The Elite Few: Climbing Everest Without Supplemental Oxygen

Reaching the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak at 29,029 feet, is an incredible feat. But climbing it without the aid of supplemental oxygen? That puts you in an elite group of fewer than 200 people who have achieved this nearly impossible quest. In this post, I’ll explore the immense challenges, dangers and allure of climbing Everest without O2, and highlight some of the climbers who defied the odds to join this exclusive club.

The Dangers and Challenges of Climbing Everest Without Oxygen

Let me be clear – climbing Everest is extremely dangerous and difficult even with bottled oxygen. But attempting it without O2 takes those risks to a whole new level. The death rate for those climbing without oxygen is significantly higher. Your body is slowly dying due to the lack of oxygen. It’s an unimaginably brutal physical and mental challenge.

Climbing without oxygen tanks means you’ll be moving at a much slower pace. What might take 12 hours with O2 can take 18+ hours without. You’re utterly exhausted but have to maintain absolute focus and determination with each step. The margins for error are razor-thin. One small mistake can mean the difference between life and death.

The route itself, from the Nepal side, is highly technical even with oxygen. You’re negotiating steep ice walls, traversing ladders over gaping crevasses, and scrambling up exposed rock faces, all in brutally cold temperatures and high winds. Now imagine doing all that while slowly suffocating. It’s almost unthinkable.

As someone who has climbed at extremely high altitudes, I can attest to how agonizing it is to climb without supplemental oxygen. Every single step is pure suffering and misery. Your lungs are burning, your body screaming for rest. But you have to maintain absolute focus and keep inching upwards towards the summit. The mental stamina required is almost superhuman.

Notable Climbers Who Conquered Everest Without Oxygen

So who are some of the incredible climbers who have pulled off this mind-boggling accomplishment? Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to do it in 1978, shocking the mountaineering world and proving it was physiologically possible. But it wasn’t until 1980 that Messner achieved the first solo ascent without oxygen, cementing his status as a climbing legend.

Others gradually followed in their footsteps, including Ang Rita Sherpa, the Nepalese mountaineer who holds the record for most ascents of Everest without oxygen – an astounding 10 times! Sadly, he passed away in 2020. Francys Arsentiev became the first American woman to summit without O2 in 1998, although she tragically died on the descent.

In more recent years, Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger achieved the feat in 2017 while documenting their struggle on social media. And just last year, Kilian Jornet set a new speed record, climbing from base camp to summit in just 26 hours without oxygen. The boundaries keep being pushed by the world’s top mountaineers.

New World Records Set by Climbers Without Oxygen

Those who climb Everest without oxygen aren’t just doing it for personal glory – they’re also aiming to set new world records. Because so few have achieved the feat, each new expedition is an opportunity to make history.

Take Kilian Jornet for example. His 26-hour ascent without O2 in 2022 shattered the previous record by over 10 hours. This superhuman achievement required meticulous planning, detailed knowledge of the route, and unbelievable endurance. But it showed what is possible when you combine elite athletic ability with high-altitude experience and sheer determination.

Other records have focused on pioneering new variations to the standard routes, or overcoming disabilities. In 2001, Erik Weihenmayer became the first blind person to summit Everest – an inconceivable accomplishment. More recently, Hari Budha Magar, a double above-knee amputee, is aiming to become the first to summit Everest and Lhotse (the world’s 4th highest mountain) without oxygen.

Setting a world record on Everest requires an obsessive, almost maniacal focus on the goal. You have to plan your expedition down to the last detail, and be willing to suffer immensely and risk it all. The success rate is miniscule – around 10%. It’s only for those who can push past all limitations.

The Physical and Mental Toll of Climbing Without Oxygen

We’ve established that climbing Everest without oxygen is one of the greatest physical challenges a human can endure. But what exactly happens to your body and mind at that extreme altitude? In a word – it’s hell.

Above 8000 meters (26,000 feet), your body is slowly dying. This is known as the “Death Zone”, where there isn’t enough oxygen to sustain life for more than a couple days. Your cells are literally starving for oxygen, leading to organ damage, swelling of the brain, and tiny hemorrhages. Recovery can take months.

The mental toll is equally brutal. Hypoxia causes your brain to malfunction, leading to disorientation, hallucinations, and impaired decision making. Climbers report feeling a sense of impending doom, and an overpowering desire to just lie down and give up. Pushing through that requires superhuman willpower.

As Ueli Steck, the late Swiss climbing legend put it: “Climbing Everest without oxygen is like running a marathon while holding your breath. Your body is screaming for rest but your mind has to override that and keep pushing you forward.”

The Allure and Mystique of Climbing Everest Without Oxygen

So why do climbers put themselves through this unimaginable suffering? For most, it’s not about records or glory. It’s a personal quest to explore the outer limits of human endurance and willpower, and to experience a sense of raw adventure that is becoming vanishingly rare in the modern world.

Climbing Everest without oxygen strips the mountain down to its purest essence. You’re not relying on fancy gear or artificial aids. It’s just you against the peak, in a brutally primal test of your inner strength. In a world of instant gratification and virtual accomplishments, that holds an irresistible allure for a certain kind of person.

There’s also a sense of exclusivity that comes with joining the small fraternity of climbers who have achieved this feat. It’s like gaining admission to an elite club of adventurers who have probed the outer limits of human potential. That recognition from your peers is hugely motivating.

The Tragic Losses on Everest During Busy Climbing Seasons

Of course, climbing Everest without oxygen comes with enormous risks. The overall death toll on the mountain is estimated at over 300 since the first attempts in the 1920s. A disproportionate number of those have occurred during the busiest climbing seasons, when hundreds of people are trying to reach the summit.

This overcrowding on Everest has led to a number of high-profile tragedies in recent years. In 1996, 8 climbers died in a single storm near the summit. In 2014, 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche above Base Camp. And in 2019, a photo of a long line of climbers waiting to summit went viral, highlighting the dangers of commercialization.

For those climbing without oxygen, the risks are magnified. They move much slower, so have less time to react if something goes wrong. Many have perished from falling, exposure, or simply by getting too weak to descend. It’s a stark reminder of the fine line between triumph and tragedy on the world’s highest peak.

I’ve lost friends and climbing partners on Everest over the years. When you’re up there, death is always lurking around the corner. You have to accept those risks and make peace with them. For those of us drawn to the challenge of climbing without oxygen, it’s a price we’re willing to pay for the chance to touch the essence of what it means to be human.

In conclusion, climbing Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen remains one of the most exclusive and extreme challenges in mountaineering. It’s a feat that has captured the imagination of adventurers for generations, and will no doubt continue to inspire and frighten us for generations to come. For the small number of climbers who dare to attempt it, the experience is both transcendent and harrowing – a crucible that strips them down to their rawest essence. By pushing themselves to the absolute limit, they remind us of what we’re all capable of as human beings, if we’re willing to risk it all in pursuit of our dreams.

Photo of author

Paul Samis