Climbing Everest. Without Oxygen. In Winter.
Alex Txikon attempts an off-season climb of the world's highest peak
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
In the long history of climbing on Mount Everest, there have been only a handful of summits during winter. And just one person—Ang Rita Sherpa—has climbed the world’s highest peak in the off-season without the use of supplemental oxygen. This winter, Basque climber Alex Txikon aims to become the second.
The 36-year-old Txikon is no stranger to climbing 8,000-meter peaks. His résumé already features 11 of the 14 tallest mountains on the planet, including the first winter ascent of the 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat in 2016 with Italian climber Simone Moro and Pakistani climber Muhammad Ali Sadpara.
This is not Txikon’s first attempt at the Everest feat. Last winter, he spent nearly the entire season on the mountain. Ultimately, bad weather and heavy snows put an end to his aspirations: Txikon reached 26,082 feet before turning back, well short of the mountain’s 29,029-foot summit.
In most countries in the Northern Hemisphere, winter officially starts on December 21, but the Nepali government calendar marks the start of the season on December 16. The six-day difference has given rise to some debate about what constitutes a true winter ascent.
Polish climbers Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy made the first winter ascent of Everest on February 17, 1980. Since then, 13 others have managed to reach the summit during that season, although eight of those occurred before December 21. Ang Rita Sherpa made his ascent without the use of bottled oxygen on December 22, 1987, just one day into the winter season, which means the bulk of the climbing and acclimatization actually took place during fall. No one has made a winter ascent since 1993.
This winter, 41-year-old Ali Sadpara, Txikon’s Nanga Parbat partner, has joined the Basque climber on Everest. The pair arrived at base camp on the Nepali side of the mountain on January 3 and are currently focused on settling in on the mountain. They have a small support crew in base camp to prepare meals and assist with fixing ropes and shuttling gear to the high camps. Txikon says he will rely even more on the local Sherpas than he did last year, allowing him to conserve his strength for the eventual summit push. Soon the team will begin their acclimatization process by climbing the nearby 23,494-foot Pumori Peak.
As always, the weather on Everest will ultimately dictate whether or not the team will be successful. This time of year, the temperature on the summit can drop as low as minus 75 degrees Fahrenheit, while the average temperature on the mountain hovers around minus 33. The season’s heavy snows bring an increased chance of avalanches and make it difficult to break trail. But it’s the potential for high winds that has Txikon most concerned. If he is to safely get up and down the mountain, wind speed on summit day can’t exceed 25 miles per hour—but winter gusts can reach speeds in excess of 85 mph.
For now, Txikon and his teammates are focused on taking things one step at a time. Txikon plans to post regular updates to his Facebook page and Twitter account, making it easy to follow his progress throughout the season.