In a recently prepared table, which lists the number of first ascents made by individual countries of peaks of more than 6,400m, Great Britain is second only to Japan.
To the end of 2008, Japanese expeditions have made first ascents of around 225 peaks, while Britain's tally is 147. India lies third with around 103.
The difference between the success of Japanese and British expeditions is less notable on peaks between 6,400m and 6,800m: Japan has climbed approximately 97 compared to Britain's 85. However, on peaks above 6,800m the gap is wider, with Japan totalling 128 to Britain's 62.
The top 10 are, in descending order: Japan; Great Britain; India; Austria (69); Germany (59); Russia (c50); Poland (40); USA (c37); Switzerland (34); France (30).
Professor Josef Hala from Prague in the Czech Republic has prepared the table. Hala is an internationally-noted classical pianist but also a man with a passion for mountaineering statistics.
He has included all mountains and subsidiary summits with a prominence greater than 30m, which brings the total of peaks of more than 6,400m climbed by the end of 2008 to nearly 1,000.
Also, it is the nationality of the expedition that counts rather than its summiteers, so Everest, for instance, is a GB ascent: the highest first ascent where the summiteers were British was Kangchenjunga (in 1955). Joint expeditions are awarded half a point each (Japan's exact total is 225.5; India, 103.5; Russia, 50.5 etc).
Hala's first interest lay with the mountains of the former Soviet Union, and he has compiled chronological lists of all known first ascents of peaks over 6,000m in the Pamir and Tien Shan, correcting many mistakes and several heights that have appeared in other research sources.
There are a number of reasons behind Great Britain's high placing in this table. Britain scores highly in the early exploration of the Himalaya: Shipton's expeditions, for instance, made dozens of ascents of peaks over 6,400m.
This has left a legacy. As Alex Huber noted in a recent interview, "It's said that the British have the boldest style, and the boldest opinions of climbing in general ................It's a British tradition to go climbing in places where nobody has gone before, which means they take on the real challenge."
Many prestigious mountaineering projects in the world today are to remote and costly regions, and one of the most significant factors behind the global success of British mountaineering in recent years has been the BMC and MEF grant awards made available to expeditions “visiting remote mountain environments and making first or innovative ascents in good style”.
Up until 2006 the BMC received a substantial amount of money each year from UKSport to help support these types of expeditions.. Many would simply not have taken place, and therefore could not have added to our standings in the table, without that funding. However, this money has now been totally withdrawn in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games as UKSport concentrates all its resources on Olympic sports in the hope of winning medals.
The BMC continues to award grants to expeditions, but on a much reduced scale.
BMC expedition awards 2009
There are reasons for Japan’s success too, but an important factor over the years has been sponsorship. Mountaineering in Japan is much more of a national pursuit. The standard of living in Japan is relatively high, offering more disposable income, and in the past there has been significant and readily available sponsorship for mountaineering expeditions.