How Do I Climb the Trekking Peaks of Nepal?

By Paul Lachapelle


The world seems to be focusing on climbing Mt. Everest these days as is evident from the plethora of books, television shows, and now the IMAX film. Of course, most of us are lucky to simply make it to Everest base camp. A good compromise between Everest and Everest base camp, however, is to try a trekking peak in Nepal.

Climbing a trekking peak in the Nepal Himalaya is anything but a trek. These peaks contain some of the most exciting and involved mountaineering challenges in the world. Trekking peaks vary from moderately pitched glacier walks to technical, multi-day mixed rock and ice climbs. The trick is to find one that matches your skill level and experience. With planning and preparation, you can outfit yourself and attempt what will be a truly extraordinary mountain experience.

The trekking peaks were first designated in 1978 by the newly formed Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) as an alternative to the 104 expedition peaks, which required a liason officer, a sirdar (Nepali trekking leader), and a great deal of expense. Technically, trekking peaks differ from expedition peaks in elevation only; some are as difficult as, if not more difficult than, their larger counterparts.

The NMA, located in the Naxal area of Kathmandu, distributes peak permits and regulates all climbs in Nepal. You can only climb with a guide who is registered with the NMA; and only a guide can obtain a permit from the NMA. Peaks over 6,000 meters are termed Group A peaks and cost $300, and those under are termed Group B and cost $200. These fees accommodate groups up to 10 persons; beyond that, extra people pay an additional $5.00 each. Expedition peaks are substantially more expensive to climb than trekking peaks. Permits are valid for one month and can be extended. There are 18 designated trekking peaks in Nepal: seven in the Everest region, four in the Annapurna region, and the remaining in the Langtang, Manang, and Rolwaling regions. Mera Peak (6,476m) and Island Peak (or Imja Tse, 6189m) in the Everest region are the most popular trekking peaks. During the 1993/1994 season, NMA reported that 193 permits (997 individuals) were issued for Island Peak and 68 permits (405 individuals) for Mera Peak.

From the Mera summit one can view three of the tallest mountains in the world including Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu. This peak is also one of the least technical trekking peaks, with normally no steep pitches or crevasses on the standard route (although conditions can vary). Island Peak offers a difficult 50 degree pitch and corniced ridge traverse, but rewards the climber with views of Makalu, Ama Dablam, and the Lhotse/Nuptse wall from the summit. Other popular trekking peaks include Naya Kunga (5,844m) in the Langtang Himal and Pisang (6,091m) in the Annapurna region.

The NMA offers training for Nepalese guides and climbers although no formal training is required to guide clients. Guides can be hired from agencies or shops in the Thamel area of Kathmandu. Guiding arrangements can also be made through services based in the United States. Ideally, it is best to be referred to guides by those who have climbed with them before. Most guides will not only lead the climbing route, but will also act as a sirdar and arrange all of the logistical details: domestic flights, park permits, equipment, food, and hiring the porters and/or packstock to and from base camp. Make sure your guide is equipped with satisfactory climbing, camping, and first-aid supplies and adequately skilled in their use.

Personal climbing equipment - synthetic clothing, sleeping bags, plastic boots, down layers, ice axes, jumars, crampons, climbing harnesses, and personal carabiners - are best brought from home to ensure comfort, safety, and a good fit. You may also want to bring your own trusted climbing gear (such as snow flukes, pickets, ice screws, ropes, ascenders, and runners). You may also want to consider bringing an altimeter, GPS unit, bivouac sack, helmet, and a pee bottle for those cold nights in the tent. Virtually any climbing gear that you may need is available for rent in Thamel, and the rates are quite reasonable. However, these items can be unavailable in the busy seasons and/or in poor condition. Some guides also carry a Gamow bag for clients with altitude problems. Although your climbing guide should be well versed in all areas of mountaineering, you should be familiar with basic knots, including the overhand, figure eight, and prusik. Supplemental oxygen is not necessary for trekking peaks, but a slow and gradual accent is a prerequisite for a safe and successful summit attempt. Snowshoes and skis are generally not used on these peaks.

The weather is best in the spring and fall months for both trekking and mountaineering. October and November are the most popular months to climb, as high-pressure systems provide clear skies and relatively consistent weather. In March, April, and May the weather is almost as reliable. The winter months may be extremely cold, but can yield solid mountain conditions for climbing. The monsoon months of June through September are too wet and cloudy for safe climbing or views. Sudden and extreme weather should be expected throughout the year. Because weather is unpredictable and weather forecasts for the Himalaya region are not available in remote villages and base camps, climbing parties should always be prepared for inclement weather and unusual climbing conditions. As with their counterparts on higher peaks, climbers on trekking peaks should plan to summit by noon or turn around and replan their next summit attempt. No foreign materials are allowed to be left on the mountain so groups should not expect fixed ropes or pitons on routes.

Several books describe the specific routes for trekking peaks in detail including Trekking Peaks of Nepal by Bill O'Conner (available from the IMEC for $24.95) and Trekking in the Everest Region by Jamie McGuinness (available for $14.95). The Schneider 1:50,000 and 1:100,000 scale maps are available for many of the Himalayan regions of Nepal. The Deutscher Alpenverein 1:25,000 scale map of the Everest region is also well worth purchasing. With adequate preparation, any physically fit person, even those with minimal outdoor and/or climbing experience, can climb a trekking peak in Nepal. Climbing guides will arrange for all of the details to ensure a safe and memorable mountaineering experience. All that remains is your desire to climb in the Himal.

Paul Lachapelle has received two National Security Education Scholarships to study Nepalese language and culture. He recently returned from a four month position with the US Embassy's Environmental Office in Kathmandu, where he was frequently seen mountain biking the valley trails and schmoozing with the ambassador.