K2: The Oxygen Controversy

Climbers on oxygen jumar up K2 in summer. Photo: Madison Mountaineering

The big debate in the climbing community around K2 this winter is not so much about the crowding, the commercialization, or the perils lying ahead for relatively inexperienced mountaineers. It’s about the use of O2.

Most leading climbers have avoided overtly criticizing the style of the current expeditions. Everyone from Simone Moro to Denis Urubko cites the usual diplomacy about everyone’s right to climb a mountain however they see fit. Instead, they express a wish rather than a criticism: They hope that the first winter ascent of K2 will happen without supplementary O2.

Adam Bielecki has been blunt about the use of bottled oxygen: “Oxygen climbing the 8,000’ers is like doing the Tour de France on an electric bike,” he tweeted recently. “The nature of the feat is completely different.”

Jon Griffith. Photo: Jon Griffith

Chamonix-based mountain photographer Jon Griffith agrees. He wrote on FaceBook recently: “It’s 2020, and if you want to claim the prize, you should be adhering to modern ethics and styles. The whole point of these high peaks is the lack of oxygen.”

“You may find that you can’t play football with Messi or tennis against Nadal,” Romanian climber Minhea Radulescu wrote. “Your weakness is not an excuse for using O2: If you want to climb big mountains, get yourself to the height of the mountain, don’t bring the mountain down to your level.”

“I would find it a real pity if someone steals the first winter ascent of K2 by using supplemental oxygen,” concluded Ralf Dujmovits, who has been on K2 five times, including a no-O2 summit and three attempts that ended above 8,000m, all without supplementary oxygen. “The general public might see this ‘conquering’ of K2 as a great feat, but the first winter ascent should be left to those who can do it…in style.”

Dujmovits does give a chance to some climbers currently on the mountain: “My hope is that one or more of them will stand on top before someone with an oxygen bottle does,” he said.

That should be the end of this article. But there is another uncomfortable question which, although not new, has exploded this winter because of the attention on K2 as a potential world first.

K2 Base Camp. Photo: Waldemar Kowalewski

It involves all the expeditions currently in Base Camp: Should a climber’s successful ascent be counted as no-O2 if it relies on ropes previously fixed by a team of Sherpas on oxygen?

From an arbiter’s point of view, the answer is yes. Both 8000ers.com and the Himalayan Database credit no-O2 climbs based on an individual summiter’s gear during both ascent and descent, not on who preceded them or how. At the same time, purists may argue that a no-O2 climber would never get to the upper slopes of K2 in winter, if not for the previous work of those on gas.

Kilian Jornet said recently on Instagram: “If someone in the team is carrying O2, the exposure disappears since if the non-O2 climber has a problem, he/she has immediate access to O2.

In this sense, what really makes all the difference is not just the use of oxygen, but its availability. Years ago, ExplorersWeb founder Tom Sjögren spoke of “psychological O2” — how if O2 is available in a higher camp or a cache, a climber will take more risks and go higher than if that potentially life-saving resource were not available.

Jon Griffith recalls his experience on Everest and the difference oxygen makes:

“I’ve used O2 on Everest and I could not believe the difference it made. I went from feeling like I was at 7,500m (cold, bit weak, lightheaded) to feeling like I was running around in the Alps in summer. It’s not just the additional fuel it gives your muscles. It’s the cognitive ability and the warmth it also gives. It’s an amazing feedback circle. I think people massively underestimate the difference O2 makes, I certainly did. It’s also not just about pushing yourself physically further. It’s also about knowing when to turn around — on O2, it doesn’t matter, you just turn around. But without O2, you are on a ticking timer: You need to know when to turn around in order to get back down low enough before your body and brain shut down on you. Without the cognitive help that O2 gives, it is very very hard to know when that turnaround time is. The commitment to climbing without O2 is next level. I took my mask off on the summit of Everest to set up a camera and pretty soon I started to feel like sh*t. I remembered thinking to myself, if I started to run down the fixed ropes now, would I make it down low enough?…Remove [the O2] and it’s not the same thing at all.”

The current debate centres partly on the search for purity in climbing but also respect toward previous no-O2 winter firsts on other 8,000’ers. Winter K2 not just a climb but a coveted first that has previously defeated the best climbers in the world.

At the same time, even with O2 and fixed ropes, K2 is far from easy, especially at this time of year. As Sergi Mingote said recently, only a few climbers will be in condition for a summit push, and even if they only reach 8,000m, he would consider that a great success. Ralf Dujmovits admits that he has never even considered attempting K2 in winter. And if K2 is summited this season in a less-than-perfect style, the ultimate challenge — redoing it without O2 — will remain for future trail breakers.

