Brits looking for a well-organised and responsible expedition. In the ten years John has spent in the Himalayas, the company has risen from a shoestring endeavour to one of the three most well-known commercial organisers of demanding climbs. Their safety record is exemplary, and it's up to John and his team to keep it that way.

The final member of the group is Al North, a seventy-two-year-old Canadian climbing legend who has been defeated by the wrath of the Annapurna massif twice before when climbing with just his partner instead of joining an expedition. That partner had died on Kangchenjunga last year. John had spoken to Al on the phone two months ago since he is obliged to interview every potential client personally. Al had told him that he wanted to join a commercial climb because he had nothing to prove by going alone, and if he were ever going to conquer Annapurna, he'd prefer to come back off the summit alive. John is very glad that North is coming along; the more experience the members have among them, the better their chances.  

Two less experienced guides will assist John. One is a wiry New Zealander with an enthusiastic, almost restless disposition but outstanding glacier-reading skills, the other an outspoken French woman who will also act as the group's meteorologist. There will be no need for a medic—John will serve in the double role of camp physician and expedition leader.

He leads the group to the hotel's small meeting room. The WiFi is down, which means that John can't start off by his collection of beautiful photos from past expeditions housed on the company server, nor can he follow that up with their standard glitzy powerpoint presentation. Instead, he'll have to do this the old-fashioned way, without any visual aids. He's done dozens and dozens of these expedition briefs, but due to their importance, they have never begun feeling like a routine hoop to jump through. They are for establishing ground rules, instilling both confidence and a fear of the mountain gods into his clients. Rules need to be laid out now, not on the mountain.

He doesn't introduce himself formally at the start of the assembly, having done so personally to each of the clients on the phone. "On behalf of Summit Fever staff, thank you for choosing us to guide you. Guiding being a relative term, of course—this isn't a party bus to Everest, so you will all be expected to be able to recognise a crampon from a condom."

There's a round of chuckles.

John lets his smile wane. "You all know what we're up against, but to test your ability to stay awake while jet-lagged, I'll go through the basics anyway."

The energy in the room focuses; smiles give way to determination.

"Annapurna is the lowest of the eight-thousanders, but least climbed. The death rate is thirty-eight per cent, meaning that once this is over, it is unlikely we'll all be standing here. Our team will do everything in our power to bring you all back home, but there's no denying that Annapurna kills experienced climbers since even rookies are smart enough not to attempt it."

Expressions turn sober. Everyone gathered at the table knows this, but it's a step up on the shock ladder to look around a room and see real people whose death they might be mourning in the coming months. People they will learn to know intimately since they will all be sharing meals, tents, Sherpas, and worries. The exhilaration and agony of climbing these mountains bring people together—and sometimes rips their relationships apart.

"The approach to the Sanctuary can be done via a long trek, bus, or helicopter. Since we will take a chopper in, to acclimatise, we need to get out there and scale some training peaks before our summit bid. Pisang and Hiunchuli have been chosen for this, both taking us over six thousand metres. If anyone develops mountain sickness symptoms during those preparatory climbs, I'm afraid the game is over for you. The same goes for developing symptoms during the first stages of the Annapurna I climb. There will be no shooting up dex and hoping for the best—you’ll come down to Base Camp and stay there. You cannot afford any additional disability up on Annapurna than what every climber suffers up there at baseline. We have to be stricter here than on Everest; while it will be nice to have so few climbers up there with us, it means less able hands to help anyone stricken with hypothermia, HAPE or HACE. Be honest with yourselves, and with me—that's the only way to stay alive."

"When will you do our medicals?" The question is from one of the two Britons. Summit Fever requires that their own medic gives every climber a once-over at the start of an expedition.

"I'll be doing them during our first days at Base Camp," John replies. "No point in spending precious preparation time here since we have to be able to assume you are all currently fit and healthy."

A few nods echo his statement. Kathmandu is their last stop before the wilderness; whatever the climbers need to acquire, it must be done during these finals days in civilisation.

