A mountain doesn’t have to be big to be mean.
Some of the most difficult climbs in the world are not even on 8000’ers.
Different routes can mean that one side of a mountain is totally manageable to ascend, whilst the other side is virtually impossible.
Equally, a rock-slide, unexpected rim of ice or changing weather patterns can turn a routine climb into a deadly expedition.
When it comes to danger, Annapurna is well-known as being the most perilous of the mountains that are frequently climbed but there are some killer peaks out there – some of which have never been successfully summitted.
Some are so dangerous that climbing has been banned in recent years.
Below we’ve rounded up a shortlist of some of the most difficult ascents around the world and looked at what elements make them so tricky.
These peaks are as deadly as they are awe-inspiring.
This peak in the Swiss Alps is an objective that is legendary among mountaineers for its danger.
First summitted in 1858 using a complex route up the west flank, and without much difficulty, the Eiger was seen as nothing more than a routine climb.
However, the battle to climb the north face is what draws in hardcore mountaineers year after year. Before it was successfully climbed, most of the attempts on the face ended tragically and the Bernese authorities even banned climbing it and threatened to fine anyone attempting it.
The difficulty and hazards have earned the Eiger’s north face the nickname Mordwand, or Murder Wall. The sharp overhang, sheer 1,800-metre face and threat of falling ice and rock have killed at least 64 climbers over the years.
In 1938, a party of four climbers finally reached the summit by what is known as the “1938” or “Heckmair” route, overcoming technical difficulties and the heavy rockfall that rakes the face.
For most climbers the 1938 route is a career highlight. It is a world-class climb and far more difficult than many more famous summits such as Everest and Denali by their normal routes.
To take on the challenge, climbers need serious technical skills and extensive experience with an ice axe.
Anyone who believes the world’s toughest climbing is in the Himalayas need look no further than the Eiger.
Better known simply as ‘The Ogre’, Baintha Brakk is known to be one of the most difficult mountains to climb in the world. First ascended in 1971, the towering peak has only been successfully summited a handful of times.
One of the first ascentionists, Doug Scott, broke both of his legs on the descent, forcing him to crawl through a major storm to the team’s base camp.
Baintha Brakk is exceptional in its combination of altitude, intricate shape, height and steepness, as mountaineers try to scale rock, snow and ice.
Its geological nature is what has made it both so difficult to climb and such an attractive a target for high-level mountaineers.
After the 1971 success, the Ogre was not summited again until 2001 and more than 20 failed attempts on the peak have earned it a formidable reputation.
India and Nepal
As time goes on, technology improves and mountaineering knowledge is more widely shared. As a result, fatality rates on the world’s most dangerous mountains have been falling.
However there are a few unfortunate exceptions to the rule, one of which is Kangchenjunga. The mountain is said to be the home of a rakshasa (or man-eating demon) – which seems fitting.
As the third-highest peak in the world, this perilous mountain seems to be taking more lives as time goes on. In the last decade death rates have gone as high as 22%, due to the onslaught of treacherous avalanche and and weather hazards.
Climbers have hailed it as “the most difficult and most dangerous mountain in the world.”
For 50 years, mountaineers have challenged its savage slopes, constantly swept by avalanches, and have found them utterly unassailable.
The southwest route involves a series of icefalls and snow slopes buttressed by steep walls of rock and gigantic overhanging glaciers.
Beyond this lies the Lower Icefall, a 600-metre barrier of moving ice, dotted with with monstrous crevasses, the Upper Icefall of sheer ice and snow-covered ledges and finally the Great Shelf, a forbidding ledge of ice that stretches across the entire face at 7,300 metres (24,000 feet).
From the Shelf is a narrow, steep gully of snow leading up to the West Ridge and the pinnacles and vertical cliffs blocking the uppermost crest. Only 187 have ever reached the top, always stopping short of the summit out of respect, as local Buddhists devoutly believe it is the home of their protective deity.
Argentina and Chile
Cerro Torre’s peak is the highest of a four mountain chain and is by far the most difficult to summit.
Cerro Torre is a jagged spire jutting out of the Patagonian Ice Field’s mountains. The top of the mountain has a mushroom of rime ice, formed by the constant strong winds, increasing the difficulty of reaching the actual summit, particularly after a steep climb in freezing temperatures.
Climbers must be prepared to tunnel through the ice and deal with vertical and overhanging sections. Most parties consider the ascent complete only if they summit the challenging ice-rime mushroom that lies at the top.