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About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

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Klaus
Klaus
9 months ago

As long as you’re honest about your modus operandi I see no problem using accessories. The ultimate goal would be a naked free solo.

+1
Pablo C
Pablo C
9 months ago
Reply to  Klaus

😂

+1
Tim Thomp
Tim Thomp
9 months ago
Reply to  Pablo C

Naked free solo? Sounds like a good concept for a reality tv series! I bet there wouldn’t be any “hotties” doing K2 in the buff!

+2
G Harvey
G Harvey
9 months ago
Reply to  Klaus

Dicing with death is the only way to assuage the purists. Looks as if the no 02 glory is still to be won on K2.

+1
Don Paul
Don Paul
9 months ago

I think the history of climbing is of people doing things in better and better style. As long as the route isn’t altered with bolts, etc. it’s just a game and you can use any rules you want. With some limits, IMO. I agree that fixing the entire mtn from top to bottom is BS. But disagree on O2. Use it, or get an MRI and look at your brain damage when you get back. Maybe this is not important to you, OK. Also, here is a link to a fictional saturday night live skit that every climber should see:… Read more »

Shant
Shant
9 months ago

Even with no O2 , if you are climbing on the mountain with help of ropes and other settings, set by others it’s not a big deal, you are just a tail runner, give this guy a chance to lead alone ,I doubt if he’d even make the halfway…gud luck team

+1
Cale Underwood
Cale Underwood
9 months ago

Another great article Angela, I greatly look forward to every piece you write! I understand people’s different views on climbing achievements and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Although Alpinism has no true arbiter other than nature herself, my view has always been if it has never been done then it is an achievement that should be recognized and those who would criticize without the ability to achieve the same lend very little weight to the conversation.

+2
Alan Humphreys
Alan Humphreys
9 months ago

To be as one with the mountain you must climb with out o2 but in the end the mountain always wins, god speed to all on k2, remember you will need ichor to truly climb .

+1
Damien François
Damien François
9 months ago
Reply to  Alan Humphreys

Without crampons as well, then, because you are hurting the rock, the snow and the ice!

+1
Walid Hamadeh
Walid Hamadeh
9 months ago

I am no 8000er or even close to that, however I want to enter this debate melee over the use of O2 vs Not. I can argue that summitting with or without O2 is a monumental accomplishment for anyone. However, I can also argue that unless you carry your load, fixing your own ropes, melting your own snow, cooking your own meals…etc. you got the point, is in a sense truly the purist form of conquering summits. Just by having people satisfying your everyday needs in order to preserve every ounce of your energy is as debatable as the use… Read more »

ARTLADY
ARTLADY
9 months ago
Reply to  Walid Hamadeh

No truer words ever spoken! Thank you for posting wise words!

+2
Jo Anna
Jo Anna
8 months ago
Reply to  Walid Hamadeh

..you started off your comment ok, i gave you a chance to see what point you were attempting to make… and then..boom!
‘..your name is listed as a K2 conqueror..’
your first 9 words clearly give us an insight about you..i hope it stays that way..

be happy bro, love life, connect with nature
peace

+1
Dor
Dor
9 months ago

I think that this article is missing one point of view, the one comping from the Nepalese climbers who do not see this achievement only as an alpinism performance/challenge, but as a risk management challenge for the expedition industry. They have to prove to western clients that their Nepalese guiding companies can outperform western companies in risk management and ability to bring clients safely to summits even in winter, and even attempting a legendary peak. I personally respect this point of view a lot as it allows minority climbers to establish themselves as authority figures in Risk Management and would… Read more »

Caroline Russell
Caroline Russell
9 months ago
Reply to  Dor

I see what you’re saying, but I’m not sure how effective that strategy is because it relies heavily on proving a negative. That is, unless a number of climbers from Western expeditions die while climbers with Nepali expeditions all live, nothing will appear to be proven to potential clients. If the intent is simply to use sound risk management strategies to mitigate risk, all well and good. I just don’t think prudence is typically recognized and rewarded in the way you suggest unless there is an alternative outcome that occurs in contrast.