"Out of this group, one climber has attempted Annapurna before, as have two guides. Our Sherpas naturally have extensive climbing experience in the area. But, as Al said to me on the phone––" John gives a nod to the older man, "––on Annapurna experience matters less than luck. As you already know, we will be using the Lafaille route up the South Face, establishing four camps. No one is to spend the night at the fourth one unless absolutely forced to; it will be strictly for storing gear. It's too exposed and high to bivouac safely for any amount of time."

No one raises a hand to question any of John's strict instructions. The clients make a few inquiries about practicalities such as the brand of the oxygen equipment they will use. John then promises that they will meet the rest of the guiding team soon.

"If there's nothing else," John finally concludes, "I will see you tomorrow at our traditional send-off breakfast. I want to remind you again to not go to the international airport tomorrow afternoon; our transport leaves from the army base."

Flights to Lukla for the Everest region depart from Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport. There are far fewer flights to the villages close to Annapurna, and since they want to get straight to Base Camp, a helicopter is the only option.

The group files out of the conference room, serious expressions already thawing in anticipation of a meal and a warm shower, and friendly conversations are sparking up as they walk back to the foyer.

After answering a few more questions, John heads out into the bright Kathmandu sunlight. He begins walking down Leknath Marg towards the Garden of Dreams where the Summit Fever offices are, but before he gets there, his mobile rings and startles him. He's never stayed long enough in Kathmandu to get used to the sound or to bother programming in any numbers; at base camps and higher, only satellite phones tend to work. Everest is, as always, the exception: cell towers have now been installed, allowing the hordes of tourists cluttering up the base camp to Instagram their heart out.

It's so good to get out of that hellhole, John thinks as he rummages around his down jacket pocket for his phone. "Hello?"

"It's me." Not a lot of people call John, and even if they did, James' greeting would be instantly recognised.

James Sholto founded Summit Fever eleven years ago, at first recruiting left and right to build up a big enough staff pool to provide expeditions to several Himalayan peaks in the firm's very first season. John had been among the first to be hired, with relatively little experience. The next three years he'd worked his arse off as an assistant guide, never losing a client assigned to him—until Annapurna. As the third assistant guide on a climb lead by one of the most experienced guides the firm had, John had been climbing with two Americans who'd just come off triumphant from a K2 summit bid. Maybe surviving the Savage Mountain had made them cocky; when the weather turned terrible just after they had left Camp Four for the summit, John had tried to pull the plug and get everyone to descend. Joe Ballard relented, but his cousin and climbing partner Mark Wick didn't. He physically shoved John aside, and after a tug-of-war over Wick's climbing axe—John had no doubt at all about his judgement call and was willing to do whatever needed to keep everyone safe—the much larger man had eventually managed to recover his axe and push past John on the narrow slope.

That was the last time Mark Wick was seen alive. The 'fuck off' he had snarled at John had been the man's last words. His body was found the following Spring, close to where the remains of legendary climber Anatoli Boukreev had been discovered after he'd been swept off that same mountain by an avalanche.

Wick's death had nearly ended John's career as a guide. He'd been younger, more inexperienced, and hadn't yet made his peace with the laws of the mountains. Perhaps he never will. To John, being a mountain guide has felt similar to being a doctor in that one slowly acclimatises to losing people—patients, fellow climbers.

Another similarity is that climbing or being a physician is a lonely lifestyle no one understands unless they share it. On the highest mountains on Earth, success and survival are never guaranteed. No amount of expertise and fancy equipment can save a climber when an avalanche hits, a serac collapses, or illness strikes. In those icy heights, the winds can reach hurricane levels, the cold can be worse than in a deep freezer, and the judgement of the sharpest and most experienced turn to raving madness when hypoxia and high-altitude cerebral oedema kick in.

It's a frozen hell at the threshold of heaven, and standing on the summit makes a human feel as though they've cheated god.

