When Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler trekked to Everest Base Camp in 1978, they were the only two people on Earth who believed they weren’t marching toward their own graves.
Their goal was to reach the summit of Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen canisters, a feat that remains rare today but was, in 1978, actually considered scientifically impossible.
More than 4,000 people have climbed Mount Everest, but fewer than 200 have done so without oxygen. This year, Adrian Ballinger, a California-based mountain guide who has climbed Everest six times (with oxygen), and Cory Richards, a National Geographic photographer and professional mountaineer who has yet to climb Everest, are hoping to add their names to the list of oxygen-less ascents of the world’s tallest mountain, all while posting the expedition to Snapchat using the hashtag #EverestNoFilter. This week they’re reaching their base camp on the north side of the mountain in Tibet.
Everest’s summit lies five miles above sea level at an altitude with effectively a third as much atmosphere due to lower air pressure. Doctors in the 1960s had studied the physiological demands of high-altitude climbing and determined that the atmosphere at Everest’s summit was so thin that it could only support a human at rest. They concluded that to even attempt such a feat would result in serious, irreversible brain damage (best case) or death.
Try for one minute to imagine yourself in 1978 in Messner’s situation—or any situation in which a group of scientists is pleading with you to not do what you want to do because you’re going to die just as surely as a Newton’s apple will hit the ground.
Messier and Habeler’s ascent of Everest in 1978 is the stuff of legends. At Camp 2, Habeler was heavily drugged up yet still couldn’t sleep. Fear poured from every inch of him—not to mention vomit and diarrhea from food poisoning courtesy of a tin of sardines. Habeler wanted to go down. Messner wanted to go up. Habeler was less worried about dying than returning home and being unable to recognize his family because his brain had been turned to porridge by the altitude, as all the doctors had warned.
Upon reaching the South Col, Messner and two Sherpa guides were caught in a storm with 125-mile-per-hour winds. For two days, the trio was trapped here. When the storm broke, they retreated and picked up Habeler on the way down to Base Camp.
Habeler was now totally convinced that the experts were right—climbing without oxygen is impossible. Messner, however, remained steadfast. After a few days recovering in Base Camp, he ultimately convinced Habeler to try again.
During their second attempt, Messner and Habeler succeeded—barely. On their final day of climbing, they resorted to hand signals to communicate, so as not to waste any precious breath. They fell to their knees and lay in the snow like beaten dogs in an effort to catch their breaths. Habeler began hallucinating. Messner experienced a sensation of “bursting apart.” He later said that his mind was fully dead and only his soul was pushing him upward. With less than 80 vertical meters left to climb, they collapsed every ten feet and literally crawled to the highest point on Earth.
Later, writing about that moment of reaching Everest’s summit, Messner gave the world this gift of poetry: “In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.”
Their ascent not only shook the climbing community but also the medical community, causing doctors to reevaluate what they thought they knew about the human body.
Oxygen remains one of the most controversial aspects of climbing Everest. About 95 percent of people who reach the summit of Everest resort to using it. Critics consider the need to use supplemental oxygen akin to blood doping or steroid use: It’s nothing short of downright cheating.
Oxygen bottles are extremely expensive—up to $1,000 each—because filling them up isn’t just a matter of pumping oxygen into a canister the way one pumps gas into a car. It has to be done perfectly. If any water-vapor molecules (or other impurities) enter the canister during the process, the O2 bottles freeze and are rendered useless up on the mountain.
The closest (and most reliable) oxygen-canister production facility serving Everest climbers is actually on an old military plant in Russia. All the highest-quality oxygen canisters used on Everest today come from this one facility. Because they can’t be flown, they’re transported by ship to southern India, then carried overland to Kathmandu.
In the past, some guide companies have attempted to save money by seeking out cheaper oxygen canisters produced at inferior facilities in India and elsewhere—with at least one tragic result. In 1999, millionaire scion Michael Matthews, 22, became the youngest Brit to reach Everest’s summit. However, he died on the descent, allegedly from oxygen deprivation, disappearing into a storm while his guide was up ahead, clearing snow off the ropes. In 2001, the Matthews family sued Out There Trekking for £50,000, essentially claiming that the company used an “inferior oxygen system” (i.e., cheap bottles that froze) that led to their son’s death. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount. Not satisfied, the Matthews family pursued criminal charges of manslaughter, but in 2006 a judge dismissed the case. Out There Trekking is no longer in business.
Oxygen bottles weigh about 5.6 pounds each, and there are stories of many climbers going through dozens of them during their ascents, oftentimes simply leaving the canisters behind as trash. Sherpas often carry them, and there have been reports of under-the-table deals made high on the mountain to sell the canisters to desperate climbers who need more of them.
It’s for all of these reasons that Ballinger and Richards are aspiring to change the way climbers start approaching Everest. For them, the future isn’t just in getting to the top; it’s in doing it in the best way possible.
I recently spoke with them about what it takes—and what it means—to reach their goal.
Cory, you tried to climb Everest in 2012 without oxygen but didn’t succeed. What happened?
CR: I attempted to climb the West Ridge, which is a rarely climbed route. There were a handful of things that went wrong. Let’s just say there was an accumulation of pressures, and my capacity was overwhelmed. My body just shut down. I had too much on my plate. And that’s not to say anything about the conditions. No one was going to climb the route that year. But for me, it was more that I had just taken on too much.
How hard is it to climb Everest without oxygen?
AB: We both know many professional alpinists who have failed at summiting Everest without oxygen. We know people who have died trying. I know people who have climbed all the other 8,000-meter peaks but still haven’t succeeded on Everest after multiple tries. Even though it’s been done, it’s an incredibly physical challenge still.
CR: Yeah, you hear alpinists say things like, “Everest is dead,” etc. Most of the people saying that have never climbed Everest, let alone tried it without oxygen. It’s a very easy thing to say Everest is easy and done, especially when you haven’t been there. Being at 8,000 meters without oxygen is hard—there’s no way around that. Look at the percentage of people who have successfully climbed Everest with oxygen versus without, and that’s when it becomes really impressive.
Why is this goal important?
CR: Climbing without oxygen is one of those things that amounts to adhering to our highest standard. And we’re hoping it has an effect beyond the two of us. Rather than just bringing people up to the curve, it’s about bringing the whole curve up. The more people who climb Everest without oxygen, the less oxygen we will see on this mountain. The more that people do it and prove that it’s possible, the more people will try without it, and I think that’s important.
AB: This is what our #EverestNoFilter Snapchats are hoping to show. The people who have climbed Everest without oxygen tell their stories after they’ve succeeded, in slide shows and blogs, and so on. I’m hoping we can show some of that struggle and suffering in a more real way. That’s a big part of it. Because of my genetic makeup, and because I’ve dedicated myself to Everest over the last two decades, the truth is, with oxygen, I’ve never struggled that hard to climb Everest. I want to put myself in that position of trying to find where that line is. And I think Everest is the place for me to do that.
If you find yourself struggling high on the mountain, would you sacrifice your no-oxygen ideal and use oxygen in order to reach the summit, since you haven’t been there yet?
CR: Well, I think it’s sort of bullshit when people are like, “It’s all about the journey and the summit isn’t important.” Of course the summit is important. But that said, there is some truth to that statement, and the learning really does come from the trying. … You know, I’d be bummed if I didn’t get there, but I haven’t attached nearly the same amount of expectations to the summit this year. I’ve put in my time, done my training, and whatever happens happens at this point.