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Manaslu, How Many Have Really Climbed It?

The 8,000er has recently become mired in controversy, with photographic analysis revealing that few climbers claiming ascents have reached the actual summit.

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This article is part of Climbing’s online archives documenting climbing’s greatest mountains, such as Everet,  K2, and Denali, and climbing’s pioneering practitioners such as Marc-Andre Leclerc.

Manaslu (8,163 meters/26,781 feet) is the world’s eighth highest mountain. Also known as Kutang, the mountain is the highest peak in the Mansiri Himal subrange of the Nepalese Himalaya. The peak has featured prominently in Japanese mountaineering efforts. Most of the early reconnaissance expeditions to the peak in the 1950s were Japanese-led, and both the first and second teams to summit Manaslu were Japanese, as well.

Like many other Nepalese 8,000ers, Manaslu is a popular goal for commercial mountaineering expeditions, and along with Cho Oyu (8,188 meters/26,864 feet), it is considered one of the “easier” 8,000-meter peaks. However, a 2020 article in the American Alpine Journal found that “almost all climbers” claiming ascents of Manaslu have failed to reach the peak’s true summit, instead stopping at a point around 60 feet away, thus avoiding the technical difficulty of the final ridge.

Famed ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson died on the slopes of Manaslu on September 26, 2022, after a fall into a crevasse while skiing down from the summit.

History

Brit H. W. Tilman’s 1950 expedition to the Annapurna massif was the first foreign expedition to set eyes on Manaslu and determined that there was a viable route to the summit—though Tilman and his team did not make an attempt. From 1950 to 1955, three Japanese expeditions reconnoitered and made attempts on the peak, exploring its north and east aspects. None were successful, but one (1952) saw three climbers reach 25,430 feet on the Northeast Face without oxygen.

The mountain was first summited in 1956, by a Japanese expedition helmed by Maki Aritsune, climbing from the peak’s north side. Climbers Toshio Imanishi (Japan) and Gyaltsen Norbu (Nepal) reached the summit on May 9, and a second team reached it on May 11. Manaslu wasn’t successfully climbed again until 15 years later when another Japanese team made an ascent of the Northwest Spur in 1972. 

The following year, an Austrian team led by Wolfgang Nairz, counting Reinhold Messner among its ranks, made the third ascent, this time by the 10,000-foot South Face. Messner successfully summited alone after his partner, Franz Jäger, turned back near the summit, but the expedition was marred by tragedy, as Jäger and another climber, Andi Schlick, both disappeared on the peak.

In 1974, Manaslu saw another Japanese team led by Kyoko Sato become the first all-female expedition to climb an 8,000-meter peak. Naoko Nakaseko, Masako Uchida, Mieko Mori, and Jambu Sherpa summited via the Northeast Face after a failed attempt on the East Ridge.

Summit Controversy

Numerous summit claims on Manaslu have become controversial, as photographic evidence indicates that the majority of climbers in recent years claiming summits of the mountain have, in fact, stopped short of the true summit. The Himalayan Database came out in 2022 with a public statement that from now on it “will only credit the summit to those who reach the highest point shown in the drone picture taken by Jackson Grove. This change in summit accreditation is recommended and supported by foreign and Nepali operators who we have consulted in Kathmandu.”

The notice has led to a massive uptick in climbers attempting Manaslu this year, many of whom are previous ascensionists looking to repeat the mountain and confirm a true summit. As of September 20, 2022, over 400 climbers have applied for permits to climb Manaslu this fall, more than twice the permit applications in 2021.

From Outside Online: “German mountaineering researcher Eberhard Jurgalski, who chronicles mountaineering feats on the site 8000ers.com, said that the disputed summit on Manaslu meant that the list of climbers to ascend the 14 peaks was much smaller. According to Jurgalski, 53 climbers claim to have reached the summits of all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters, but only three of them have reached the actual highest points on all the mountains.”

Death of Hilaree Nelson

Recently Manaslu entered public awareness as the site of ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson’s death. Nelson perished on the mountain on September 26, 2022, after taking a fall into a crevasse while descending from the summit with partner Jim Morrison. “We reached the true summit of Manaslu in tough conditions,” Morrison wrote on Instagram. “We quickly transitioned from climbing to skiing in cold and wind with a plan to ski around the corner and regroup with our Sherpa team. I skied first and after a few turns, Hilaree followed and started a small avalanche. She was swept off her feet and carried down a narrow snow slope down the south side … of the mountain over 5,000 feet.” 

The 49-year-old Nelson was among the most accomplished ski mountaineers on the planet, and in 2018 the recipient of National Geographic’s “Adventurer of the Year” award, after she and Morrison became the first to descend Lhotse (8,516 meters/27,940 feet) on skis. 

On the same day as Nelson’s accident, a large avalanche lower on the mountain injured a dozen climbers and killed Sherpa Anup Rai. Though considered safer than many other 8,000ers in terms of objective risk, Manaslu has seen deadly avalanches in the past, notably a 2012 slide triggered by a falling serac that killed 11 climbers at Camp III.

Facts and Figures

  • Elevation: 8,163 meters/26,781 feet
  • Range: Mansiri Himal, Nepalese Himalaya, Nepal
  • First ascent: May 9, 1956
  • First ascentionists: Toshio Imanishi and Gyaltsen Norbu
  • Cumulative successful summits: 2,172 recorded, but true summits unclear (see above) 
  • Total deaths: 88
  • Average cost to climb: $13,000