"Hey, James. I've just finished the briefing. How are we looking on the weather front?" John hates his perky tone; it's the one he uses at the office when prospective clients call. It's not him at all, and he isn't sure when he began using it with a man he used to live with and love.

"Valerie is saying clear skies for tomorrow and at least your first practice peak. How's your head?" James has never beat around the bush when it comes to making sure his guides are in the right mindset for heading out. Even just complaining about a bad feeling during a pre-approach trek night out might get them pulled off an assignment. James knows what happened with Mark Wick—he had been at Annapurna Base Camp that week. Back then, he still had a hands-on approach to the business. Now, he acts every bit the CEO.

"Head's fine, and it was fine even before meeting the group. No one is making me want to second-guess my decisions." Anyone who doesn't have the right experience will be swiftly kicked out of even preliminary talks of joining an expedition like this, but since only the most serious climbers would even consider Annapurna, John didn't have to veto any prospective candidates out of this endeavour. Since so few people are even familiar with the Annapurna massif, nobody heads there because they want to launch a lucrative motivational speaker career. Not that even Everest guarantees such a thing these days—four thousand people have already stood on its summit.

"Have you seen Mince today?" James asks.

Spencer Hatley, John's Kiwi assistant guide, has been permanently dubbed Mince after asking for mincemeat and Cadbury Eggs when he'd fallen off a serac and gotten a bit concussed during an expedition to Dhaulagiri. He has embraced the name, just like he embraces all things humorous and human. John is fond of the younger man; he's a quirky, kind, meticulous guy John would gladly trust with his life. Not much of a leader, though—doesn't like the limelight. He's the opposite of Valerie, their third guide and weather expert; she has gotten on the bad side of some other head guides for back-talking and loudly disagreeing with them in front of clients. It's alright to argue things and to voice doubts—doing so can save lives—but the way she does it is never diplomatic. Sometimes John wonders why James keeps her on as a guide instead of keeping her at the office. There is her meteorology PhD from Sorbonne—a nice thing to flaunt to prospective clients. There's also the fact that James and Valerie are sleeping together. In fact, Valerie is the person with whom James had replaced John.

His and James' had never been the romance of the century, more of a non-marriage of inconvenience. They're still friends, or so John likes to think when he's having a good day. Many times, when John has been lying alone in the dark in a tent which the mountain is trying its best to shove off, he has wondered why the hell James' thing with Valerie had happened the way it did. Their relationship didn't die a natural death—it was as though suddenly, it had never even existed. The timing of it seemed particularly strange—he and John were supposed to lead an expedition together right after a travel fair in Paris, but James hadn't returned in time, leaving John to shoulder the whole burden. When John returned from Nanga Parbat, Valerie had slotted herself into James' life, and they had moved in together. John's things had been in storage during the expedition; they were supposed to move into a larger place after the expedition.

They never talked about it. For a long time, John had felt that something was festering between them, a black hole getting wider and threatening to swallow up what they had. There was nothing to talk about, it seemed. James had made his choice.

"Mince is returning from Island Peak later today," he tells John. "Wanted to get a head start on acclimatising. Got some marathon-runner grannies from Colorado up there with two guides." James has been trying to get Mince to lead some minor climbs and treks to see if he could be moulded into a proper head guide at some point.

John is still sceptical about his leadership abilities, and they need good assistant guides.

"Anyway, glad to hear we're all set up," James says with a tone that tells John that he'd clap him on the shoulder if they were in the same physical space. "Not why I called, though. I can't meet you up at the office this afternoon since I've got to go sort out the permits—there was a bomb threat to the damned government office earlier, and they closed up shop. No, what I wanted to tell you was that you'll have company in the chopper. We've got a solo climber heading out with you. He'll share the infrastructure and the Sherpa services, but won't be climbing guided."

"Soloing on Annapurna? Who does this guy think he is—the next Ueli Steck?" John scoffs.

