Illustration by Nathan Fox
Illustration by Nathan Fox

The Elements of Style

It's time for a radical reform of high-altitude mountaineering�and a fresh debate over what it means to climb right

Illustration by Nathan Fox

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THIS SPRING, AFTER 16 YEARS OF EFFORT, Ed Viesturs became the first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. Fittingly, the 46-year-old Seattle-based mountaineer’s quest ended with Annapurna, the first 8,000er ever climbed.

Illustration by Nathan Fox Illustration by Nathan Fox

“I was in high school when I read Annapurna, and it really inspired me,” Ed said when I called to congratulate him. Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog, is the romantic account of the first ascent of the 26,545-foot Nepalese peak by a 1950 French expedition. “It had everything,” Ed continued. “Camaraderie, bravery, sacrifice, perseverance. That’s the book that got me into climbing. I grew up in the great mountaineering state of Illinois and moved to Seattle right after high school. I could see Rainier out my dorm-room window. That was my Annapurna then.”

It took Ed three tries before he summited Annapurna, just as it had taken him three attempts to summit Everest. He is only the 12th person to climb all of the 8,000-meter peaks; this accomplishment alone would not be that notable but for one salient point: Ed climbed all of them without supplemental oxygen, most in alpine style, with little or no help from Sherpas. (Like Ed, I have made it a habit to climb without O2.)

“From the beginning, I made a decision that if I couldn’t do it without oxygen, I wouldn’t do it,” Ed told me. “It was a personal choice. Could I train myself to meet the demands of climbing at high altitude? Could I train my mind? It wasn’t just about getting to the top; I wanted to experience what it felt like up there. Going without oxygen was more interesting, more challenging—technically, physically, and mentally.” Ed is the first to acknowledge his debt to Tyrolean alpinists Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, who pioneered the first oxygenless ascent of Everest, in 1978. (Messner became the first climber to summit all the 8,000ers, in 1986.) At the time, naysayers predicted that Messner and Habeler would suffocate to death or suffer brain damage. Apparently none of these pundits had read their history.

Millions of words have been written about 1924’s Third British Everest Expedition, in which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine vanished into thin air, leaving unresolved the possibility that they had summited. And yet the most significant achievement of that climb has been all but overlooked: Four days before Mallory and Irvine made their fatal, oxygen-assisted attempt, expedition leader Lieutenant Colonel Edward Norton had climbed to within 909 feet of the summit of Everest without oxygen.

Norton and his partner Howard Somervell left their high camp on a windless, beautiful morning. Climbing steadily—through the Yellow Band, traversing the upper North Face—they reached the final summit pyramid by noon. Somervell became too ill to continue, but he encouraged Norton to press on. Norton was wearing hobnail leather boots, a tweed jacket, wool knickers, and a felt hat. He wielded a single wood-shafted ice ax; he didn’t have a rope, crampons, a down coat, Sherpas, or oxygen. Because he had removed his snow goggles to cross the black rocks of the North Face, Norton’s eyes were sunburned, but nonetheless he continued upward without Somervell.

At 28,126 feet, exhausted from the delicate, perilous climbing and realizing that he was going snow-blind, Norton turned back. No human would go higher until Hillary and Norgay, using supplemental oxygen, reached the top of Everest in 1953. No human would go higher without oxygen for more than half a century, until Messner and Habeler in ’78.

But what if Edward Norton had summited Everest in 1924, solo, without oxygen? Not only would it have changed the history of Himalayan mountaineering completely; it would have set an entirely different precedent for the style in which high mountains are climbed.

IN A NOW FAMOUS 1964 article in Ascent magazine, “Games Climbers Play,” American climber Lito Tejada-Flores defined climbing as a game, “precisely because there is no necessity to climb.” Tejada-Flores outlined a hierarchy of the game consisting of seven basic forms: bouldering, cragging, continuous rock climbing, big-wall/aid climbing, alpine climbing, super-alpine climbing, and expedition climbing. After 41 years of evolution, today we would have to add at least five more—ice climbing, sport climbing, sport ice climbing, gym climbing, and speed climbing. Each of these climbing games has a distinct set of rules.

