Is Climbing Everest Without Supplemental Oxygen Reckless?

Climbers Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards talk about the merits of climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen.


Last month Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards used Snapchat to document their successful (partially — Ballinger turned back before the summit) ascent of Everest. As Ballinger wrote in Outside in April, the climbing partners wanted to use real-time photos and videos to “depict an unfiltered climb during a crucial season on a changing Everest.” The other key element of the attempt was that neither Ballinger, guide and owner of Alpenglow, nor Richards, climber-photographer and 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, would use supplemental oxygen to breathe more easily, something that’s been achieved only 193 times out of more than 7,000 Everest ascents. (Conrad Anker, whom we profiled in our first print magazine, did it twice.)

While those of us who cover outdoor sports at GP didn’t think much of this, Managing Editor Ben Bowers pointed out that not using supplemental oxygen seemed to him an unnecessary risk in a pursuit (Everest) that’s already proved so dangerous. How can we mourn the tragedies that occur rather often on the mountain while at the same time encouraging climbers to take even greater risks? “I take issue with double standards and I think that’s mostly what irks me about this situation,” Bowers said. “Touting climbing without oxygen seems to be lionizing a thirst for danger in exchange for very little upside. The outdoor industry is actually frequently guilty of this.” He also pointed to the NFL for comparison, where the league claims it cares about the safety of athletes, while violence remains an essential and indeed appealing quality of the sport.

These were good points, which several members of our team had an opinion about, so we invited Ballinger and Richards into our office to talk about the use of supplemental oxygen. Below you’ll find an excerpt from that discussion, as well as opinions from members of the GP team — some of them given remotely by email since weren’t all here for the discussion. – Jeremy Berger, Senior Editor

Richards and Ballinger atop GP offices a week after returning from Everest. Elevation: 168 feet above sea level. (Photo: Henry Phillips)

Climbing Is Dangerous? How About Football?

Jason Heaton, Contributor and Member of the Explorer’s Club

I guess at the outer edges of any sport that pits man against nature and his physiological limits, some are fascinated by it and celebrate those who do it, while others will question the wisdom or stupidity of it. No supplemental oxygen in climbing, no-limits breath-hold diving, free climbing without ropes, ultra running/cycling that foregoes sleep, polar exploration — these are all similar examples.

Drawing an analogy to football is interesting, but somehow it doesn’t ring similar to me since it’s a team sport with layers of rules and social/cultural baggage around it. Climbing a mountain, diving, running, etc., seem more elemental and tend to be more purely about one person pitting himself against a challenge rather than a group of people that are often (well-paid) pawns within a multi-million dollar entertainment industry. The players in the NFL seem more trapped in a flawed system than an individual who sets out to test his own limits, despite the fact that both might end up with brain damage.

In fact, the converse argument could be made — that people willingly ignore the brain damage epidemic in pro football because it’s part of our culture, but armchair critics will scoff when they read about climbers who die while forgoing O2 or ropes, or a diver who dies while riding a weighted sled to 800 feet deep, as if they’re the stupid ones. The latter tend to know the risks well and accept them fully, while football players don’t assume, when they join the team in high school, that brain damage is a likely outcome.

The Struggle, With or Without O, Is Real

Adrian Ballinger, Mountaineer and Guide

I’ve actually summited Everest six times with supplemental oxygen, always while guiding, and I’m proud of all those ascents — and actually, some of the struggles and fights that I’ve seen clients and climbers go through on supplemental oxygen have been incredible. The physical, mental, emotional side of standing on top of Everest with supplemental oxygen is an incredible feat, especially for a nonprofessional climber. So, I’m a huge proponent of using supplemental oxygen and the fact that you don’t have to be someone like me, who has dedicated his entire life to go to Everest. Supplemental oxygen makes it possible for a larger audience, and I’m a big believer in that.

At the same time, watching that struggle, I had never felt that type of battle on Everest because of the benefits of supplemental oxygen, and the fact that I was genetically lucky at altitude and I train hard and I do this full time, and so I wanted to approach the mountain in that purest form and see if I had what it took. And I didn’t stand on top — you guys probably know that — but it gave me exactly what I was looking for. I think I found the challenge to be incredible, the suffering to be very powerful, and I pushed my body to a point where there was some risk involved and it was a very difficult decision, but it was a no-brainer as well that if I wanted to survive, I had to come back down. That’s sort of my balance of both sides of oxygen. I believe both are valid; they’re just different.

Ballinger and Richards used Snapchat to document their ascent of Everest. The climbing partners wanted to use real-time photos and videos to "depict an unfiltered climb during a crucial season on a changing Everest."

All of this climbing entails risk, with or without oxygen. It’s all irresponsible. And it all puts a risk of rescue on other people on the mountain, and I actually don’t think Cory and I took a lot more risk by using oxygen or not using oxygen. It comes down to experience. And so since we built the experience to attempt Everest without oxygen, I don’t think we put an undue burden on other people around us. But people with no experience, with or without oxygen, they’re putting an unnecessary and unfair level of responsibility on the people around them.

Achievement Is All About: What’s Next?

AJ Powell, Associate Staff Writer

Though Everest was first summited in 1953, it wasn't until 1978 that Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first to reach the top without supplemental oxygen.

