Climbing Without Oxygen: Two Indian Mountaineers Test Their Limits
Everesters Arjun Vajpai and Parth Upadhyaya recently attempted one of the holy grails of classic mountaineering — climbing an 8000-metre peak without oxygen. This is their story
“When I think of mountaineering with four cylinders of oxygen on one’s back and a mask over one’s face, well, it loses its charm” – George Mallory. The legendary British mountaineer made three attempts on Everest in the early 1920s. It was when the world of mountaineering was still coming to terms with the use of supplementary oxygen while climbing. Mallory had always been averse to using oxygen. But he was also aware that a lot was at stake when it came to the first ascent of Everest.
He had been part of two unsuccessful expeditions in the past. As a result, on his final attempt in 1924, Mallory decided to climb with ‘English air’. He famously never returned. His remains were discovered 700 metres from the summit by a BBC sponsored search party in 1999. Whether Mallory died on his way up to the summit, or on his descent after becoming the first one to climb Everest, is one of the everlasting mysteries of modern mountaineering.
It is known that Mallory did use some oxygen on the final attempt of that fateful expedition, though he had always believed in climbing without it. Scientific wisdom at that time, and for several decades subsequently, was that it wasn’t humanly possible to climb an 8,000-metre mountain (8,000er) without oxygen. The Italian-Austrian duo of Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler proved that wrong when they summited Everest without oxygen in 1978.
Since then, many purists have attempted to follow in their path. But it has not been easy. According to Eberhard Jurgalski, a chronicler of high altitude climbing, of the 34 mountaineers who have climbed all fourteen 8,000-metre mountains globally, only 15 have managed to do so without oxygen.
Climbing an 8,000 metre peak without oxygen is, in that sense, the ultimate feat in modern-day mountaineering, the holy grail for aspiring climbers. Not surprising then that Arjun Vajpai, who in 2010 made history as the youngest person in the world to climb Everest at the age of 16 years and 11 months, has taken it up as his next big challenge. This year, at the age of 28, he returned to Everest in his effort to become the first Indian civilian to climb the world’s tallest mountain without oxygen.
“I was just a teen back then who had the dream of climbing Everest. Over time, I had the opportunity to interact with hard climbers like Conrad Anker and Carlos Soria Fontan, who were pushing their limits on the big mountains,” Vajpai says.
“When I went to Lhotse (8516 m) in 2011, I decided to climb without oxygen, and even reached the final camp. But I was young, and my Sherpas were concerned, so they put me on oxygen en route to the summit. That experience taught me that it was possible,” he adds.
Most mountaineers who climb 8,000ers start using supplemental oxygen at around 7,000 metres. Of the nearly 5,000 people who have climbed Everest, around 200 are known to have reached the summit without supplemental oxygen.
According to Harshvardhan Joshi, who climbed Everest this year, a climber uses about 7-8 cylinders of oxygen during a successful attempt. Each cylinder, including the regulator, face mask, and tubing, weighs around 4 kg. While climbing at altitude, every single gram matters. But carrying oxygen has often been the difference between success and failure, besides life and death.
Oxygen comprises 21 per cent of the air at any altitude. Still, as one climbs higher, there is a drop in atmospheric pressure. It means that at around 5,500 metres, a climber breathes only about 50 per cent of the oxygen that exists at sea level. On the summit of Everest (8,848 metres), it is about 30 per cent.
The oxygen deprivation leads to breathlessness, making even the most basic of tasks like talking and walking onerous, eventually leading to hypoxia, where the major organs of the body, including the brain, liver, etc., are irreparably damaged from lack of oxygen.
That is why climbing without oxygen is tricky, even for the fittest mountaineers used to high altitudes. They face the risk of severe medical conditions such as pulmonary and cerebral oedema, which affect the lungs and brain, and frostbites on the toes, fingers and face. Only the Sherpa mountaineers seem to be somewhat immune. For instance, Ang Rita Sherpa climbed Everest 10 times between 1983 and 1996. Nine of those attempts were made without oxygen.
In 2013, Xtreme Everest, a group of intensive care doctors, scientists, and health care workers who conduct research in high altitude sickness, did a study to analyse the physiology of the Sherpa climbing community, who are known for their superior ability to adapt to high altitude. It revealed that after living in the mountain areas for generations, their bodies had evolved in certain aspects to survive the atmospheric conditions.