But the summit does not offer itself up easily. Once thought to be the world’s toughest climb, David Lama estimated the difficulties of his free ascent (which followed a new line circumventing the bolt traversel) as grade X.
He stated that a free repetition of the original route is virtually impossible – in particular as the rock of the last pitches comprise no climbable features.
Coming in at number four is Mt. Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica but barely half of some other entries on this list.
The difficulty comes not from its height, technicality or fatality rate but its isolation and unpredictable weather, alongside its bone-chilling temperatures.
Winds regularly surpass 80 kilometres per hour and some of the lowest temperatures have been recorded in the area – so mental grit and good kit are the difference between life and death here.
Getting to Antarctica is expensive, and that’s before you even start your expedition. Having said this, 1,400 people have reached the summit since it was first discovered in 1958.
Although that may sound like quite a few successful climbs, its distance from towns and cities makes Vinson a very serious undertaking. Even a small accident here could be disastrous given that it would take weeks to get to a proper hospital in an emergency.
China and Pakistan
K2 in the Himalayas is the world’s second highest mountain and known on the climbing circuit as one of the most technically difficult.
Although the summit of Everest is at a higher altitude, K2 is a more difficult and dangerous climb, due in part to its more inclement weather and comparatively greater height from base to peak.
Ascending to the peak, even via the easiest route, requires crossing a complicated glacier, ascending steep sections of rock, and negotiating a path around seracs (huge ice pillars that are prone to collapsing).
From there, the infamous “Bottleneck” sections takes climbers across a towering and precarious overhang. This is the fastest route to the top, and minimises time spent above K2’s “death zone” – the 8,000-metre altitude above which humans can only survive for short windows.
Only 306 people have reached K2’s summit – a paltry number compared to the 4,060 who have made their way to the top of Everest.
There is no doubt that this is one of the most committing and dangerous climbs in the world.
Annapurna is famous around the world for its savage conditions and tough climbing.
Located in the Nepalese Himalayas, Annapurna is the tenth highest peak in the world and is deadly proof that a mountain doesn’t have to be the tallest to be the most deadly.
In 1950 Annapurna became the world’s first 8,000er to be climbed – many years before Everest was successfully scaled.
The Alpine-style ascent of its south face is on the bucket list of any high-altitude climber but with a near 40% summit fatality rate, a mountaineer is more likely to die here than on any other 8,000 metre climb.
The difficulty comes from the constant threat of storms and avalanches as well as the mountain’s hulking, complex glacial architecture. The south face, in particular, is widely considered the most dangerous climb on Earth.
However, a successful summit is the ultimate achievement for hardcore mountaineers, meaning that people will continue to take to its slopes for years to come.
Coming in at number one is Meru in the Garhwal Himalayas, India.
Meru Peak has some highly challenging routes, the most famous of which is the Shark’s Fin.
It has been described as “one of the most attempted and most coveted lines in the entire Himalaya” and “one of the last remaining challenges of big wall mountaineering.”
The mountain has three peaks: southern (6,660 metres), central (6,310 metres) and northern (6,450 metres). All have been climbed previously, but only for the first time along the Shark’s Fin route in 2011. This was the first and last successful summit via this route.
Why is it so difficult?
The ‘Shark’s Fin’ get its name from a massive granite feature on the northeast face. Its exceptional difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that the most technical rock climbing is near the top, when mountaineers are most weary and meaning that heavy gear needs to be carried all the way.
Summiting requires a high level of competency in every type of climbing: mixed climbing, ice climbing, snow climbing, rock climbing and aid climbing.
Climbers had been trying to conquer the Shark’s Fin route for 30 years before Anker, Chin, and Ozturk made it in October 2011. One climber even broke both legs in the attempt.
The top climbers in the world had attempted this climb and couldn’t do it, one reason why Meru is deemed so special.
Mount Meru has been described as the ‘anti-Everest’ as it is far lesser known but a much tougher, and more technical, climb. Chin, a member of the successful 2011 team, said that Meru made summiting Everest look like a hike.
“I don’t know of many [routes] specifically like the Shark’s Fin because the upper head wall was overhanging, and that just doesn’t happen geologically that much”.
There are also no Sherpas to help carry the 200 pounds of gear, with 4,000 feet of technical climbing before hitting the route’s most daunting feature, a 1,500-foot stretch of nearly featureless granite.
Almost a decade on and no one else has yet successfully summited Meru. It’s incredibly tough but no doubt only a matter of time until someone else takes on the beast.