Stand on top of the world. (For a price)

If you have the cash (about pounds 24,000 in Everest's case), you can be guided up almost any mountain in the world. Great, says Mark Dudley
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In 1996 Mount Everest claimed its deadliest toll of climbers for many years. What made this so sinister was that several of the deaths were of fee-paying mountain "tourists" rather than professional climbers. According to journalist and climber Jon Krakauer, in his forthcoming book Into Thin Air the reckless behaviour of guides who led amateur climbers to their deaths can partly be explained as stemming from the commercial pressures of having to satisfy customers.

Does that make it impossible for mere tourists to dream of conquering the highest peaks? Not necessarily.

I once paid to climb the Matterhorn, and it was terrifying. You stay overnight in a lodge, somewhere at the base of 1,216 metres of rock, waiting to start at four the next morning. Several pictures on the wall reveal images of climbers clinging desperately to a sheer, vertical wedge of rock: the route you will be climbing tomorrow.

Perhaps, to put people at their ease, the pictures should have shown crowds of amateurs happily perched on the summit. Three to four thousand people climb the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn each summer - the vast majority of them on a guided trip. Most, like I did, pay the SFr760 (pounds 310) and get hauled to the top (on a record day, there have been 300 people trying to reach the summit).

It doesn't matter whether, like me, you suffer from vertigo or your boots are "too clumsy" as my guide kept muttering. In the end, you'll probably get to the top and then down again safely. In my case, I've even got the photo to prove it.

Nowadays, in fact, you can get guided up just about any mountain in the world. Look in the classified ads of High magazine and a section under "mountaineering expeditions" will reveal at least two companies with trips to climb Everest. Meanwhile, two pages cover other 8,000 metre peaks - Annarpurna and Lhotse are examples - plus mountains in Africa, South America and Europe. It seems that where mountaineering is concerned, the world is at your feet.

"High but easy" are the most popular mountains available, according to Simon Lowe, operations manager for Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions, a company based in Sheffield and the first British organisation to provide guided mountaineering expeditions around the world. Mera Peak in Nepal (6,476m), Aconcagua in South America (6,959m) and Kilimanjaro in Africa (5,895m) are three examples. Out of those three, only Mera Peak is a grade two - a rating where clients need a basic knowledge of rope-work combined with the skills to climb 45 degrees of ice. Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro need only a good head for heights and pounds 2,995 and pounds 1,995 respectively.

And Everest? This is a grade five which means you need at least one 6,500 metre peak behind you and a "thorough" competence in mountaineering, plus about pounds 24,000 to hand (excluding the air fare). Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions first took fee-paying clients to Everest in 1993. Seven out of the 11 clients, two guides and seven sherpas reached the summit by way of the South Col, the original route of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tensing Norgay in 1953. In May last year, the company had five clients from a team of 18 summitting the north side of Everest - which happened to be the month when the 11 people died. In spite of these well-publicised accidents, the company will be returning next year for their fourth expedition. Another British company, OTT Expeditions, has sent nine clients this year, though the six who succeeded may have been disappointed to have to share the highest mountain in the world with so many people: it turned out that OTT Expeditions were just one of 15 teams (totalling around 300 people) who had set up at base camp at the same time. Everest, it seems, has peaked in terms of commercialism.

Considering the scope for disaster, is it worth it? It is dangerous, but it does not have to be suicidal. Andy MacNae of the British Mountaineering Council believes that the majority of British mountaineering companies are very professional. "They tend to be run by enthusiasts. Problems arise with companies overseas," he says. "We want to be sure that the clients understand what they are taking on. Commercial companies must make their clients aware of this. Their responsibility to protect people is more important than their responsibility to get them to the top."

But despite the 11 deaths on Everest last year, there will always be more ready to test their luck and skill. After all, what are mountains there for, if not to be climbed?

The British Mountaineering Council: 0161-445 4747; Himalayan Kingdoms Expeditions: 0114-276 3322; OTT Expeditions: 0114-258 8508

Jon Krakauer's 'Into Thin Air' is published by Macmillan, at pounds 16.99, on 22 August