First Without Oxygen
"I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits." Reinhold
Climbing Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, was a challenge that
eluded scores of great mountaineers until 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and
Tenzig Norgay first reached its summit. Over the next three decades, more
"firsts" followed, including the first ascent by a woman, the first solo
ascent, the first traverse (up one side of the mountain and down the other)
and the first descent on skis. But all of these climbers had relied on
bottled oxygen to achieve their high-altitude feats. Could Mt. Everest be
conquered without it?
As early as the 1920s, mountain climbers debated the pros and cons of
artificial aids. One, George Leigh Mallory, argued "that the climber does best
to rely on his natural abilities, which warn him whether he is overstepping the
bounds of his strength. With artificial aids, he exposes himself to the
possibility of sudden collapse if the apparatus fails." The philosophy that
nothing should come between a climber and his mountain continued to have
adherents fifty years later.
In the 1970s, two of its strongest proponents were Reinhold Messner and Peter
Habeler. Messner had achieved considerable notoriety by completing a series of
spectacular Alpine rock climbs without the use of metal protection pegs. In
1974, Messner teamed up with Habeler, a quiet Mayrhofen guide who shared his
philosophy, and the pair proceeded to take the climbing world by storm. Agile
and slight of build, they scaled the Matterhorn and Eigerwand faces in record
time. In 1975, they made a remarkable ascent of the 11th highest mountain
in the world, Gasherbrum, without using supplemental oxygen. By 1978, they
had set their sights on climbing Mt. Everest—without bottled oxygen.
Messner and Habeler quickly found themselves the subject of criticism by
members of both the climbing and medical communities. They were labeled
"lunatics," who were placing themselves at risk for severe brain damage. The
physiological demands of climbing Everest had been studied on previous
expeditions, and found to be extreme; in 1960-61, tests conducted on members of
an expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary concluded that oxygen levels at the
summit of Mt. Everest were only enough to support a body at rest—and that
the oxygen demands of a climber in motion would certainly be too great.
Despite the controversy, Messner and Habeler continued with their plan. They
would climb together with the members of the Austrian Everest Expedition into
the Western Cwm, and then make their own separate attempt for the summit. The
teams arrived at Base Camp in March of 1978 and spent the next few weeks
establishing a secure route through the Icefall, erecting camps I-V and
preparing for their ascent.
Messner and Habeler's first attempt began on April 21. They reached Camp III
on the Lhotse Face on April 23. That night, Habeler became violently ill with
food poisoning from a can of sardines. Messner decided to continue his ascent,
without his debilitated partner, and set off with two Sherpas the next morning.
Upon reaching the South Col, the three climbers were suddenly trapped in a
violent storm. They battled temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit and winds
of 125 m.p.h. for two full days. Exhausted from struggling with a torn tent
and severe hunger, even Messner later admitted to believing his venture was
"impossible and senseless." Finally, a break in the weather enabled the shaken
party to descend to Base Camp and recuperate.
Messner and Habeler discussed making one more bid for the summit. Habeler had
begun to reconsider the use of oxygen, but Messner remained steadfast,
declaring that he would not use oxygen—nor climb with anyone who was using
it. He believed that climbing as high as possible, without oxygen, was more
important than reaching the summit. Habeler, unable to recruit a new partner,
relented, and the two became a team once more.
On May 6, Messner and Habeler set out again. They reached Camp III (7200
meters) easily and, despite a new blanket of heavy snow, felt ready to move on
to the South Col the next day. They were now reaching altitudes where they
could expect to feel the effects of oxygen deprivation. Messner and Habeler
had agreed on carrying two oxygen cylinders to Camp IV, in case of an
emergency, and had also made a pact to turn back if either person lost his
coordination or speech.
The next day, it took them only three and a half hours to reach the South Col
(7986 meters), where they camped for the afternoon and evening. Habeler
complained of a headache and double vision on the climb up, but felt better
after resting, even though both men frequently woke up from their naps gasping
for air. They forced themselves to drink tea, hoping rehydration would lessen
the effect of the thin air.
At 3 am on May 8, the two woke and began preparing for the day's attempt on the
summit. Simply getting dressed took them two hours. The weather was
questionable, but they decided to break camp. Since every breath was now
precious, the pair began using hand signals to communicate. Progress was slow.
Trekking through the deep snow was exhausting, so they were forced to climb the
more challenging rock ridges. It took them four hours to reach Camp V (8500
meters), where they rested for thirty minutes. Even though the weather was
still threatening, they decided to continue—at least to the South Summit,
which was 260 vertical meters away.
Messner and Habeler now faced exhaustion unlike any they'd encountered before.
Every few steps, they leaned on their ice axes and gasped for breath. Messner
described feeling as though he were going to "burst apart." As they climbed
higher, they fell to their knees and even lay down in an effort to recover
Upon reaching the South Summit, the pair roped themselves together and pressed
on. The wind battered them about, but they saw a break in the sky and were
hopeful that the weather would improve. They had 88.12 vertical meters to go.
Messner described a feeling of apathy mingled with defiance. They reached the
Hillary step and continued, alternating leads and resting three or four times.
At 8800 meters they were no longer roped together, but were so affected by the
lack of oxygen that they collapsed every 10 to 15 feet and lay in the snow.
Messner testified into his tape recorder that, "breathing becomes such a
serious business we scarcely have strength to go on." He described feeling
like his mind was dead—and that it was only his soul that compelled him to
Sometime between 1 and 2 in the afternoon on May 8, 1978, Messner and
Habeler achieved what was believed to be impossible—the first ascent of Mt.
Everest without oxygen. Messner described his feeling: "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
It took Habeler an hour to get down to the South Col, and Messner an hour and
three quarters—for a distance that had taken them eight hours that very
morning. They reached Base Camp, jubilant, two days later.
Messner and Habeler's success puzzled the medical community, and caused a
re-evaluation of high-altitude physiology. Messner would return to Mt. Everest
in 1980 to successfully complete a solo ascent—again without supplemental
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