To his surprise, Ralf Dujmovits woke up warm. An hour before midnight, the Garmin GPS watch he’d placed under his hat began to chirp and buzz. Over the years, he’d learned it was all too easy to sleep through an alarm if the watch was way down on his wrist, muted in a mitten or muffled in baffles of goose down. But draped on his head, with the straps pointing at his ears, it was impossible to ignore. It sounded like a bomb.
He sat up in his sleeping bag and switched on his headlamp. He’d slept three hours, propped at an angle to mitigate the high-altitude apnea that had plagued him the last few nights. The wind that had hammered his yellow North Face tent at Camp 2 was gone, and now at Camp 3, at 8,300 meters on the north side of Mount Everest, the air was still, almost balmy—a mere–8 Fahrenheit inside the tent, the warmest temperature he’d ever experienced this high on the world’s highest mountain. If he was, at last, to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen, he could not have asked for better conditions.
He had been planning the campaign for a year: six months of intense training (running, biking, rock climbing, ski touring in the Alps, hill climbing in the Black Forest with 44 pounds of water in a pack); 42 visits to a physiotherapist to recover from shoulder surgery and then more to rehab a pulled hamstring; untold hours of sorting and packing before driving to Switzerland to ship 330 pounds of gear. Then four weeks of high-pass acclimatization trekking on the south side of Everest sandwiched around an eight-day ascent of 6,440-meter Cholatse, in Nepal; then the flight to Lhasa; more trekking to the north side of the mountain, more up-and-down acclimatization ascents on his way to successively higher camps. Now he’d reached the crux of his quest.
Twenty-five years ago in Nepal, guiding a commercial team on the south side of the mountain, Dujmovits had used a bottle of oxygen above the South Col on a successful six-hour dash to the summit. But it felt like cheating, a breach of the ethics of self-reliance at the heart of mountaineering. A two-liter-per-minute flow of supplemental oxygen effectively reduces the elevation of Everest to the height of Mount Aconcagua, the Argentinean peak that is more than a mile lower than Everest. The physiological effects of a three-liter flow reduce the elevation by some 10,000 feet. You might as well be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Over the decades, Dujmovits had become Germany’s foremost high-altitude mountaineer, the first of his countrymen to ascend all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.“You might focus on Ralf ’s strength, bravery or technical skill in surviving the 14 eight-thousanders,” said Dave Hahn, one of the preeminent mountain guides in North America, who has summited Everest 15 times. “What I appreciate is his caution balanced with perseverance. I remember seeing those qualities back when he was a full-time guide in far-flung places. I tend to like folks who turn around when mountains say no.”
In all his years in high places, Dujmovits had never climbed with an oxygen mask on his face except for those hours on Everest in 1992. Since then, he’d returned to the mountain six times, to remove what he called “the black mark” from his alpine résumé. Six times he’d been thwarted. In the fall of 1996, there had been too much snow. In spring 2005, a teammate had taken ill. In 2010, he’d fallen asleep with a teacup in his hand at a high camp and realized he didn’t have the energy for the final push. In 2012 in Nepal, climbing from the south side with the great Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck, Dujmovits came down with bronchitis and got no higher than the South Col. In 2014 in Tibet, climbing from the north side without the support of porters, he carried all his gear himself to Camp 3, but was stopped by 30-mile-per-hour winds. In 2015, he was on his way to advanced base camp in Tibet when Chinese authorities, fearing aftershocks, closed the mountain after a 7.8- magnitude earthquake killed more than 9,000 people in Nepal.
Now at 55, no longer young—he needed reading glasses to see the fill line on packages of freeze-dried food—he was embarked on what he had publicly declared would be his seventh and final try. “The older I get, the more I understand that I cannot do this forever,” he’d told me before the climb. By tomorrow night, May 27, 2017, he would know whether single-mindedness, vast high-altitude experience, and a training regimen calibrated to burn fat and maximize aerobic efficiency could overcome not just the concessions the body makes to age but the diminution of youthful zeal and daring—as well as what Germans call one’s inner Schweinehund, the indolent pig-dog who’d prefer to pass a day sipping Riesling with a full set of fingers and toes. If successful, Dujmovits would be the second-oldest person to summit Everest without an oxygen mask, three months younger than Abele Blanc, an Italian mountain guide who’d accomplished the goal at age 55 in 2010.
“The older I get, the more I understand that I cannot do this forever,” Dujmovits says.
Dujmovits lit the small MSR Reactor gas stove and began to melt the ice that had reformed in a pot of water. He had slept with his double boots inside his sleeping bag. He activated some chemical hand and foot warmers and slipped them into his boots, a breast pocket under his down suit, and a pair of spare gloves in his backpack. He put the pot of hot water between his legs, then poured it into a package of muesli. A half-hour passed, much of which he spent staring at his spoon as if uncertain of its purpose. He had no appetite. Tasks that would have taken seconds at home dragged on for minutes. Once, on Everest’s South Col, he’d been given some cognitive tests by a German doctor studying the effects of hypoxia—the dangerous and potentially deadly condition in which there is insufficient oxygen in the arteries. He’d been shown rows of letters and asked to circle either b’s or d’s or p’s or q’s—as many as he could find in 20 seconds, before moving on to the next row and repeating the hunt. Breathing air with a third the oxygen pressure of the atmosphere at sea level, he was shocked at how difficult it was compared with his baseline performance in Kathmandu.
Now, knowing he would need the calories, he forced himself to eat. He filled three water bottles. He sipped some hot lemon juice. Suddenly he found himself lunging for the tent’s vestibule. A third of the muesli came rocketing back up. He wiped his mouth. One last time, he checked his pack. He unzipped the tent door, pulled on his gloves, and crawled out.
It was exactly 1 a.m. He stood on a desolate rise of snow and loose sedimentary rock that more than 400 million years ago had been the floor of an ancient sea. High on the northeast ridge, he could make out the headlamps of Japanese climbers who had started their oxygen-assisted ascent hours earlier. As the forecast had promised, there was no wind. Despite the contretemps with the lemon juice, he felt good. Strong. Happy. Certain his time had come.
“In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single, narrow gasping lung, floating over the mist and summits.” So wrote Rein-hold Messner in 1978, after he and Peter Habeler achieved what many considered impossible—climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen. Since that pioneering climb, the alpine equivalent of the four-minute mile, roughly 200 people have reached the summit of Everest without extra O2. Climbers foregoing bottled oxygen account for around 2 percent of Everest ascents. And as of 2016, they comprised some 38 percent of fatalities on the mountain, a testament to the insidious dangers of hypoxia.
Although the early British expeditions to Everest in the 1920s were ambivalent about bottled oxygen, considering it less sporting, climbing with a mask on your face and a cylinder in your pack has been the norm on Everest ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s oxygen-assisted first ascent of the mountain in 1953. The gold rush of commercial mountaineering that began in the late 1980s could not have happened without bottled oxygen, which has facilitated thousands of Everest ascents, helped fuel an economic boom in dozens of Sherpa villages, and brought millions of dollars in climbing fees and tourist revenues to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.