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The other day, a Roman Catholic priest reached out to Alan Arnette, the Everest chronicler, and asked if a priest had ever summitted Everest. He wanted to be the first.
As a journalist, I see a lot of the same. I regularly receive cold-call PR emails from agents representing Everest mountaineers—those who plan to be the first to summit the mountain with a certain condition, from a certain background, or for a certain cause. These climbers have agents, speaking gigs, book tours. Many of them have little previous mountaineering experience. Many of them are sponsored.
Arnette says that these Everest climbers are not the norm. That most have paid their dues on other peaks, trained relentlessly, and arrived in Kathmandu to face a personal challenge they’ve dreamed of for years. It’s hard to blame them: Everest may be trafficked and crowded, netted in nylon and scaffolded with ladders, littered with bodies and trash, but beneath all that, it’s still a stunning peak, and the crown of a stunning range. It’s worthy of its position on life lists. And, like any mountain, it should be free for anyone to attempt.
But making the summit a personal goal is different from planning to gain monetarily from the experience. (By the latter, I mean accumulating individual wealth, rather than charity fundraising, though I know from high school mission trips that, for the right people, charity can make a very comfortable guise for adventure travel.) When you plan a task in hopes of taking home some winnings, that falls into the realm of competition, and in the Himalaya, there are two very different contests going on: climbing with supplemental oxygen, and climbing without. The issue is that both groups of climbers are often vying for the same sponsors, the same media attention, and the same claims to fame. Suddenly, we have a problem with fairness. And with honesty.
After all, climbing Everest with supplemental oxygen is a completely different game than climbing Everest without it.
When the guide and alpinist Adrian Ballinger summitted Everest in 2017, his first time doing so without bottled oxygen, he told Men’s Journal that using supplemental O2 on the mountain is “essentially doping.” And it is. Oxygen is the only supplement proven effective at improving performance on high-altitude peaks. International sporting organizations, like the International Ski Federation, have banned it for use in-competition.
“It’s not nuance,” says high-altitude mountaineer and veteran of 20 expeditions without supplemental oxygen, Don Bowie. Standing on the summit with an oxygen mask on is physiologically similar to standing on top of a Fourteener—it makes the peak feel as much as 15,000 feet lower than it actually is. And for a mountain that requires little technical skill other than ascending fixed ropes and ladders, that’s big.
“The only thing that makes [8,000-meter peaks] stand out and makes them distinctive is their elevation. By using oxygen, you completely remove that element,” Bowie says.
If you’re trying to get to the top of Everest just for the view, by all means use oxygen. After all, whether you’re physically capable of summitting without assistance is largely a matter of genetics, says Arnette: You can’t train yourself into a bigger heart or bigger lungs or vastly increased VO2 max. That’s part of the reason that the death rate for oxygen-assisted climbers is only three percent, versus 56 percent for those who attempt Everest sans O2, according to the Himalayan Database.
There’s no denying that the objective danger of Everest is part of its marketing appeal. Those who profit from an Everest climb do so because of the mountain’s legacy. It’s not a stretch to say climbers cashing in on an oxygen-assisted climb are profiting from the deaths of those who attempted it without.
And today, profiting off an Everest climb begins as soon as you make it public.
At that point, “It is no longer just a personal accomplishment, and that is by definition a competition,” says Bowie. “And especially if you assign other values to it, like being the first [in a certain category]—whenever you assign value to something it’s a comparison. It’s a competition.”
Today, over 200 people have summitted Everest without oxygen. People from all genders, nationalities, and backgrounds. That’s where the real competition is happening. I won’t say that an oxygen-assisted summit can’t be groundbreaking, but I think a lot of the people who make that claim dishonor those 200.
Erik Weihenmayer disagrees. Weihenmayer became the first blind person to reach the summit of Everest in 2001. Today, he’s an author and sought-after motivational speaker.
Weihenmayer says he never considered climbing Everest without oxygen.
“Being blind, my margin of error is less than some people’s,” he says. “And if you’re going to talk about being a liability to your team, you’re way safer with oxygen than without.”
Weihenmayer agrees that climbing with aid can feel like a slippery slope, especially with helicopter-assisted ascents popping up more and more often these days. Still, he says, as times change, technology changes—often for the better.
After all, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1952 was largely made possible by their use of bottled oxygen. The year prior, a Swiss team had come within striking distance of the summit, only forced to turn back because of their malfunctioning oxygen sets.
“I ride my tandem mountain bike up North Table Mountain. People come flying past me on their E-bikes all the time. Does that irritate me? Yes,” says Weihenmayer. “But if I start saying, ‘Well, I’m doing it this way, so the whole world should have to do it this way,’ that’s absolute ego.”
Climbing with or without oxygen is a personal choice, Weihenmayer adds: “That’s why people turn to the mountains. It’s not like a game of tennis where there are rules. You have to make up your own rules.”
I agree everyone should climb on their own terms, but with money and careers and fame at stake, I think more established rules could be well past their due for publicized, high-altitude climbs.
As for the definition of “publicized”? I would argue that you don’t need an official press release to reach that bar. Technically, announcements are public as soon as they hit social media. And in today’s world, where likes and follows are currency, anyone who climbs Everest and does any personal marketing around it has something to gain.
You can be upfront about how you reached the summit of Everest, as many climbers are. But the thing is, the public doesn’t know that using oxygen isn’t nuance. Melissa Arnot, who has climbed Everest both with and without oxygen, says she doesn’t think the public even understands what climbing Everest is like at all. “I don’t think that the difference of O2 versus no O2 is well understood by nearly anyone who hasn’t done it both ways,” she says.
With that being the case, I think there’s some amount of trickery in climbing Everest as a publicity stunt—because it involves, whether intentionally or unintentionally, taking advantage of an uneducated public. It would be easier, more honest, and physiologically more impressive for a most aspiring mountaineers to summit a Fourteener, or one of the many 15,000ers in Alaska, or Mexico’s 18,491-foot Pico de Orizaba and write a blog or book about that, than to climb Everest with oxygen and call it a huge deal. (And, by the way, while we’re talking about accessibility, climbing any of those mountains is vastly cheaper than climbing Everest.)
So, for those climbing 8,000-meter peaks as a personal challenge, or an adventure-travel bucket-list item, I say go for it. Get to the top by any means necessary. Let porters carry your gear. Let Sherpa rope doctors set the ladders and ropes. Buy the best gear, train in the hypoxic tent, suck down oxygen at three liters per minute. If this climb is for you, who cares? The only thing that matters is how you feel about yourself at the end of the day.
But if you’re plastering your social media feeds with your climb, claiming to be the “first” of something, thinking of starting a blog or maybe writing a book that could advance your business career—be honest with yourself. You might not doing this for the pure, intrinsic joy of climbing. You might be profiting off Everest’s elevation without experiencing it.
As for the rest of us spectators? It’s on us to show respect where respect is due. To understand successes for what they really are, with or without oxygen. And to know when a mountain has been fought for—and when it’s been paid for.