Daniel Dawson
Oct 27, 2021

As the autumn climbing season for some of the world’s tallest mountains comes to a close, an all too familiar question re-emerges and makes its rounds through the mountaineering community: Did he, she, they really make it to the summit?

To the unanointed, it is a ludicrous question. Obviously, you have reached the summit when it is not possible to keep going up. How on Earth could you not know that?

To others in the know, the answer is inconsequential – the sport is called climbing or mountaineering, after all, not topping or summiteering. The fun and adventure are in the journey more than the destination. 

Keep reading: Five Trekking and Climbing Destinations In the Nepalese Himalayas

However, no one likes to be called a liar, especially in very serious mountaineering circles. And, for the talented few who get their expenses covered to climb the world’s highest peaks, reaching the top matters. Fizzy energy drink brands aren’t about almost getting there.

So, regardless of your stance on the question, getting to the bottom of it does matter. As with many things in life, what is the true summit and a false summit is not so cut and dry, especially at 8,000 metres (26,200 feet) in elevation.

What’s in a summit?

Manaslu. Photo: 360 Expeditions.

Summiting a high-elevation peak is a massive undertaking, requiring the proper training and preparation, from what you eat to how you pack

After months of effort to get to the top of one of the world’s highest mountains, sometimes the conditions on summit day are unideal. 

You’ll almost certainly be exhausted and, if visibility is low, you are mainly reliant on where everyone else is stopping or any available landmarks to know whether or not you’ve arrived.

As a result, the esteemed chronicler of mountaineering, Eberhard Jurgalski, fears that no one may actually have climbed all of the world’s 14 eight-thousanders! The widely held number is that 44 people have achieved one of mountaineering’s toughest feats. 

While Jurgalski is not too concerned with cheating, he thinks it may be more difficult to ascertain where the true summit is on some mountains than on others, leading to people incorrectly assuming they’ve reached the top. 

A few years back, Jurgalski started going through historical records with a team of researchers, using a combination of photos, videos, written accounts and, in some cases, GPS coordinates to map precisely where each climber who claims to have summited an 8000er may have actually reached. 

Of the 14 mountains spread across Tibet (China), Nepal and Pakistan that exceed 8,000 metres in elevation, about six have the most notorious false summits. Some of these are a couple of vertical metres lower than the true summit, while others may be closer to 20. 

Of these half dozen, the most notorious are Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna, the seventh, eighth and tenth highest peaks on Earth, respectively. 

Dhaulagiri

Photo: Seven Summit Treks.

Casting an imposing shadow over central Nepal’s Gandaki river basin, Dhaulagiri is among the most accessible of the 14 eight-thousanders to climb, making it popular among advanced mountaineers.

Despite its accessibility, the peak is also one of the more technically challenging climbs, which makes getting to the top all the more gratifying. 

However, Dhaulagiri is also one of the 8000ers without an immediately obvious summit. Instead, most climbers stop at a metal pole planted near the summit decades ago. 

The pole is located a few metres west of the true summit but may be easily mistaken as a high point, especially with poor visibility. Climbers ascending Dhaulagiri via the east ridge will run into the flag before reaching the top. 

Climbing via the west ridge takes climbers across the glacier and up via the west fore summit and west rocky fore summit, both of which appear to be high points in low visibility situations.

Quick facts:

  • Elevation: 8,167 metres (26,795 feet)
  • Duration: 4 to 6 weeks
  • Climbing season: April to May, September to October
  • Estimated cost: $15,000 to $25,000

Manaslu

Photo: Elite Exped.

Situated in the central Nepalese province of Gandaki, Manaslu is the defining feature of the Mansiri Himal subrange in the Himalayas.

The peak is considered one of the easiest of the 8000ers to climb due to its long and gently sloping ridgelines that lead from the base of the summit.

However, Manaslu is also one of the peaks where most climbers stop at the fore summit – a trendy spot for selfies – and do not make it to the true top. 

