Scarpa North America Blog

In his own words: Ueli Steck and partner Tenji summit Everest without Oxygen

Jun. 8th 2012

Ueli Steck and his climbing partner, Tenji summitted Everest last week without oxygen. It was the first time that Steck successfully summitted, after turning back a hundred meters shy of the summit last year due to cold feet.  Steck shared this account of their summit day on his blog, including details about what they ate and the other parties they encountered on the mountain. In Ueli Steck’s words:

There are a few things in life of an alpinist, which you should have done. For me this was the ascent of Mount Everest. This was one of my goals which I wanted to reach as a climber and alpinist.

Mount Everest is the highest point on earth. Nowhere the air is thinner than on Everest. It is the third Pole. Once to climb the highest mountain of this world has always been an idea in my mind.

Nevertheless I was scared. This mountain is from the commercial point of view literally butchered. A great business has developed over the last year. This business is done mainly for those clients who try to summit Everest on prepared fixed routes with oxygen. Without oxygen up to today 142 ascents are officially registered. This is a small percentage considering that nearly 6000 ascent have been done so far.

Since Loretan and Troillet no other Swiss men made it, to summit Everest without using oxygen and return back to base camp. This fascinated me. Many strong alpinists needed different attempts to reach summit, without having to use this magnificent doping out of the bottle.

I received an interesting statistic from America, which studied what influence oxygen has on this kind of ascents. The result is amazing: I you take 2 liters of oxygen in a minute to rest it is as if you were at base camp. This means: it is as if you find yourself at an altitude of 5300 meters. If you are under strain it is less extreme. But if you observe, that most of the people are taking 4 liters per minute of the english air – as the Sherpas called oxygen in the past – it pretty much proves the statement of Reinhold Messner: it is as if you would climb up to a mountain of 6000 meters. To be more precise: 6500 meters.

This has not much to do with the Everest, which is 8848 meters high. I was fully aware of this when I got acclimatized. Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who summited K2 last August 2011 and who is the third woman who has climbed all 14 eight-thousanders and who is the first one who climbed them without using oxygen, warmly suggested me to stay at least one night at South Col. “Otherwise you expose yourself too much and then it becomes too dangerous, to summit the Everest“, she told me. I kept on it. It was anyway my intention to sleep at South Col. On the other hand, you know how uncomfortable it is to camp at almost 8000 meters. You don’t get the feeling of a romantic campfire. The first night you don’t really sleep at all. It is more waiting until the next morning comes and you can go down. But you have to get through this and you need some will. If you do use oxygen you don’t have to do that to you. Many alpinists have slept during their summit attempt merely at 6400 meters. After their acclimatization was completed. Some times I have thought what would happen if the oxygen runs out. You are not acclimatized and reality catches up with oneself very quickly. The air is thin and it comes to a catastrophe, which mostly ends with death!

This should not bother me too much. It is everyone’s very personal decision how to climb Everest. For me an ascent by using oxygen was never an option. From the beginning it was clear to me, that I wanted to stand on summit for real, without false air.

2011 did not quite fit with the ascent of Everest. I was at 8700 meters on the Tibetan side of the mountain and I had to quit my summit attempt. I was simply too cold. The risk of losing my toes was too acute. Another characteristic about high altitudes is that blood gets very thick and the blood circulation on the extremities is very bad. You can counteract by trying to drink as much as possible and with a good acclimatization, in order that your body gets used to this situation. My experience showed me that last year I had not chosen the right day for a summit attempt. The 25/25 rule has payed off. The wind on summit should not be higher than 25 km/h and temperature not below 25 degrees. But what would alpinism be if you could climb a mountain just like this? It would not be interesting. That’s why this year I was double motivated. And further I had more experience in my backpack. Tenji and I had three rotations of the mountain behind us, before we started our summit attempt.

Tenji is a 21 years old young Nepalese, whom I have been knowing for several years and who had worked for me also in the past. Now he wanted to summit Everest as well without using oxygen. I have offered him to climb together. Not as my Sherpa by carrying my equipment. No. I wanted that we climb Everest as partners. At first this situation was difficult for him to accept. That I would make some tea for him as well was an unusual situation for him. But somehow he was able to accept this situation and we had a great time together. I mutate from Sir to Dai. From sir to brother.

Beforehand I have studied the weather forecast intensively. I knew this would be an important matter. Tenji and I were acclimatized. We had already spent one night at South Col at almost 8000 meters. Meteotest sent me a positive forecast for May 17 and 18. For the 19th they forecasted stronger winds and from May 20 on it would get critical. Then there was the other big problem.

The many people. For us the number of alpinists, who would be on route at the same time with us represented a potential danger. We could not wait up there. We would suffer frostbites very quickly. But we could not change this matter of fact to be on route with the whole crowd of alpinists. The solution was very simple. Since the fix ropes had not been fixed so far, the commercial expeditions could not start. The so called fixing team with 10 Sherpas had planned to leave on May 18 to install the fix ropes to the summit. This was a lucky situation for us. And further it would be the warmest day of the forecast. We decided to summit with them.

On May 16 Tenji and I reached camp 2 after 3.5 hours easy going. We spent a nice afternoon and a long night at camp 2 at 6400 meters. The following day we started unhurriedly. Tenji and I waited until the sun came out and then we had a good breakfast with toast, coffee and cornflakes. Tenji could not leave the zampa. This is a flour batter which is knead into a mush. It is very nutritious but it’s not for me. At around 8.30 am we were ready. In approx. 2.5 hours we reached Camp 3. Here, where one week before we had spent the night there was chaos. An ice avalanche came down and buried many tents. Also ours. Everything was buried under snow and ice. Luckily we had not planned to sleep at Camp 3. We would not be here anymore… Miraculously only one Sherpa was slightly injured and luckily no one else was affected. Most of the tents were ruined. Tenji and Dendi, who was also on the way with us, stopped. He wanted to take the oxygen bottles out of the tent. Tenji wanted to help him. They had to find all those bottles under the ice. I decided to go up to Camp 4 and install our camp, before it would start to snow in the afternoon.

