To use oxygen, or not to use oxygen — that is the question.
A huge debate has erupted over “mountain purism” as several teams prepare to tackle mountaineering’s last great prize — climbing K2 in winter.
Usually, the debate is about the crowding, commercialization, or the perils lying ahead for relatively inexperienced mountaineers.
This time, it’s about the use of O2, supplemental oxygen.
Is it fair game? Most leading climbers are trying to avoid the controversy, reports senior alpine journalist Angela Benavides at ExplorersWeb.
Everyone from Simone Moro to the great Denis Urubko cites the usual diplomacy about everyone’s right to climb a mountain however they see fit.
Instead, they express a wish rather than a criticism: C’mon ladies and gents, leave the O2 at base camp.
In other words, they hope that the first winter ascent of K2 will happen without it.
Nevertheless, some have been blunt.
“Oxygen climbing the 8,000’ers is like doing the Tour de France on an electric bike,” Adam Bielecki tweeted recently. “The nature of the feat is completely different.”
Chamonix-based mountain photographer Jon Griffith agrees, ExplorersWeb reported.
He wrote on FaceBook recently: “It’s 2020, and if you want to claim the prize, you should be adhering to modern ethics and styles. The whole point of these high peaks is the lack of oxygen.”
“You may find that you can’t play football with Messi or tennis against Nadal,” Romanian climber Minhea Radulescu wrote. “Your weakness is not an excuse for using O2: If you want to climb big mountains, get yourself to the height of the mountain, don’t bring the mountain down to your level.”
“I would find it a real pity if someone steals the first winter ascent of K2 by using supplemental oxygen,” concluded Ralf Dujmovits, who has climbed K2 four times, including a no-O2 summit, ExplorersWeb reported.
“The general public might see this ‘conquering’ of K2 as a great feat, but the first winter ascent should be left to those who can do it … in style.”
Dujmovits does give a chance to some climbers currently on the mountain: “My hope is that one or more of them will stand on top before someone with an oxygen bottle does,” he said.
Romanian conservationist and alpinist Alex Gavan, who has climbed seven 8000+ meter mountains without 02 and is now climbing K2 in the same style along with partner Tamara Lunger of Italy, was much more philosophical.
“It is my deep belief that mountains are to be climbed not only with ice tools and crampons, which we all can have, but above everything else, with humbleness,” said Gavan, who has championed eco causes in his native country.
“For myself, climbing mountains outside is climbing mountains inside. To me, K2 is a great teacher and a great master which I revere, not some gigantic pile of rock to just be desecrated by a Victorian mindset of conquest,” he told Asia Times.
Going without supplemental oxygen is not only a choice deemed ethical, says Gavan, but the only fair means of approach “over this most extraordinary being, the mighty K2.”
“For us being on his steep and icy slopes is foremost a spiritual matter, and only secondary a climbing feat. Ascension is always from within.”
Yet, there is another uncomfortable question which, although not new, has exploded this winter because of the attention on K2 as a potential world first.
It involves all the expeditions currently in Base Camp: Should a climber’s successful ascent be counted as no-O2 if it relies on ropes previously fixed by a team of Sherpas on oxygen?
In the past, both 8000ers.com and the Himalayan Database have credited no-O2 climbs based on an individual summiter’s gear during both ascent and descent, not on what preceded.
At the same time, purists may argue that a no-O2 climber would never get to the upper slopes of K2 in winter, if not for the previous work of those on gas.
Jon Griffith recalls his experience on Everest and the difference oxygen makes:
“I’ve used O2 on Everest and I could not believe the difference it made. I went from feeling like I was at 7,500m (cold, bit weak, lightheaded) to feeling like I was running around in the Alps in summer. It’s not just the additional fuel it gives your muscles. It’s the cognitive ability and the warmth it also gives. It’s an amazing feedback circle. I think people massively underestimate the difference O2 makes, I certainly did.”
Meanwhile, according to the latest update, K2 climbers are struggling to keep themselves warm in Base Camp while waiting for the next good weather window.
After a first rotation to higher camps, all have experienced how hard winter in the Karakoram can get — many are stuck in their wind-battered tents as temperatures plummet to -50ºC with -70ºC windchills.
Reports say John Snorri’s team fixed the lower part of the route while Mingma Gyabu Sherpa and Nirmal Purja’s vaunted group worked between Camp 1 and Camp 3.
Seven Summit Treks have carried more ropes, gear, and O2 to their highest point, in order to continue fixing upward as soon as possible.
Mingma G posted a video while fixing rope above the infamous Black Pyramid. Despite the cold and windy day, they managed to reach 7,300m. Their next stage is to shuttle equipment to Camp 3 and extend the fixed ropes to Camp 4.
None of this has fazed climbing superstar and former British special forces soldier Nirmal Purja, who caused a stir on social media by “promising” that he’ll reach the summit.
“I promise the hardest, the last and the greatest mountaineering feat #k2winter will belong to the Nepalese climbing community,” he proclaimed.
“I will not leave the base camp until the mission is accomplished.”
By comparison, legendary alpinist Reinhold Messner — who has also been accused of arrogance — is modest when it comes to his mountaineering success.
“People always say I had so many successes, but I had a lot of failures too,” he told ExWeb writer Ash Routen recently. “I failed 13 times on the 8,000m peaks. I am the mountaineer with the most failures in his life.”