According to Tejada-Flores, bouldering is the most complex game in the hierarchy, because it has the most rules, or prohibitions—no rope, no rack, no belayer. On the other end of the spectrum, expedition climbing, “although complicated to organize and play, is formalistically speaking, the simplest of all, since virtually nothing is forbidden to the climber. The recent use of aeroplanes and helicopters exemplifies the total lack of rules in the pure expedition-game.”

I’ve always admired Tejada-Flores’s explanatory essay, and even more the book of climbing essays it inspired—1978’s The Games Climbers Play—but I think Tejada-Flores had his hierarchy upside down. Certainly for most of us, the more players, the more equipment, the more money, the more logistics, and the more risk, the more complicated the game is. Isn’t bouldering—which requires a rock, shoes, and a chalk bag—the simplest, even purest, form of climbing? The polar opposite is four unshaven, unwashed guys stormbound for the third day in a two-man tent on a ledge at 26,000 feet, wondering why the hell they didn’t take up golf instead.

Still, Tejada-Flores’s larger point stands: Climbing, at heart, is a kind of game, even if it is sometimes mortally dangerous. But because climbing can kill you, many people—including me—flinch at the frivolity implied by the word game. Is bull riding a game? Is BASE jumping a game? Perhaps this is elitism, or simply semantics. All these activities have rules, and rules are essentially a code of honor created to protect the spirit of the game. In BASE jumping you must leap from something on earth, rather than from a plane; in bull riding you must hold on, but with only one hand, for eight seconds.

Of course, you can always break the rules. It’s your conscience. In the mountains, there are no referees or spectators. The freedom to make your own choices is one of the reasons we climb.

As Tejada-Flores wrote, “Ethical climbing merely means respecting the set of rules of the climbing-game that one is playing.”

Which isn’t to say that the rules never change. When I started rock-climbing, in the mid-seventies, the sport was in the midst of an environmental and ethical revolution. Pitons—metal nails hammered into the rock—were being replaced by stoppers and hexes, devices that could be placed in cracks and easily removed without scarring the stone. Today, “pins” are used only as a last resort, when none of the less invasive forms of protection will work. The shift from pins to hammerless equipment improved the sustainability of a finite resource—some cracks were becoming nothing more than a series of pin scars—and, consequently, improved the sustainability of the sport itself.

The evolution of rules to preserve the integrity of the game is commonplace. Hunting is a good example. In 1738, to protect its dwindling deer population, the colony of Virginia banned the harvest of does. In 1878, Iowa became the first state to initiate bag limits on game. In 1935, the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act established a law requiring waterfowl hunters to purchase a federal duck stamp; proceeds were used to finance the purchase and management of waterfowl refuges. The list of hunting regulations designed to preserve the resource, and the experience, goes on.

In 2002, nearly 100 of the world’s top mountaineers collaborated in drafting the Tyrol Declaration on Best Practice in Mountain Sports. It was distributed to 89 alpine clubs in 67 countries and published in The American Alpine Journal in 2003. If you haven’t read it, do. (The text is widely available online.) It’s a pivotal manifesto that outlines in plain Strunk-and-White English the accepted rules of the climbing game. It presents a hierarchy of values, with human dignity at the top, followed by life, liberty, and happiness; the intactness of nature; solidarity; self-actualization; truth; excellence; and adventure. There are ten articles in the Tyrol Declaration, each one addressing a different aspect of climbing, from conservation to responsibility, first ascents to sponsorship.

Article 8 is about style. It ends with one far-reaching sentence: “Good style on big mountains implies not using fixed ropes, performance-enhancing drugs, or bottled oxygen.”