But for other climbers, spending time at altitude and acclimatising their bodies to it is everything. However, nothing quite prepares a climber for altitudes over 8,000 metres. Here, the body degenerates with every passing minute, which is why it’s called the Death Zone.
Both Messner and Habeler have talked about the fact that they collapsed every 10 feet and had to literally crawl on their knees in the final stages of their historic first oxygen-less summit of Everest. Worse still, Habeler began hallucinating, while Messner felt that he would ‘burst apart’. “I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits,” was the Italian’s famous description of what he felt on the summit.
Just two years later, Messner would famously return to Everest once again. This time not only did he climb without oxygen, but he also became the first mountaineer to do it alone.
Messner’s two climbs without oxygen confounded the medical community and forced them to evaluate their presumptions about human endurance at high altitudes. It opened doors for other mountaineers to think about possibilities of high altitude, oxygen-less climbs.
It also sparked a debate about what constitutes real mountain climbing. Some even talked about the use of oxygen being cheating, akin to doping in sport. The argument is that when the body begins to degenerate at altitude, oxygen acts like a drug that helps climbers perform beyond their physical and mental abilities. It feels like a much lower altitude than what the climber is really at. According to studies by American mountaineer Thomas Hornbein, an anesthesiologist by qualification who studied human physiology and also climbed Everest in 1963, the summit feels only half as high to mountaineers using oxygen as compared to those who don’t.
According to the Himalayan Database, around 528 Indians have summited Everest until last year, the second-highest contingent after the Americans. It mentions seven Indian members of an Army team to have reached the top without oxygen in 2012, and another Army team in 2017. Vajpai, though, says that the latter expedition’s claim is disputed. What is essential is that no Indian civilian has made it to the top of Everest without oxygen.
“When Indians first climbed Everest, it put them in a different league,” Vajpai says, “But limits have been pushed further since then. Indian mountaineers have a lot of catching up to do.”
By the time he returned to Everest to make his oxygen-free attempt this year, he had the experience of climbing five other 8,000ers. Most times, the intent was to climb without oxygen. But he always carried it as backup, primarily for emergencies.
“I’m not going to be foolish and lose my toes. The climbers who’ve experienced it really regret it. It’s a very fine line between pushing your limits and going beyond your limits. So, when I’ve been in situations where I’m cold, the first goal is always to revive the body, whether it’s by using oxygen or descending,” Vajpai says.
Then, there is the unsaid pressure of pleasing those who were backing his expeditions. For instance, climbing Everest can cost anything upwards of Rs 25 lakh (The costs are marginally lower for the other 8,000ers in Nepal). Raising funds for these climbs is a Herculean task, especially when it comes to mountains besides Everest. A successful climb comes with honour and rewards; an unsuccessful attempt means another painstaking exercise in fundraising.
“If you don’t succeed in making it to the summit, nobody cares about the reasons behind it, let alone the question of using oxygen or otherwise. It just goes down as a failure. Carrying oxygen is a safer bet so that I can finish something that will make everyone happy,” Vajpai says.
It’s why he chose to climb Manaslu in 2011 with supplementary oxygen, or used it on Makalu in 2016 after two unsuccessful attempts.
“A mountaineer in India cannot really focus on the philosophy of climbing alone because you have to look at survival and the sponsors backing these expeditions. That said, it was always difficult for the first guy to run 100 metres in under 10 seconds. Someone has to push the envelope, and I’m ready to do it. I want to go back to all the mountains that I’ve climbed to give it another shot without oxygen,” Vajpai says.
For Everest, Vajpai banked on the work he had put in over the past decade. Ideal preparation for an expedition would involve hours of weight training, 50km of cycling thrice a week, and two half marathons a week.
He prefers trail running and hiking with a loaded pack around his home in Natadol near Almora in Uttarakhand these days. A couple of months before the climb, the focus is on nutrition, a packed 7,000-calorie diet to compensate for the losses on the mountain.
When Vajpai summited Everest, he inspired others like Parth Upadhyaya to tread his path. While growing up in Mumbai, Upadhyaya, 26, had only heard of the mountain while reading about India’s first woman summiteer, Bachendri Pal, in his school textbook. It stirred him to explore the outdoors, and he soon started trekking and climbing. He pursued his basic and advanced mountaineering courses, and climbed mountains in India, such as Deo Tibba in Himachal Pradesh, Kang Yatse II, and Mentok Kangri in Ladakh.