Steck was a Swiss climber who had soloed a new route on the south face of the mountain in 28 hours after his climbing partner had decided not to go for the summit that day. And, he'd even done it without supplemental oxygen. Steck is now dead, having fallen during an acclimatising climb on the so-called Hornbein route on Everest.

Serious climbers don't tend to retire. Unless they pull out of the game and contend with reliving their glory days in website interviews and National Geographic documentaries, they push their luck until the mountains take their due.

"You didn't read that feature in Alpinist about the guy who wants to solo all the eight-thousanders without oxygen? He's already done the seven summits and said in the interview that for him it was child's play. He did Everest and Kangchenjunga last season."

"Unlike you, I don't memorise the damned mags or web articles. Just say the name, and it might ring a bell." Through the years, there have been plenty of these hotshots, usually young guys after bragging rights for having done something for the first time, and since a lot of the potential stuff has already been done, those pipe dreams get more and more dangerous and gimmicky. Those who don't retreat with their tails between their legs tend to get killed. James has enough fiscal sense to avoid signing these types on as clients, fearing they'll mess up Summit Fever's excellent track record and land the firm in court. The only way James would have said yes to this is if this guy had waved a huge wad of banknotes in front of him and promised to absolve him of all responsibility and promised not to associate himself with the firm publicly if his attempt fails. Regardless, John doesn't like the idea of this guy joining their expedition.

He hears James shuffling papers at the other end. "Name's Holmes. He wants transport, meals and the use of our fixed ropes when available, if convenient, as he put it."

That turn of phrase makes it sounds like the guy wants to reserve judgment on whether John's team even knows how to do basic rope work.

"You won't have to worry about him; he made it very clear that he's self-sufficient," James says.

His carefree tone grates on John's nerves. "You know it isn't that simple," he dismisses.

If a climber gets in trouble, it doesn't matter if they're soloing or climbing with whoever—the ethical code among climbers at least used to be that everyone pitches in to help, unless it entails almost certain death due to extreme weather or going back to the summit when too exhausted after one's own bid for it. The most incredible, death-defying feats of human strength and resilience do not happen during planned summit bids—they occur during desperate attempts to rescue climbers stranded up high. Often, those attempts fail, since the ones being searched for have already succumbed to cold, exhaustion, dehydration and pulmonary and brain oedema. They don't call heights above eight thousand metres from sea level the Death Zone for nothing. Up there, the human body starts shutting down. Dying.

"I don't like this," John says plainly. He does now remember reading about this Holmes bloke. The article had quoted someone from an expedition he had been booted out of calling him a trust fund brat. The guy's father had been a pretty well-known alpinist in his youth before turning into a bigshot munitions magnate. If John remembers right, Holmes senior had been killed in a drunk-driving accident.

Besides serious-minded explorers, Alpine climbing entices the young and the rich and the idle. Everything else that used to be exotic no longer is—affordable air travel has enabled the masses to flock to the same holiday destinations as the jet set. The summit of Ama Dablam is, for some, the new Biarritz.

John curses as he narrowly avoids stepping on some donkey dung, and an open sewer makes him wrinkle his nose when he crosses the narrow road known as Kanti Path, phone in hand. He both hates and loves Kathmandu. Loves the sight of it after an expedition because it means that he's lived to climb another day but hates it the very next day, longing for the sharp, humbling quiet of the mountains. Out there, without the cushion of civilisation and electric light and insulated houses and indoor plumbing, problems seem smaller, and the blue of the sky is so bright that its vastness feels like the universe is giving him a crushing hug. Only out there, in the ice fields and barren slopes and glaciers, does John feel alive.

"You don't have to like this, or like him—since this isn't a very popular climb, we need the extra dough for contingency," James reasons. He should have learned by now that money is not the best argument with John.

"I know. I bet he promised you bragging rights if he summited. You don't do this sort of thing otherwise."

There's an irritated silence at the other end. "Our business is helping people up these damned hills, John, whatever way they want to do it. He didn't even ask who's guiding—I'm sure he won't bother you."

