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Payoff Six years ago, I spent 18 days on Mt. McKinley. Reaching its 20,320-foot summit was the coolest thing I’d ever done—until I stood at 17,769-foot Thorung La pass on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, on my honeymoon. My wife and I sat on our packs and drew lines up dozens of mountains, each higher yet more easily climbed than Denali. “Which one should we pick?” my wife mused. Everything in the Himalaya, including peakbagging, is just bigger. —Shanno. Davis
Do it At 21,825 feet, Mera Peak is the tallest of Nepal’s officially permitted “trekking peaks” (summits requiring only basic mountaineering skills). The standard two- to three-week trip begins in Lukla, also the traditional start to the Everest Basecamp trek. But instead of following the crowd north, hike east, well off the beaten track, toward the Hinku Valley. You’ll cross two passes (each topping 15,000 feet) before tackling some easy glacier travel to reach high camp. Recent widening of a bergschrund has increased the difficulty from Grade F (“easy”) to Grade PD (“a little difficult”). On top, gaze at five of the world’s six tallest peaks: Everest, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyo.
Key Skill: Acclimatizing
With an average elevation of 16,000 feet, Nepal is literally the roof of the world—with a mean of about 45% less oxygen than exists at sea level. Follow these tips to stay comfortable and avoid an early descent:
» Go slow. The single best way to combat the headaches, nausea, and fatigue known as acute mountain sickness (AMS) is to prevent onset altogether. Ascend at a moderate rate, averaging no more than 1,500 feet of net altitude gain per day (at elevations higher than 10,000 feet). If this proves unrealistic, take a rest day after a big climb, trying not to gain more than 3,000 feet over a three-day period. When possible, hike a short distance above camp, so you sleep slightly lower than the highest point you reached each day.
» Stay hydrated. Drink five to seven liters of water a day.
» Fuel up. You need a high-calorie diet, but eating can be a chore. At altitude, pack carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta and rice—these require less oxygen for the body to metabolize.
» Tap the medicine cabinet. Dexamethazone and acetazolomide, both steroids, are effective in preventing AMS, and studies have shown that Viagra and Cialis can minimize AMS symptoms.
» Do what locals do. Have a bowl of garlic soup. Nepali climbers slurp it up the night before a big climb. There is no scientific proof, but locals say that it aids in circulating oxygen through the body.
» Pressure breathe. On summit day, try this technique. Purse your lips and exhale forcefully and fully, like trying to blow out a candle at arm’s length. This lets more carbon dioxide in your lungs escape, allowing you to take in more oxygen from the thinner air.
RESOURCES Getting there Fly to Lukla from Kathmandu (approx. $70/person round-trip; yetiairlines.com) GuidebookThe Trekking Peaks of Nepal, by Bill O’Connor ($90; amazon.com) MapMera Peak Climbing Map ($26; amazon.com) Permit $350 for a group of four; nepalmountaineering.orgGuide Erase navigation and gear guesswork with Nepal Vision Treks (offered April-May, Oct.-Nov.). ($2,590; nepalvisiontreks.com)
SEE TWO MORE
Tharpu Chuli (18,579 feet), also called Tent Peak, is a five-day trek from Pokhara. Access the Northwest Ridge route from Annapurna Basecamp. It’s a one-day, 3,000-foot snow climb leading to views of the entire Annapurna range. visitnepal.com/acap
Summit 20,581-foot Parchamo on a climb up 45-degree snow slopes. It’s a day trip from 18,799-foot Teshi Lapcha Pass (some parties camp in a cave here). Most climbers include the summit as a detour on the Rolwaling Valley to Lukla trek. visitnepal.com