Elements of Style
In 2016, I'm going to have a crack at one of the world's 8,000-meter peaks in Pakistan. Adventure has always been something I have been drawn to. I've always been interested in hiking and being self-sufficient in isolated ranges. As I gravitated towards the Himalayas, I soaked up books by Reinhold Messner, who along with Peter Habler, pioneered oxygen-less ascents of the 8,000-meter peaks in 1977-78. (At the time naysayers were legion, predicting that Messner and Habler would suffocate to death or suffer brain damage). I knew then that I would try an 8,000-meter without oxygen. In preparing for next year, can I meet the demands of climbing at high altitude? Can I train my mind? For me it's not all about getting to the top; I want to experience what it feels like. Going high without oxygen means moving as lightly and as simply as possible, its more challenging, physically and mentally,,
So much has been made of why people climb. For the Challenge. Climbing is an act of hubris, a psychological defiance of the most fundamental earthly power: gravity. Some people enjoy participating in this; others enjoy reading about it. And, yes, its risky, nakedly narcissistic, which is why it's a good read-but here's the catch: The proximity to harm brilliantly illuminates life, and makes you appreciate those closest to you. Why one would want to climb an 8000-meter mountain is personal, but how we do it – a question hardly ever asked - is communal. How we get to the top defines the sprit of the adventure. I've spent many months exploring the Everest (Khumbu) region as part of my PhD, trying to make sense of the seasonal "Everest Jamboree". I've come to the conclusion that Everest is no longer an adventure - it's an endurance sport – albeit a tough one. Everest is all about winning, no one asks how did you play? Only a small fraction of Everest summiters have summited without oxygen (5%) since 1953.
What does it really mean, physiologically, to use oxygen at high altitude? High altitude specialists outline that inhaling oxygen at two to four liters per minute–a typical flow rate for climbers–reduces the height of an 8,000-meter mountain by around 2,000-meters. In other words, climbing any of the 8,000-meter peaks with oxygen brings the peak down to around +6,000-meters while climbing. That's lower than hundreds of other Himalayan peaks. I realize that eliminating supplemental oxygen, and all it entails, from 8000-meter peaks would have serious consequences. Everest guides often use oxygen to help them make clear-headed decisions, Sherpas use it to accompany clients, clients use it just to keep moving---so perhaps, if there was no oxygen, Everest and K2 could no longer be commercially guided. Certainly, at least in the short term, this would financially stun a handful of Everest companies, their guides and several hundreds of high-altitude Sherpas.
Others have followed in the footsteps of Messner and Habler, but not many. This type of climbing demands steely mental stamina, and legs and lungs of a locomotive. When you substitute oxygen for training, to me, you've diminished the mountain, and you've diminished yourself. And yet, if your dream is also to climb a big Himalayan peak, you can still do so ethically and thoughtfully, even with a guide. Use porters to help you get your gear to base camp, but hump everything above there yourself–remove all your gear and garbage–when you depart. We have choices. There are no penalties. The mountains are still free and we're all at liberty to climb them largely as we desire. Let the best of your character be your guide. We are what we do. And, style is substance.