"Maybe he should. Has he attempted Annapurna before?"

"No."

"K2?"

"No."

"Dhaulagiri?"

"Yeah. And Eiger north. And plenty of 9b-rated long Spanish sports routes. He's done the classics, of course: El Cap, Cerro Torre, El Sendero Luminoso. He did the Trango Towers in Pakistan two years ago off-season; that was quite a feat."

"I don't doubt his technical skills. What worries me is that the guy gets booted off expeditions."

"Yeah, there seems to be a wide consensus that he's an arsehole." James chuckles.

"I don't want arseholes on Annapurna."

John hears munching from the opposite end; must be one of James' ever-present protein bars. It's a leftover habit from his climbing days; the only summiting he does nowadays seems to be climbing on top of Valerie Marcel.

"Arsehole's got the money."

"That isn't worth shit up there. Can't buy you your life back."

"John, I know you're worried because it's An---"

"If you were guiding this, you'd be worried."

"You got this. He isn't your responsibility."

Out there, everyone is everyone's responsibility. Having sat in a cushy, air-conditioned office with lunches at MEZZE by Roadhouse instead of trying to drink tea melted from snow without vomiting from altitude sickness, James' priorities have shifted. He has employees whose wages he needs to pay, and John is one of them.

Usually, it doesn't bother John to risk his life in service of Summit Fever; it's his choice, and James has given him a good life. But, he's got a bad feeling about this. One he shouldn't probably ignore. "Can I at least call him up tonight?"

"Why?" James' tone sends a clear message: the decision is made. "He did promise to attend the breakfast tomorrow. You can have a word then."

It's a Summit Fever tradition: all the staff currently in Kathmandu assemble for breakfast with an outgoing expedition on the morning of their departure.

"Alright." Maybe the magazine had just wanted a juicy story. Holmes couldn't have done all that he has if he weren't an exceptional climber and having done several eight-thousanders already means that he can acclimatise. Maybe he will accept a few words of advice from someone who's been to Annapurna before.

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AUTHOR'S NOTES FOR CHAPTER 1
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Mount Everest—in Nepalese known as Sagarmatha and in Chinese known as Chomolungma—is Earth’s highest mountain measured from sea level. Everest is not the most difficult mountain in the world to climb by far—it doesn’t require as outstanding technical climbing skills as K2 does, and it’s not as avalanche-prone as Annapurna I. But climbing any eight-thousander will carry a significant risk of death. The reasons for this will be discussed in detail later. Most climbers attempt the summit from the Nepalese side, but the Chinese side is becoming more popular due to cheaper permits.

Everest IS crowded, and the morale and behaviour of the climbing community there have begun to deteriorate seriously. An excellent account of the Everest circus is Michael Kodas' book High Crimes – The Fate of Everest in An Age of Greed. Expeditions have ended up fighting over the right to use the fixed ropes, and there are traffic jams up in the Death Zone, threatening the lives of everyone trying to get to the summit. It’s a huge financial and human burden on bigger commercials expeditions to help lone climbers who try to summit without enough skills, experience, and equipment. No wonder our John’s so grumpy about the whole thing. There’s also a massive waste management problem. Here’s another article on it with a bunch of photographic evidence. Even though the prices for climbing permits have soared to astronomical heights, there are still hundreds and hundreds of hopefuls flocking to the mountain every year, and the large numbers of trekkers travelling to and fro the Basecamp are making the pollution problem much worse. Here’s what it’s like to reach the summit.

Rum Doodle is a Kathmandu bar the namesake of which was a favourite haunt of serious explorers for a long time and remains a popular place to assemble before a climbing expedition. Hotel Yambu is also a real Kathmandu establishment.

