“To Mount Everest” Habeler said. “Without oxygen” Messner replied.
Today, climbing Everest without bottled oxygen remains a rare feat, but back in 1978, as Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler embarked on what the world saw as a suicide mission, it was actually considered scientifically impossible.
Everest was famously first climbed in 1953 by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary, but it wouldn't be another 25 years until the first ascent was made without supplemental oxygen.
During the 1960s, doctors studying the physiological impact of mountaineering at extreme altitudes had concluded that an attempt to summit Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen would - at best case - result in serious and irreversible brain damage.
On the day of their summit push, Habeler hallucinated during the ordeal and Messner later stated that his mind was fully dead and only his soul was pushing him upward. In his later writings, Messner said of that moment:
“I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.”
Messner and Habeler went down in mountaineering legend. Messner went on to become the first man to climb all fourteen mountains over 8000 metres, and made the first solo ascent of Everest (also without oxygen) in 1980.
40 years later, not a lot has changed. 2018 was a record-breaking year for Everest summits. According to The Himalayan Database, 802 people reached the top of the highest mountain on earth. Of those 802, only 1 person did not use bottled oxygen.
Now, 42 years after Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler redefined human boundaries, I will be embarking on the same challenge that Habeler and Messner sought in exploring their personal limits, albeit now in the knowledge that it can be done. The human body hasn't changed since 1978, but our understanding of it has.
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