SO MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of the question “Why do we climb?” As David Roberts notes in his new climbing memoir, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, “From Victorian days onward, climbing writers have spilled flagons of ink shaping transparently lame answers.”

So why do we climb? For the challenge. Climbing is an act of hubris, a psychological-cum-physical defiance of the most fundamental earthly power: gravity. Some enjoy participating in this; many enjoy reading about it. And, yes, it’s a risky, nakedly narcissistic, mythic business—precisely why it’s a good read—but here’s the catch: The proximity to death can brilliantly illuminate life itself, hence a mountaineer’s willingness to step so close to that bright edge. But slip over that edge and the brilliance is extinguished, and suddenly your death becomes a black hole for those left behind.

Why we climb is personal, but how we climb—a question hardly ever asked—is communal. How we climb defines the spirit of our sport. How we climb has a direct impact on not just the practice and future of mountaineering but the health of the alpine environment.

Last year, my good friend Keith Spenser went to Everest. He spent ten grand and two months on the North Col route, the climb Norton attempted in 1924. Keith did not summit. Back home in Laramie, he gave us a slide show—and this synopsis of the experience:

“There’s no leading to do on this route. There’s a fixed line at the base of the North Col that goes all the way to the summit. Guide companies hire Sherpas to put up the ropes. For the average client—oxygen, tent, fuel, stove—it’s all carried up by Sherpas. You couldn’t climb the mountain by the standard routes on your own anymore even if you wanted to. You’d be six inches from a fixed line and the Sherpas have already staked out all the tent platforms for the clients. It’s not mountaineering. It’s not even an adventure. At best, it’s an endurance event.”

Last year also marked the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of K2, at 28,250 feet the world’s second-highest peak. Steep and technical, with a reputation for taking lives, K2 has always been considered a mountaineer’s mountain. But the Everest contagion reached K2 in 2004. There were more than 200 people on the peak, a greater number than ever before; six climbers and six porters died. Fixed lines—ropes attached to anchors at the top and bottom that essentially act as a handrail—were set almost all the way to the summit on the Abruzzi Spur. Sherpas were brought in from Nepal to hump up bottles of oxygen. There were more than 40 ascents, almost every one on fixed lines, more than half oxygen-assisted.

Oxygen and fixed lines are being used on 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest peak, as well. How long will it be before all the 8,000-meter peaks are terminally ill? Five years? Ten? There’s been a fixed line between 15,000 and 16,000 on the standard route up Mount McKinley for years. How long before this line is extended to Denali Pass—or to the summit? How long before there’s a fixed line up the Grand Teton’s Exum or Rainier’s Liberty Ridge?

This is climbing without style. When the technology, techniques, knowledge, and precedents of a sport evolve, so must the rules.

FOR AN INCREASING number of mountaineers, winning the game has become more important than how you play.

Richard Salisbury, a former computer programmer at the University of Michigan, and Elizabeth Hawley, longtime Kathmandu journalist and expedition archivist, recently published a CD-ROM called the Himalayan Database, a statistical record of all expeditions that have climbed in the Nepal Himalayas from 1904 to 2004. For the first time, we can study the act of mountaineering using science, rather than anecdotes.

From 1950 to 2004, out of the 11,734 people who went above Everest Base Camp, 2,251 made summit bids. Of these, 2,119, or 94 percent, used oxygen; 131, a mere 6 percent, did not.

What does it really mean, physiologically, to use oxygen at high altitude? “Inhaling oxygen at two to four liters per minute—a typical flow rate for climbers—reduces the height of Everest by 5,000 to 9,000 feet,” explains San Diego high-altitude physiologist Dr. Brownie Schoene. In other words, climbing Everest (or K2 or any other 8,000-meter peak) with oxygen brings the peak down to around 20,000 feet at rest and 24,000 feet while climbing. That’s lower than dozens of other Himalayan peaks.