The main reasons for this are episodes of confusion about what is snow accumulation versus the actual ridgeline, along with the difficulty of continuing to the proper summit. 

The last few metres from the prayer-flag-festooned fore summit – another cause for confusion – to the true summit require crossing a heavily corniced snow ridge, on which it is virtually impossible to place any screws, pitons or other protections.

Even in the best conditions, climbing the cornice provides a technical challenge for which few mountaineers on Manaslu are prepared since the peak is often their first 8000er. This has led some commercial guides happily to stop at the fore-summit.

Quick facts:

  • Elevation: 8,163 m (26,781 ft)
  • Duration: 4 to 6 weeks
  • Climbing season: April to May, September to October
  • Estimated cost: $12,500 to $25,000

Annapurna I

Photo: Sherpa Expedition and Trekking.

Since Annapurna became the first 8000er to be climbed successfully in 1950, the massive massif has remained one of Nepal’s most coveted summits.

Located 180 kilometres (110 miles) north of Kathmandu and 315 kilometres (195 miles) west of Mount Everest, Annapurna comprises six main peaks, the highest of which is known simply as Annapurna I.

The entire massif sprawls over 55 kilometres (35 miles) and is most commonly approached from the northwest, but more intrepid climbers may opt to summit from the south. 

Annapurna I is among the 8000ers where few climbers actually make it to the very top. This is because the mountain has a long horizontal ridge with approaches from multiple directions. 

No apparent landmarks denote the highest point on the ridge, and most climbers are exhausted when they arrive at a perceived high point on the ridge.

The German Aerospace Center has identified two high points on the ridge about 30 metres (100 feet) apart. Still, without pre-programmed GPS coordinates, few climbers would be able to locate them while up on the mountain.

Quick facts:

  • Elevation: 8,091 m (26,545 ft)
  • Duration: 4 to 6 weeks
  • Climbing season: April to May, September to October
  • Estimated cost: $15,000 to $25,000

What about the others?

Shishanpangma summit push. Photo: RMI.

While Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna may be the 8000ers with the sharpest focus on where the true summit is and who has arrived there, several other 8000ers also have ambiguous finishing points.

Chief among these is Kamchengjunga, the third-tallest mountain on Earth. However, this one is a bit of an exception to the entire discussion about arriving at the top or not. 

Located on the Nepalese-Indian border, the actual summit is in India and is considered a holy site for Hindus. As a result, local leaders frequently ask mountaineers intentionally to stop a few metres below the summit. Many oblige.

The shortest of the 14 eight-thousanders, Shishapangma, is located on the very northern flank of the Himalayan mountains. As a result, it usually enjoys clear weather, making the location of the true summit no secret. 

Keep reading: Five Popular High-Altitude Lake Treks in Nepal

However, most expeditions stop at the fore summit, just a few meters below the true summit. The two are separated by an extraordinarily narrow and exposed ridge that requires climbers to shimmy along with a leg on each side. 

Located in the heart of the Karakoram Range in Pakistan, Broad Peak boasts a long and gently sloping summit ridge, stretching over 1.5 kilometres (0.9 miles) in length. As a result, many climbers stop at one of the earlier minor summits on the ridge, mistaking it as the true summit. 

Eventually, Italian mountaineer Hans Kammerlander decided that he was sick of people claiming to have reached the true summit when they had stopped short. 

So in 1994, he re-climbed Broad Peak and stuck a ski pole with red and purple tape at the site of the true summit and asked people who claimed to have reached the top what they saw. 

Conclusion 

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In theory, reaching the summit of a mountain means that there is no possible way to keep going up. However, in practice, it is not always that simple.

Annapurna, Broad Peak, Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Manaslu and Shishampangma are six of the world’s tallest mountains where many climbers do not make it to the true summit.

Sometimes this is by design, or sometimes it is a mistake. Either way, no stopping point is more than 20 vertical meters (65 feet) below the true summit. 

Compare prices, trips and read verified reviews on ExpedReview for free. It’s never too early to start planning your next mountaineering adventure!

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