“Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence. Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.
You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again...
So what's the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above.”
Extract from Mount Analogue by René Daumal
High altitude mountaineering is an activity like no other. It requires the perfect balance of numerous factors in order to be done successfully, and more importantly, safely. You could say that any sport is like this – Tennis requires great fitness, training, determination, skill etc. However at no point during a tennis match are you worried about the tennis court giving way beneath your feet or an avalanche of fans crashing down on top of you. Most factors are within your control – If you trained hard enough then you might win, if not then you probably lose the match. In mountaineering you not only have to take into account these human factors, but also the challenges that nature throws at you, sometimes literally. Being at altitude adds multiple other human and natural challenges to an already challenging activity.
I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to spend a lot of time in the mountains of North America, UK and the Himalaya, but I’d still class myself as being relatively new to the scene. Although I absolutely love mountaineering, I do often find myself asking “Why? Why do I put myself through the suffering of such a cold, dangerous, exhausting activity?”. Most climbers are asked the question, “Why?” at some point in their lives, and most reply with the simple answer, “Because it’s there”. This is usually a cop-out because said climber can’t translate the plethora of reasons why they climb and the feeling they get while doing it.
Most serious mountaineers choose a certain path. Climb harder, go further, be the first, etc. For me my kicks come from going higher. I recently had the privilege of climbing Ama Dablam (6,812m) in the Khumbu region of Nepal, and although this is a small-fry when compared to Everest and K2 (some 2,000m higher), I got to see and experience the effects of altitude first hand. My time on Ama Dablam really made me question what is is about the human mind that makes us want to push further into these dizzy and dangerous heights? The simplest answer again would be, “Because it’s there,” but one could climb a hundred lesser elevation mountains for the same price and challenge of going to one high altitude mountain. So, I asked a few friends to sum up what it is about altitude that attracts them to see if there was a common theme.
Lillian Cuthbert, New York, USA - Aiming for the 7 Summits
“I think there is really only one thing that draws me in. The simplicity of it. You, on a mountain, trying to reach the top. Everything you need, you bring with you. Whatever you don’t have, you do without. You might have a guide helping you, but nobody is going to completely carry you up and back, so it is, in the end, all you, There’s not a lot of complicated thinking once you start, although the training, planning, and skills you need before you can even begin is anything but simple. Given that for so much else, everything always ends up so complicated, even decisions like where to eat for dinner, juggling my friend's food preferences, time/place, etc… it is nice to have the time and space to focus on something so mundane as climbing to a top.”
Jason Krishnan, Brookvale, Australia - Altitude Australia
“Life is about continuous learning – to stop learning is to stop living. With that comes pushing one's own limits too I guess. For sure I'll do something higher and / or harder. I guess it's to get closer to my limits as affirmation that I can handle it. It helps with life's challenges I guess, knowing that whatever it is that life throws, it can be managed.”
Namgya Sherpa, Kathmandu, Nepal - Grand Himalaya Treks and Expeditions - 15 times Everest summiter.
“For most Sherpas to keep going back to hazardous climbing is to maintain their daily life and educate their children, because the reason is most of the Sherpas who work on the mountains don’t have enough education to do other jobs, I’m not saying 100% but 90% for sure.”
Todd Passey, Salt Lake City, USA, IFMGA/UIAGM Mountain Guide - In The Company Of Guides
“When I was asked to write about ‘What draws me to high altitude climbing’, my first thought was that I am not drawn to high altitude. I don't climb mountains because they are high, I climb mountains because of the Challenge, the mountains beauty, and the friendships formed while in the mountains. The ‘high altitude’ just happens to contribute to many of these things. Altitude increases the challenge, both physically and mentally. The margin for error shrinks and forces me to be stronger, prepare better and think more. Because climbing at altitude requires more of me, and of those with whom I climb, our connections become rooted in deeper, more basic understanding of one another. Last, but certainly not least… Big mountains just happen to be in beautiful places and reveal more of their beauty when one is immersed in them. I am not a writer, but I could elaborate on these thoughts at length. But no matter how many words I use to explain why I love climbing, one will never truly understand until one embarks on [their] own climbing adventure.”
So you can see, the reasons are very varied. For some it may be a personal challenge/goal, or a desire to escape the complexities of daily life. For those who work in the mountains it can be as simple as paying for your children to go to school.
So what are my reasons for wanting to climb higher? For me it boils down to the word Strength
The obvious one, mountaineering at altitude requires great fitness and strength. It’s great to feel fit… enough said.
There’s a quote I love in Ed Viesturs’ book No Shortcuts to the Top: “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” In so many parts of our lives failure is not a logical option. In mountaineering, turning back from a summit can be very hard, but it is not a failure. Quite the opposite, making safe decisions and choosing to turn back is a huge success. However, at high altitude these decisions are considerably harder. The amount of preparation, training, money and time that go into such a climb can easily trump your judgement to make sensible decisions. For me, that's the ultimate test and something that really attracts me: can I beat my own mind in a game of chicken?
Probably the most important. I’ve always been very interested in leadership and teamwork, whether in an office, on a mountain, or even back to my teenage years in the Cadets. Mountaineering requires impeccable teamwork and strong leadership to go smoothly. You need to know your team to the point where you can make decisions without saying anything, and know they will all agree with you. You need to be able to solve complex and life threatening problems quickly and efficiently. You need to work together in high stress environments and look out for each other constantly. All this equates to building strong friendships with those you choose to venture into the mountains with. This is particularly important at altitude, where the stress and exhaustion can drive you to snap at the most basic of things like the sound of someone breathing or the speed that they put on their socks. It’s imperative that you choose a team that you work well with and who you enjoy spending time with. There’s a good chance you may be stuck in a tent with them for days on end just counting the stitches in the tent walls.
A couple of facts about altitude - It’s cold, the air is thin, and even the most basic task like getting out of a tent can be incredibly difficult and tiring. This all equates to certain mental and physical ‘issues’. I won’t go into those here, but you can see from the chart below the stresses that your body can be put under at altitude.
At sea level the air pressure and O2 in your lungs is at 100%. At 5,000m (Mont Blanc is ~4,800m) the air pressure is almost half that of sea level (55%) and you have about 30% O2 in your lungs compared to sea level. At 7,000m (Ama Dablam is ~6,800m) air pressure is 43%, O2 in your lungs is down to 12%! On the summit of Everest the air pressure is about 33% and you probably have about 1% O2 in your lungs. This is why most climbers opt to breathe bottled oxygen at high altitude. There are some who do not, and this requires incredible mental and physical strength – to make decisions and act efficiently with ~1% oxygen running through your body is possibly the hardest test the human body can take. You can’t take any less oxygen, strangely enough your body kind of needs more than 0%, so to climb the highest peaks without oxygen is a huge achievement. Maybe that’s why climbers such as Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner (all fourteen 8,000m peaks without supplemental oxygen) choose to do it, because you simply can’t be any better at getting high without dying. And maybe that’s what the rest of us mountaineers are subconsciously trying to achieve, the strongest possible version of ourselves.
If you're keen to learn more about high altitude climbing, here’s a good talk by Ed Viesturs on climbing all the 8,000ers:
John is one of the original founders of Outdoor Explore. He has built a comprehensive portfolio of treks and climbs in B.C., as well as numerous trips to Nepal, including a recent expedition to climb Ama Dablam (6,812m). He guides treks in B.C. and Nepal, as well as overseeing the guiding operations of the company.