“Oxygen is a performance-enhancing substance,” continues Schoene. “Using oxygen in high-altitude mountaineering is like blood doping in cycling.”

John Harlin III, editor of The American Alpine Journal, says using oxygen is a form of aid climbing—relying more on gear than your own ability. “The reality is, Hillary and Norgay did not make the first true ascent of Everest,” he says. “In fact, it wasn’t until Messner and Habeler summited Everest that the mountain was really climbed.”

Today, in the 21st century, using oxygen in the mountain-climbing game is bad style, but in my opinion it is also unethical. Why? Because if you didn’t carry it up (and scarcely anyone does), a Sherpa did. Unlike using porters to pack gear into a base camp, getting oxygen tanks up to a high camp is hazardous work: In the past half-century, 119 climbers have died on Everest, along with 60 porters, more than two-thirds of whom were putting in fixed lines and hauling oxygen and supplies for clients. Enlist a Sherpa to carry your oxygen and you are paying someone else to assume your risk.

In order to safely move bottled oxygen and other supplies up to high camps, Sherpas put in fixed ropes. Clients subsequently clip into these lines and march up the steps kicked in the snow by Sherpas. Wouldn’t this be considered unsportsmanlike in other games? Imagine using a step ladder to dunk a basketball. More important, by relying on a fixed line, you’re missing the chance to lead a pitch with ice ax and crampons, skill and resolve. You’re missing out on the joy of climbing.

Fixed lines contribute to the despoliation of our mountains. They allow an excess of equipment—extra food, oxygen tanks, computers, iPods, etc.—to be carried to high camps, and much of it is never brought back down. Even the fixed lines themselves are often not removed, leaving yet more debris on the peak. Leave No Trace has been a maxim for backpackers for decades, and yet this basic principle is frequently ignored in mountaineering.

I realize that eliminating supplemental oxygen, and all it entails, from 8,000-meter peaks would have serious consequences. Because oxygen increases the margin of safety, climbing without it might increase the death rate. Everest guides often use oxygen to help them make clearheaded decisions, Sherpas use it to accompany clients, clients use it just to keep moving—so perhaps, without oxygen, Everest and K2 could no longer be commercially guided. Certainly, at least in the short term, this would financially stun the outfitters, their several dozen guides, and several hundred high-altitude Sherpas. But these outfitters guide many other peaks. All the other 8,000-meter summits—Nanga Parbat, Shishapangma, Makalu, Dhaulagiri—most of them more technically challenging than Everest, would still be there, not to mention the rest of the world’s splendid mountains.

AT THE END of Tejada-Flores’s prescient “Games Climbers Play,” he writes that he can “visualize the day when, with ultra-modern bivouac gear, a climbing party of two sets off to do an 8000m. peak just as today one sets off to do a hard route on the Grand Teton or Mont Blanc.”

Messner and Habeler did just that, and others have followed in their footsteps, but not enough, not yet. Such climbing demands deep outdoor acumen, technique that has become instinctual, mental stamina, the legs and lungs of a locomotive—all of which require years of apprenticeship in the mountains to develop. When you substitute oxygen for training, fixed lines for technique, and Sherpas for uncompromising personal responsibility, you’ve not only diminished the great, mortal game of mountaineering; you may have diminished yourself.

And yet if your grandest dream has always been to climb a big Himalayan peak, you can still do so ethically and thoughtfully, even with a guide. Use Sherpas to help you get your gear to base camp, but hump everything above there yourself. If you must fix a line, do so yourself, then remove it—along with all your gear and garbage—when you leave. Finally, face the mountain and its glorious, rarefied ambience on its own terms, without oxygen.

Why we climb, on a mountain, is made manifest by how we climb. We have choices. The Tyrol Declaration is not enforceable. There are no penalties. The mountains are still free, and we’re all at liberty to climb them largely as we desire. Let the best of your character be your guide.

But don’t forget: We are what we do. And style is substance.