Mount Everest first ascent without oxygen

May 8, 1978. On this date, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to climb to the top of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.

Mount Everest is Earth’s highest mountain, with a peak at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) above sea level. To climb Everest without supplementary oxygen means increased risk to the climber. Mount Everest near its summit can have weather extremes, deep cold and steep icy slopes. Quick, accurate decision-making may be needed. Without enough oxygen during the ascent, people cannot think clearly. At the summit itself, a person’s oxygen intake is less than one-third that at sea level.

The North Face of Mount Everest

Messner and Habeler’s first attempt at the summit without supplemental oxygen came on April 21, 1978. It went awry when Habeler became violently ill from food poisoning at base camp from a can of sardines. Messner attempted the summit himself with two Sherpas, but was turned back by extreme weather.

Habeler and Messner tried again for the summit on May 6, 1978, but only after arguing over whether the exploit was worth it.

They ascended in stages, moving to Camp II at 7,200 meters, then to the mountain’s South Col at 7,986 meters. They were beginning to experience the effects of oxygen deprivation: headache, double vision, and an inability to sleep because the need to gasp for air kept them awake.

On May 8 the men began preparing for their final ascent. The air was so thin that they could not speak; they used hand signals to communicate in order to save breath. Getting dressed took them two hours, and it took them four hours to ascend to Camp V at 8,500 meters.

Despite threatening weather, they moved on to the South Summit, 260 meters higher. They were so oxygen-deprived that every few steps they had to lie down to breathe and regain some strength. Sometime between one and two in the afternoon, they finally reached the summit.

Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler

They arrived safely on May 8, but they admitted the ascent without extra oxygen took almost everything out of them. Messner later described the experience this way:

«Breathing becomes such a strenuous business that we scarcely have strength left to go on. Every ten or fifteen steps, we collapse into the snow to rest, then crawl on again. My mind seems almost to have ceased to function. I simply go on climbing automatically. The fact that we are on Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is forgotten – nor does it register that we are climbing without oxygen apparatus».

Habeler wrote that «Messner’s face was contorted in a grimace, his mouth wide open while he gasped panting for air… His face was almost without human traits. Our physical reserves were exhausted. We were so utterly spent that we scarcely had the strength to go ten paces in one go».

Messner described the moments he stood on the summit as » a state of spiritual abstraction» later writing:

«I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits».

The two had built up experience before Everest by climbing several other tall mountains without oxygen: Matterhorn, Eigerwand and Gasherbrum. Though their exploits got concern from the medical community, they were determined to ascend the world’s tallest peak without oxygen. And they did.

Award-winning British filmmaker Leo Dickinson followed them up the mountain. His classic film is the real-life record of their ascent.

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