The Oxygen Illusion
Perspectives on the business of high-altitude
by Anatoli Boukreev
Translated by Natasha Lagovskaya
From the American Alpine Journal, 1998.
Thanks to Christian Beckwith, editor of the American
During the first attempts to summit the 8000-meter
peaks, it was generally believed humans could not ascend the heights without
the use of supplemental oxygen. The first attempts on what we now call
the normal routes were incomparably more difficult than climbing those
routes today. You need only look attentively at the clothes and equipment
in the old photos to understand what a dramatically different experience
we now have in the mountains. Any professional considering the use of the
cumbersome and temperamental old oxygen apparatus or the clothing and sleeping
gear that was available to the early explorers will wince. As for me, even
my own ascents without oxygen seem incomparable in effort and level of
difficulty to what Mallory and Irvine endured in their heroic 1924 attempt
on the north side of Everest, or what Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa
overcame on their successful 1953 ascent.
The use of oxygen in these early ascents set a standard
for the professional alpinist that is no longer relevant. Mountaineering
has expanded from an extreme sport on the one hand to a form of commercially
profitable recreation on the other. I feel we need to re-examine our attachment
to oxygen as an aid to climbing at altitude. We need to look at the overall
picture and our objectives using a different perspective.
Since 1970, mountaineering equipment and clothing
have improved much like technology in the space industry: in seven-league
steps. New metals, new fabrics, and better designs have advanced the boundaries
of what is humanly possible. There is now an industry of suppliers and
a market that drives improvement in mountaineering equipment. First of
all, these improvements make our ascents easier and safer; secondly, they
can compensate for a lower standard of fitness.
When reading accounts of the early ascents in the
Himalayas, one has an immediate appreciation for the physical preparedness
and psychological readiness for hardship that characterized the athletes
and explorers. They did not use oxygen to compensate for lack of training
or poor acclimatization. The advantage of a heavy unreliable oxygen canister
and a regulator was questionable? and yet a few of the mountaineers succeeded.
Our approach to acclimatization and training has changed over the years,
but we build on their experiences and examples.
Experienced mountaineers who are committed to the
sport as a continuing opportunity to explore the limits of human endurance
and performance in the border land of high altitude attend carefully to
the outcomes of past endeavors. We attempt to incorporate the wisdom of
experience with new information regarding medicine, food, hydration, rest,
and stress response to improve human performance and adaptation on the
mountain. Commercial mountaineering, while using the tenets of the sport,
has promoted the idea that safe high altitude mountaineering is a reasonable
ambition for the amateur.
In the Himalayas, the evolution of the role of the
Sherpas has played a significant role in the evolution of commercial high-altitude
mountaineering. Because of their adaptation to elevations up to 18,000
feet, Sherpas were essential in moving enormous amounts of equipment to
the base camps of early expeditions. Over the years, their experience and
expertise has expanded their role to logistical and technical support to
the summits. This change in role has dramatically decreased the physical
stress that expedition members need experience on their road to the summit.
Sherpas have become the real workers at high altitude, not only carrying
heavy burdens to establish high camps, but also fixing line and breaking
trail on technical and non-technical parts of the established routes. They
have become the underpaid skilled work force that is the foundation of
Only five years ago it was the job of expedition
participants to fix line on the route. We did it only to safeguard the
more exposed sections; fixing the route was part of our achievement as
mountaineers, and contributed to our sense of accomplishment on the summit.
Now, to compensate for the inadequate training and inexperience of clients
on commercial expeditions, line is fixed on both the technical and non-technical
sections of a route, usually by the Sherpa support. This secured route,
along with supplemental oxygen, has become the basis for advertising high-altitude
mountaineering as a reasonable ambition for the inexperienced. The summit
of the highest mountain has become a peak experience one can purchase,
a dramatic stint in an exotic sanitarium. Money will guarantee you the
right of passage to a summit of personal glory.
One need not acknowledge the difference between this
Everest and the Everest of Hillary and Tenzing. Yes, it is true that there
is only one Everest, and that the summit is a fixed spot and fixed altitude
and not the relative effort of achievement; but I feel the current style
of commercial expeditions is as different from that of the early achievers
as the oxygen equipment of those distant years is to the refined cylinders
available today. What is the satisfaction in repeating this achievement
under todayÝs circumstances? Advances in technology have compensated for
shallow athletic commitment and lack of experience, but it will never reduce
the risk and danger that hover in the uncontrollable elements at high altitude.
There is a great focus of experts, climbers and medical
professionals on the subject of altitude sickness and the dangers of ascending
to great heights with its sparse oxygen supply. Altitude sickness is frequently
presented as idiosyncratic, disassociated from any logical behavioral preparation
or prevention. Use of supplemental oxygen is the margin of safety that
protects the individual from this mysterious affliction. I am the first
to admit oxygen is the best, and maybe the only medicine for altitude illness.