Annapurna I is a mountain peak that belongs to the Annapurna Massif (massif = a geological term for a section of a planet's crust that is demarcated by faults or flexures). Annapurna I is the tenth highest mountain on earth at 8091 metres above sea level. It was the first eight-thousander to be climbed, and one of the climbers, Maurice Herzog, wrote a brilliant and harrowing account of it called Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak. The peak has the highest fatality rate out of all the 14 mountains on Earth reaching above 8000 metres: 34 deaths per 100 safe returns. Legendary Kazakh Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev is among those lost on the mountain.

Ueli Steck was a real climber, famous for his speed records, and for the fact that he climbed without a group or a partner for most of his significant achievements. His third attempt to summit on the Lafaille route on Annapurna I resulted in what has been dubbed "one of the most impressive Himalayan climbs in history". Steck died on Everest when he fell to his death from 300 metres below the summit. In his lifetime, he won many of the most significant awards such as the Piolet d'Or, the Eiger Award and the Karl Unterkircher Award. Here's Steck at Les Drus.

Cho Oyu is one of the easier eight-thousanders and a popular first for that reason. Its death rate is only 0,65 %.

Seven Summits is a somewhat popular extreme climbing challenge. It entails climbing the highest mountains of all the continents, including Mount Vinson on Antarctica.

Sherpas are an Ethnic group native to most mountainous areas of Nepal, and certain areas of Bhutan, China, India and other Himalayan regions. They are famous for the mountaineering prowess and are well acclimatised to living at altitude. No major climbing expedition in Nepal happens without them. They are Buddhist.

A jumar is a climbing device that grips a fixed rope. It’s a type of ascender.

Technical climbing in the context of mountain climbing means that a particular section or route involves a rope and some means of protection, as opposed to just scrambling or glacier travel. While ropes are needed for all eight-thousanders, the ones that are referred to as being more “technical” than others require using proper rock climbing techniques instead of just walking up slopes with the help of fixed ropes and a jumar. Everest has technical bits, but it hardly rivals, say, K2 as a technically demanding climb.

Kangchenjunga is another eight-thousander (the third highest) with an impressive enough death rate of one in five climbers perishing.

Dhaulagiri = guess what, it’s yet ANOTHER eight-thousander! Looks like I was trying to cram ‘em all into this chapter, doesn’t it? *laughs* Dhaulagiri I is the seventh highest mountain on Earth. The first climbers to succeed in reaching the summit of Annapurna I first wanted to try Dhaulagiri but retreated, judging it to be impossible.

Island Peak is a mountain in Nepal popular with less experienced climbers. It's more of a trek than a climb, but the term "trekking peak", as used by the Nepalese government, does NOT mean that all designated as such are easy walks up snow slopes. In fact, some of Nepal's so-called trekking peaks are very difficult climbs. Their only unifying feature seems to be cheaper permits.

HAPE = high-altitude pulmonary oedema. We’ll get to this later, and HACE which is high-altitude cerebral oedema, will also be discussed.

K2, aka The Savage Mountain, is the second-highest mountain in the world. Even the frighteningly inexperienced hopefuls who flock to Everest know how to steer clear of this one. Getting there requires a gruelling 80-kilometre trek, it has a very narrow weather window for ascents, and no successful winter ascents have been made. About one in four climbers die trying to summit it. It gets extreme storms lasting days, all the routes are outstandingly exposed, and it is a technically very demanding peak to negotiate.

A serac is a pinnacle, block or column of ice on the surface of a glacier. They can topple with little warning. The lowest part of the Nepal side approach to Everest’s summit is called the Khumbu Icefall, and it’s full of these. Many climbers have described the Icefall as definitely one of the most frightening bits of the project. Here’s a hair-raising taster of it.

Ama Dablam might well be one of the prettiest mountains in the world.

The north face of Eiger, a peak in the Alps, is a formidably challenging and risky climb. The other routes James lists are long, technically outstandingly difficult rock climbing routes. 9b in rock climbing classifications is a mind-bogglingly difficult grade to manage. Here's Adam Ondra on Britain’s most difficult climbing route, Rainman.