I was hot on the Lhotse cross. I was happy about my decision to leave my down overall in my backpack. Most of the alpinists do ascend with their down overalls to Camp 2. I don’t really understand why in this heat you climb with a down overall. So I reached South Col. I installed our tent and started immediately to melt snow so that we could drink a lot. Tenji came late, only at about 5 pm. The weather was perfect. No wind. We had the feeling that it was very warm. At least warmer than it was last time when we were up here. We set our alarm clock at 11 pm. We would not need it. The fixing team has already left together with a couple of alpinists from Chile. They were loud enough to wake us up. We drank enough tea and coffee. We ate bread with honey. We were ready at 00.30 am. We saw the lights in front of us. They had started 1 1/2 hours before us. We reached them in a quarter of an hour.

We would be on our way a long time. What if they had to install fix ropes also on the balcony? I had to calm myself down and I thought it would be good to not go too fast. I enjoyed it. We reached the balcony as a new day began. The entire group stopped to eat and drink. I changed the battery of my shoes. A brilliant system. I had always warm feet and warm hands. It is not so bad altitude mountaineering…

We moved on. From now on fix ropes had to be installed. The terrain is not steep. Actually, you could climb without ropes. My special stick of Leki, equipped with a kind of pick axe turned out to be the ideal tool in this area. Nevertheless I was nervous because of the slowness. I did not overtake the Sherpas. This would have been disrespectful from my part – to overtake them, while they were doing their job. And they did their job really well. Never before I had seen a Sherpa team working so efficiently together. I queued as it should be. And it was funny. We had to wait again and we had the opportunity to talk together. Tenji had dropped back. But he followed. We were the only ones who did not hide behind an oxygen mask. We received a lot of respect for this for the Sherpas. But I had as much respect from the Sherpas and the job they did up there!

The way to the summit was long and never ending. Suddenly the pace was not slow anymore. I always looked up but the south summit did not come nearer. Finally the leader disappeared. This meant he reached the South Summit. So we had 100 meters to go to summit. From the South Summit you descend 20 meters and then the ridge goes to the summit. I checked my watch. It was late. It would be afternoon until we would be on summit. The weather was still perfect. But what if it would change? A storm would be improbable. For the 19th the forecast was still good. I trusted the Sherpas. They had been on summit so many times. They knew what they did. I knew that I could descend fast. I would reach South Col in 1 1/2 hours if I would descend now from South Summit. I decided to take the risk and moved on.

At the Hillary Step I had to wait longer. At least 40 minutes. I started to shiver. The absolute temperature was not too low. Maybe minus 20 degrees. Nevertheless I shivered. I was happy when we moved on. I was a little bit disappointed from the Hillary Step. I had imagined it to be more impressive. And it is not even steep. Suddenly I had the feeling the others were moving fast. I could not follow. From now on I had to fight. I talked to myself. And I wanted to reach summit. Tenji was behind me and I could not see him. He would come. I concentrated on my steps. Each step was one step closer to summit. But where was summit? Finally I could also accept that the others made the pace. As long as I could follow them, everything was ok. I could think clearly, my steps were controlled. It must have been the altitude that I felt powerless. I did not feel exhausted. Only slow, terribly slow. Finally I reached summit. The prayer flags fluttered in the wind. Some Sherpas were already there. No more fixed ropes up here. One of the alpinists from Chile removed my ski stick from my backpack, which I had placed at the Hillary Step. Now I had a tool in my hand. It was afternoon.

At 1.15 pm I reached summit of Everest. Clouds appeared on the sky. The view was limited. I could spot Tibet on the north side and Makalu, which came out of the clouds. I thought about my ascent on Makalu. What a fight it was and how exhausted I was. Although the view was limited I had the feeling to know exactly where I was. It was not new or unfamiliar or strange. I took some pictures with the Sherpas. Tenji was not on summit yet. I decided to descend.

How easy it was to descend. A complete new feeling. I was tired but I moved forward. I crossed Tenji short after Hillary Step. I asked him if he was ok. My impression of him was good. He said “Yes, but slowly”. I encouraged him it would not be far anymore and it would be normal without mask! I saw him smiling. I saw his will and I knew he would summit Everest too.

I reached the South Col at 4.15 pm. I did not hardly recognize Camp 4. In this short time it changed to a village. Dendi and his daughter such as the whole team, whom we spent time at Base Camp together, reached the South Col. For them tomorrow would be their summit day. I was happy I made it. But a mountain is done only when you are back at BC. I waited for Tenji at the South Col. He came three hours later. Actually we wanted to descend to Camp 2, but it was too late. We stayed at Camp 4. In this night another 150 alpinists started their way up to the summit. What a spectacle. Tenji and I spent one more night at almost 8000 meters. We slept very deep, like bears in hibernation. The sun woke us up at 5.30 am. After breakfast I packed my equipment and descended to BC. Tenji slept a little longer. Just in time for lunch I reached BC. Now I summited Everest.

I wanted to thank you all for your great support, for being with us, for encouraging us during this expedition.
Thank you also for all the congratulations I received after this beautiful success.
Now I wish you a wonderful summertime!
See you soon.

Ueli Steck

All images courtesy of Ueli Steck

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