Supplemental oxygen is touted as the margin of safety on an ascent, the
advantage you can count on in the diaphanous ethers of summit day. That
is one side of the coin. . . the other side is the danger of using supplemental
oxygen at altitude. The use of oxygen by the individual who has inadequate
physical training and no insight into his body's adaptive response patterns
must be considered. The individual who embraces the myth of opportunity
guaranteed by the use of supplemental oxygen is a danger to himself and
The best mountaineers of the 1970s and 1980s, men
on the cutting edge of our sports profession, shattered the old myth of
oxygen as a vital and indispensable component of ascent to high altitude.
This was a logical and deliberate debunking of a fixed idea that came about
as equipment improved and individuals explored the limits of their acclimatization
routines and physical endurance. The idea that supplemental oxygen at altitude
promotes what power an individual has is indisputable. But we must consider
this benefit in context.
Consider that oxygen at altitude is a kind of drug
that enhances performance; as we know, other drugs can affect strength
or endurance or speed? temporarily. These drugs make it possible for the
athlete to surpass his natural physical and mental capability into the
superhuman realm in the literal sense. At altitude, supplemental oxygen
makes it possible for an individual who is not prepared physically or mentally
to step over the border of his own limits and to wander unaware in the
Conventional medical wisdom has validated the short-sighted
belief that an individual performs better with a normal oxygen saturation
and adequate oxygen availability. I do not argue this theory; it is obvious.
But at 8000-plus meters we are not in a controlled environment. We do not
have the rapid ability to alter circumstances of support or to augment
indefinitely the true limits of physical power.
How do the majority of experienced Sherpas work without
supplemental oxygen at altitudes exceeding 6500 meters? The benefit of
their experience is gained because for most expeditions the financial constraints
of oxygen supply prevent its routine availability for support personnel.
It is held aside as an emergency intervention. Sherpas bear the brunt of
hard physical labor; their acclimatization routines are edifying.
Sherpas stress their bodies with
hard work, rest completely for intervals, hydrate copiously, eat very simple
high carbohydrate meals at regular intervals, and ascend and descend in
a rhythm that is in tune with their bodies responses to altitude. They
do not encumber themselves with the additional weight of oxygen cylinders
(which makes movement along dangerous terrain more precarious), nor do
they limit their sensory response with a mask that will obscure visibility.
They are relieved of the psychological burden of uncertainty regarding
the dependability of complicated equipment, they are not physically limited
by the time frame imposed by quantities in a bottle, they will not experience
the enormous and sudden increase in stress on the bodyÝs adaptive systems
if the supply of supplemental oxygen runs out.
Sherpas are consciously aware of body response patterns
so judgments regarding adaptation are realistic. They have the protective
and restorative properties of oxygen to use as a medical intervention if
rapid decompensation occurs. The availability of this back-up intervention
provides a measure of security to the individual extending himself in these
extreme conditions. With years of experience the Sherpas work at a slow
steady confident pace that promotes adaptation.
The false security of using oxygen above 8000 meters
has in a way increased risk. In the years before the big mountains became
commercial vacation objectives, individuals going to high altitude were
technically and physically well-trained people, strong in their spirits,
ready to confront the many unforeseen circumstances? bad weather, dangerous
and difficult conditions on the route, poor visibility, extended periods
of effort without food or water, exposure to extreme cold? that arise at
extreme altitude. Now the idea is promoted that guides and Sherpas and
oxygen will somehow eliminate the awesome variability of conditions that
are the basic environment of our sport. Earlier alpinists were able to
function without oxygen; granted, they worked more slowly, and performance
was not as reliable, but they were prepared to work without oxygen. Now
it is possible to see client climbers who have used a constant supply of
oxygen on their ascents debilitated totally if the supply is interrupted,
gasping and incapacitated like fish out of water. Professionals, too, have
come to rely on the prophylactic protection against debilitation that is
the oxygen illusion. It is an ace now played in the first round, not reserved
for the last call. If you are ill, have a poor acclimatization schedule,
or are not in peak physical form, it is oxygen that will compensate for
these weak links.
Oxygen will mask the symptoms of
illness? for a time. It will promote power? as gas will when poured on a
flame; it will alleviate the headaches and vague queasiness that are the
heralds of decompensation? until and unless you run out. When the bright
flame dies for lack of fuel, it dies dramatically. This slump in performance
was tragically witnessed on Everest this last May. I wonder if this is
what happened to Doug Hansen at the summit, when, his power spent, no reserve
available, propelled past any possible compensation, he ceased to function.
