Style debate after winter success on Manaslu

Manaslu (center) and Pinnacle East (r.)
Manaslu (center) and Pinnacle East (r.)

A style debate has broken out after the winter summit success on Manaslu. How much is Alex Txikon‘s ascent without bottled oxygen worth when his six Nepalese teammates used breathing masks, some ask. Others criticize that Tenjen Sherpa, Pasang Nurbu Sherpa, Mingtemba Sherpa, Chhepal Sherpa, Pemba Tashi Sherpa and Gyalu Sherpa (with bottled oxygen) had done the main work and should therefore be mentioned first – before the Spaniard.

Hats off to the achievement!

I think it is appropriate to take off the hat first of all to the sporting performance of the team. Climbing an eight-thousander in winter – with sometimes strong gusts, low air pressure and temperatures of up to minus 45 degrees Celsius – is anything but a Sunday stroll. Especially if, like Txikon, you climb without bottled oxygen. The six Sherpas and Alex had the courage to use a relatively short window of stable weather conditions for their summit attempt. From Camp 3 at around 6,800 meters, which is actually the penultimate high altitude camp, they climbed in one go to the highest point at 8,163 meters and then all the way down to base camp.

How narrow the line was between triumph and tragedy is illuminated by an incident that Txikon reported afterwards: Pemba Tashi slipped several hundred meters and had to be treated in hospital after returning to Kathmandu.

Parallel to the first K2 winter ascent

The successful K2 summit team 2021
The successful K2 winter team in 2021

In the chronicles of eight-thousander mountaineering such as the Himalayan Database, Txikon’s summit success will be listed as a winter ascent without bottled oxygen – simply because he was not wearing a breathing mask. Equal rights for all. What was true for Nirmal Purja on his first winter ascent of K2 in January 2021 must also be true for Txikon: At that time, Purja was, by his own account, the only one to climb without bottled oxygen, while the other nine Nepalese team members ascended with breathing masks.

But this much is also clear: The performance of Txikon and Co. cannot be compared with the style of the Polish Manaslu expedition in 1983/84, which ended with the first winter ascent of the eighth highest mountain on earth by Maciej Berbeka and Ryszard Gajewski. The Polish expedition completely dispensed with bottled oxygen; it was the first eight-thousander winter success without a breathing mask. And Berbeka and Gajewski climbed Reinhold Messner’s rarely used 1972 route through the far more complex and therefore more demanding South Face compared to the Northeast route. This was a pioneering achievement.

Not groundbreakingly new

And in my view, that is precisely what remains imperative to enter the history books of alpinism. Many of the supposed or actual eight-thousander “records” that have been announced in recent years have lacked this pioneering spirit. Often, the now perfect infrastructure of commercial expeditions was used: Helicopters for arrival and material transport, normal routes secured with fixed ropes, massive Sherpa support. 

Manaslu team around Alex Txikon
Strong Manaslu team

In order not to be misunderstood, I say again quite clearly: The winter success of the six Sherpas and Alex Txikon has a different, higher quality and was a super-strong achievement, which demands absolutely respect. Nevertheless, in my estimation, it lacks the groundbreaking novelty to be truly called “historic”. The fact that it was the first successful Manaslu winter expedition that was completely in the calendrical (and not – like the Polish expedition – at the beginning in the meteorological) winter is too thin for me for that.

Openly communicated

Txikon deserves respect for his open communication, which distinguishes him from many other professional mountaineers. Alex did not play to the fore after the success but emphasized that it was a team effort of equal climbers. The Basque also did not conceal the fact that bottled oxygen and fixed ropes were used during the expedition.

Already during his three failed winter attempts on Mount Everest, Txikon had made no secret of the fact that he was en route together with Nepalese climbers who used bottled oxygen, and that only he himself wanted to ascend without a breathing mask.

3 Replies to “Style debate after winter success on Manaslu”

  1. The main problem here is, I think, that there are no more firsts actually. All peaks have been climbed long ago. But climbing by itself doesn’t seem to be enough to make headlines aka generate money for those costly expeditions. So, artificial firsts are made up: Climb a dozen peaks in 3 weeks, climb in winter, climb with handicap, speed-climb, climb without gear at all … and if your summit photo is off by 20 metres because of an extremely dangerous cornice, some armchair mountaineers will spitefully tell you, you haven’t made it at all. We have seen that awful discussion in the recent years especially about Manaslu. This sounds all wrong to me. Climbing and especially high-altitude mountaineering should be about the extreme feats these courageous lunatics pull off in this deadly yet hauntingly beautiful landscapes of earth. They go up there for us billions who will never be willing or able to do it!

    1. Well Uwe, I’m one of those ‘spiteful’ armchair mountaineers you talk about, because I was involved in researching and writing the material about Manaslu – though I have also climbed extensively in the Himalaya, Antarctica and Andes, and been on an 8000m peak.

      Recent ascents have shown what we said all along, it’s NOT “20 metres of extremely dangerous cornice” but a narrow rock ridge with snow on it, the type of terrain climbed by regular alpine climbers every season all over the world.

      As for “courageous lunatics”? It was a clear lack of courage – and skill, and knowledge, and effort – that led to so many people stopping short on Manaslu when it got hard.

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