I get both sides of the argument, but these types of feats (summiting high peaks without supplemental oxygen) are always going to be celebrated in the outdoor world — and I’m not sure that I agree that they shouldn’t be. Everest has been climbed so many times, and the only new thing to do on the peak is to summit via different routes unassisted. Climbers and outdoor adventurers will always thirst for the next big thing and to be the one with the first ascent. If you want to equate it to another sport, I don’t think it is any more outlandish or macho than free diving. The people who partake in these sports and low-oxygen feats train for years and acclimate themselves to low-oxygen environments before going and understand the risks that they are taking by partaking in the sport.

I think that people will start to do other tough climbs unassisted as well — whether that means without oxygen, without sherpas or taking on winter ascents without supplemental O. When you think about it, when most of these climbs like Everest were first being attempted, there was no such thing as supplemental oxygen, and Reinhold Messner proved it was possible to climb at these high altitudes back in the ’70s — and the gear wasn’t nearly as good then as it is today.

What I Care About: Honesty and Keeping It Clean

Cory Richards, Mountaineer and Photographer

I used oxygen in 2010 on Lhotse, and I found climbing with oxygen to be — and I don’t mean to sound laissez-faire or arrogant — but I found it to be quite easy with oxygen because it really does fundamentally take you down in elevation. And I agree very much with Adrian. It’s not something that everybody can do. Climbing without supplemental oxygen is just not something that everybody is physiologically capable of.

As far as we know, you cannot train through an altitude ceiling. It’s just not something that our bodies can do. Either you can do it or you can’t. And like Adrian said, I don’t judge people that are climbing with oxygen. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why should they be barred from the experience? But personally I would rather rise to the level of the mountain, versus bringing the mountain down to my level. That’s just a personal expression of climbing and purity and I have been taught: the less distraction, the less I have between me and that experience, the more engaging I find it and the more rewarding I find it. I honestly don’t give two shits how you climb Everest, so long as you bring what you brought up with you down, you clean up after yourself, and you say what happened. That’s all I care about: honesty and cleaning up after yourself.

But as far as irresponsibility, I think that’s just sort of a nonlinear judgement. I mean, you can’t say it’s irresponsible for one person to do a sport one way and another person to do it another way, and until you’ve engaged in that; that sort of thinking is boxed in and, quite frankly, a little bit judgmental. True, other people are probably going to get involved in that rescue, just like I would get involved with somebody’s rescue who’s using oxygen. But I’m not going criticize them for running into trouble, having chosen to be up there with oxygen, or without. That’s just my duty as a good human to try and take care of someone who’s in trouble.

Richards, on his way to the top.

I really want to harp on something Adrian said before: these sports are inherently risky, as is free diving, as is base jumping, and to take risk out of it by saying everybody should have to climb with oxygen is to me reducing the soul of the sport to something that I wouldn’t be interested in. That’s just not something I want to do, and I think I should have the choice of how I engage with 8,000-meter peaks. Our doctor always says, “There are 13 8,000-meter peaks in the world, and there’s one 9,000-meter peak.” Everest is another echelon of challenge when it comes to challenge, with or without oxygen.

Oxygen Is Cheating, Sort Of

Michael Finn, Intern

Here’s the thing about Everest: the first 8,000 meters are, when stacked up to other mountains like K2 or Annapurna, relatively uncomplicated. The climbing isn’t particularly technical — maybe with the exception of the Khumbu Icefall, a crevasse-ridden passage strewn with giant pillars of ice prone to sudden crashes. Everything above 8,000 meters, however — aptly named the “death zone” — belongs to a completely different level of insanity. It’s where the vast majority of deaths on Everest occur, and what makes Everest, well, Mount Fucking Everest. And let’s face it: anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to climb a nearly 9,000-meter-heap of rock and ice (that’s 20 Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other) is probably a little crazy — with or without supplemental oxygen.

Climbers are aware of the inherent risks involved with summiting Everest. They know it’s irresponsible. But that’s partly what drives them to climb it in the first place — the incredible test of endurance, the exhilarating sense of danger. In this way, climbers and mountaineers are apart from other athletes in that they appear to have no regard for safety or responsibility. They do things most people simply can’t understand. So, let’s try to understand: Why the hell would someone want to climb Everest without using oxygen?

It’s a way of attaining the summit as purely and independently as possible. It’s a way of lessening the enormous barrier between yourself and the mountain. And it makes the reward — standing with two arms in the air on the highest point on the planet — much more profound. But there’s a big difference between climbers who use oxygen and those who don’t. One climber essentially cheated their way to the top using high-powered doping methods. The other climber reached the summit with little else than his or her own strength and sheer will to survive.

Yes, using oxygen makes Everest safer and the summit more achievable, but if everyone used oxygen, Everest would become less a proving ground for feats of unbelievable human endurance and more a glorified two-week holiday destination.

It’s already moving in that direction. Reaching the summit gets easier and safer every year. Supplemental oxygen is great for saving lives and all, but if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, you’ll see that it has contributed to the overcrowding and exploitation of Everest. You could even argue that oxygen has made Everest more dangerous. It has opened up Everest to less experienced climbers, which means more opportunity for deadly mistakes — and that’s bad for everyone on the mountain.

Conrad Anker Interview

Climbing, drinking beers and hanging out with Conrad Anker, the greatest living mountaineer. Read the Story

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