When oxygen concentration suddenly decreases at altitude, the body channels
energy to the last, most important vital function: the heart. Thinking
becomes slurred; internal direction and gross motor coordination cease.
The body is shaken with the immediate need to compensate. Energy generation
in the muscles and skin is dramatically slowed. In the stress of functioning,
conditions are not present for reorganization, repair or recovery; if you
stop, super-cooling begins. The extremities are sacrificed to maintain
heat at the core, and frostbite sets in.
It is impossible to deny the importance of the use
of oxygen when the signs of altitude sickness first show, for it is crucial
to reverse the deterioration of cognitive functions. At this moment, oxygen
is medicine, the irreplaceable cure. Using the medicine to spare your body
its natural slow accommodation is a double-edged sword, though?running
out of oxygen when you have propelled yourself to the edge of your capacity
with its support increases the risk of death. Good health, adequate acclimatization
and a rigorous physical conditioning program that includes anaerobic and
aerobic training are the crucial components of the alpinist's readiness.
In the best of circumstances, you can be lucky and
succeed on a big mountain, but good luck is a thin branch to count on in
the chameleon environments above 7000 meters. Is it not better to physically
train yourself for the oxygen fasting you will experience at high altitude
than to set your hopes for survival on the enormous but not always suppliable
benefit of supplemental oxygen?
In the half century since the summit of Everest became
an achievable goal, these have been the milestones: the first summit success,
in 1953, with the use of supplemental oxygen, by Tenzing and Hillary; the
quantum leap of performance that was achieved by Messner and Habeler in
1979 without the use of supplemental oxygen; and then, the final standard
against which any professional measures himself, Messner' solo ascent
without oxygen of the long northwest ridge. All three of these summit achievements
are deserving of our respect and admiration. Each redefined the finish
line for the alpinist who ventures into the thin air. The destination is
not greater than the journey.
How could the amateur adventure-seeker of today find
satisfaction with a level of performance that was a standard set more than
40 years ago? He or she travels to Everest with the enormous benefit of
improved equipment, with the advice and support of experienced professionals
and with the extensive technical and logistical support of Sherpas. The
test is on a mountain far more approachable than the Everest of Hillary
and Tenzing, and one incomparable to the Everest of Messner. These climbers
achieve a meter height, but do not explore the limits of human potential.
Everest is more approachable, but has become no less dangerous. What are
they testing in achieving the summit in this way? Is it a worthy endeavor?
A man or woman setting themselves against a mountain unprepared is honestly
only hubris tempting fate.
It is important for those who wish to climb high
and for the experienced professionals who will assist them with their ambition
to consider this point: what does commerce mean at high-altitude, and how
will it influence the integrity of our sport? Guaranteed summits, with
emphasis on compensating for poor conditioning as the exchange for ever-higher
prices, is of questionable morality. We have a very limited rescue potential
above 7500 meters. It is simply impossible to rescue any but the minimally
debilitated in this environment. Yet poorly conditioned dilettantes are
lured to the death zone with the illusory guarantees of safety and summit
success. The most experienced guides can only die with you in these elevations.
That is the sad lesson of commercial mountaineering in 1996. We would do
better to shatter this myth of success for a price.
The commercial expedition is the most reasonable
alternative now for individual or group ascents on any big mountain. But
can any commercial expedition to Everest truly qualify as "guided" in the
sense that Americans wish to define this term? There was a lot of talk
about rules after the Everest tragedy. The truth is that we write the rules
as we go. Any new business does this. It is difficult to extrapolate the
rules we use below 6000 meters and apply them to high-altitude mountaineering.
We should also consider the subject of merchandising and personal responsibility.
I understand why one comes to these giants, compelled by their majesty
to reach for the stars, but truly the destination can be no more meaningful
than the journey.
Anyone going to Everest, or to any 8000-meter peak,
should understand there is no guarantee that their life is safe. They should
know they undertake a deadly game. The idea that oxygen will improve chances
for success is true in theory, but it is a profitable deception if you
look at the bigger picture. "Oxygen" has made Everest a commercially profitable
experience? but "oxygen" and merchandised accessibility have become an environmental
tragedy for the magnificent mountain that is the pyramidal apex of our
planet. While the lower camps are cleaned of the unsightly canisters by
our environmentally correct expeditions, the last camp at the South Col
has become a depressing garbage dump of oxygen canisters that will likely
never be reclaimed. The human tribute paid to the unique, awesomely beautiful
geographical feature of Everest is a garbage pile of ambition. The myth
of accessibility grows with this pile of garbage.
Accessibility is an illusion. Money will not save
you here, a guide cannot save you here, supplemental oxygen will not guarantee
your life in this extreme. Professional and amateur alike are humbled here.
The last word will always belong to the mountain.