He also connected with Vajpai, who took on the role of a mentor. It led to Upadhyaya’s own climb up Everest in 2019.
“After that climb, I thought about my next mountain. My mind was subconsciously avoiding Annapurna I. I had read about how dangerous this mountain is. It was a mixed feeling of fear and reverence,” Upadhyaya says.
Upadhyaya had also come to realise the impact of oxygen on Everest. He had started using it at North Col (7,100m) and all the way to the summit.
“I was making rapid progress, and didn’t feel the altitude gain. It felt wrong, as the environment outside was something else. What I was experiencing was not real, like a fake shell that I was surviving in. But I decided to carry on since it was my first mountain,” he says.
He is well aware of the dangers involved. “Your body shuts down all of a sudden. It’s a gradual process, and you have to be conscious to realise this. To be rescued off a mountain because your body is not right is disgraceful,” Upadhyaya says.
Unlike Vajpai, Upadhyaya had to make lifestyle changes to chase his dream of climbing Annapurna. After spending a year working on functional training, he subscribed to a customised program, Uphill Athlete, a platform for sharing training knowledge for mountaineers. He shifted base to Bhivpuri on the outskirts of Mumbai to train in the Sahyadri mountains, putting in 3-4 hours on average, five times a week.
The focus also turned to minute details in daily living — what he ate, the way he cooked his food, the time he slept. To raise funds, he took the crowdfunding route, besides banking on earnings as a corporate speaker and a last-minute corporate donation on his flight to Kathmandu.
“My biggest teacher was my experience on Everest, where I had observed every aspect of my body. However, Annapurna was going to be different — it’s like climbing a mountain with a plastic bag on the head and two small holes to breathe through. And while lugging a heavy backpack. The training program I subscribed to was expensive. Still, I considered it a good investment to achieve my goals,” Upadhyaya says.
As full-time mountaineers, both Vajpai and Upadhyaya could dedicate all their resources to the preparations. In January this year, they joined forces with Ladakhi climber, Ali Khan, to attempt the first winter ascent of Trisul (7,120m). It was an alpine-style climb with no support on the mountain. After a week, their progress was stalled at 5,700 metres due to heavy snowfall. They decided to stash their equipment on the mountain, and beat a hasty retreat.
“The weather was terrible, and lugging 40kg backpacks to be self-sufficient on the mountain really tested us. It gave us a good idea of our preparedness,” Upadhyaya says.
By March, things were in order to proceed to Nepal for his Annapurna climb without oxygen. He began the summit push on April 10, but a stomach bug soon laid him low. He trudged along on a cocktail of antibiotics, determined to reach Camp 3 (6,400m) four days later.
When he set off the following morning, his pace was excruciating slow. At 6,800 metres, he crawled to a halt and gazed at the summit above him. After brief introspection, he realised that his climb was over and turned around.
Things were no better for Vajpai on Everest. On his rotation up the mountain, he made it to Camp 2 (6,400m), but a back injury suffered at base camp made the going tough, and he was forced to abandon the climb.
Since 2010, Vajpai has made 11 attempts on 8,000ers. He says starting at an early age has had consequences, more so because of climbing without oxygen. In 2012, he was paralysed on the Cho You, the sixth highest mountain in the world, and had to be rescued. Four years later, when he returned to Cho Oyu, reaching the summit without oxygen, he decided to use it on the descent after the tormenting experience on his previous climb.
Over the years, he has dealt with broken shoulders, cracked ribs, and injured his knees and ankles on multiple occasions. He has suffered two haemorrhages in his left retina and three in the right, besides several clots in the brain.
“There is a reason why the best mountaineers begin 8,000-metre climbing only after their 30s. I think the body needs to get seasoned to take on these challenges. I feel like the damage would have certainly been less if I had used oxygen,” Vajpai says.
Going forward, he wants to spend more time at altitude like mountaineers around the world do. He has located a partner to invest in hypoxic gear, which, he says, costs as much as an expedition. But it will help him train in simulated atmospheric conditions that are usually experienced only at altitude.
Both Upadhyaya and Vajpai have resumed training for the autumn climbing season. Upadhyaya is looking to climb Kangchenjunga, and if things work out, make another oxygen-less attempt on Annapurna. Vajpai hopes to go to Dhaulagiri, his seventh 8,000-meter mountain, and as always, hopes to climb it without oxygen