+1
Sheeny
Sheeny
9 months ago

I’ve been on K2 without 0s and made it to 8000. Also been on Everest and went extremely fast to the summit but as couldn’t get high enough to acclimatise for no O so decided to use Os in the end and summit rather than get high and not. I agree with Jon G that 0 made a massive difference. Still saw the mountain (perhaps better with Os and memory function) but certainly wasn’t on same physical level than if I hadn’t. Personally, people can do what they want on peaks with respect to others. However, one thing I have… Read more »

John A Mathews
John A Mathews
9 months ago

I disagree that 02 is the most important thing in conquering a peak. The most important thing is to conquer a peak using all of your mountaineering skills available. Using fixed ropes set by someone else all the way up Is like using a tow rope to go up a mountain on your skis. Look up the chimney and try to do that yourself with rope and ice pick, crampons and ice screws, and then you can tell me that you conquered the mountain. Go up a fixed rope with little or no connection to the rock and ice, but… Read more »

Timothy Thomp
Timothy Thomp
9 months ago
Reply to  John A Mathews

A free solo, self roping when risk is high is the way I would like to see it done. If someone were offered enough incentive or just to be the Bad Ass of Mountain Bad Asses! someone will do. Catherine Destivelle style baby!!

+1
Rich
Rich
9 months ago

How about, if you’re going to summit in winter, then you summit in winter conditions, i.e. 100km/h winds and -100 degrees wind chill. Don’t just wait for conditions that are more tolerable.

+1
S R
S R
9 months ago

It is all very subjective.
Once we start judging, it’s a steep icy slope 🙂

For example, how many climbers don’t use foot warmers?

If you want to claim a winter summit, then why are you waiting for good weather days?
Is there an objective definition of temperature and wind for it to count as a real winter?
What if there is a week of warm spring-like weather in the middle of winter?

+1
Augustin
Augustin
9 months ago
Reply to  S R

You hit the nail on head! Exactly that was the chance of the Nepalese K2 team: a “window” of unusual good weather…

+1
Amer
Amer
9 months ago

This is not Alpinism. This is just rope climbing. Ropes which are set by sherpas. Ropes and ladders left by previous expeditions on technical sections.. this is a seige of well fixed route….

+1
Robert LeClair
9 months ago
Reply to  Amer

That’s exactly all it is. Obviously the so called climbers on Everest are mostly not great alpinists at all. I bet a LOT if not ALL of the climbers on the successful commercial climbs of K2 would not summit without fixed ropes AND oxygen. A respectable marathon time is more of an achievement.

+1
Trish
Trish
9 months ago

There are several scenarios for the first winter ascent of K2. With 02, without 02, and solo.

+1
Damien François
Damien François
9 months ago

Not everyone is a Messner, most climbers work very hard to achieve amazing things – with O2.
Imagine what a disaster for Nepal, or Pakistan, it would be if only no O2 climbs were allowed.
C’mon, move on, stop bringing up this issue over and over again! The “controversy” is boring. Besides, should we all WALK to Nepal, or Pakistan, instead of flying there?

+3
Amer
Amer
9 months ago

just imagine what kukuchzka did or simon moro and many others. compare their hard work with this and you will know where these bunch of lads stand

+1
Josu
Josu
9 months ago
Reply to  Amer

Strongly agree.

+1
Damien François
Damien François
9 months ago
Reply to  Amer

Moro? Like stealing oxygen? Or insulting Sherpas? Oh, yeah, that winter climb…

+2
Amer
Amer
9 months ago

if they r out there to win ultimate crown then it should be done in a style that generations remember. G4 west face by kurtyka n schauer k2 south face by Kukuczka n pitroski Latok north ridge by lowe, donini n kenedy Ogre by scott n Bonigton messners Nanga parbat Rupal face Herman Bhul Nanga Parbat Solo Renato Casarotto Broad Peak north ridge solo and K2 magic line solo 3 attempts to 8300m.. Steve House & Vince anderson Nannga BPParbat Rupal Face there r so many i know but cant mention all.. but these are the climbs which are hallmark… Read more »

Damien François
Damien François
9 months ago
Reply to  Amer

Sorry, but K2 has never been climbed in the winter, so I don’t give a damn about the colour of the downsuit of the climbers who will pull this first!
Why can’t people nowadays look at what’s being achieved – in this case: the last 8.000er to be climbed in winter, an what a beast it is! especially in the ongoing consitions – and always relativize?
If the 2021 teams – or just one climber – pulls it, he is, they are (a) heroes!

+2
Craig Quigley
Craig Quigley
9 months ago

O2 is cheating, deal with it

+2
Uttam
Uttam
9 months ago
Reply to  Amer

I don’t even remember any of those alpinists’ names (some with hard-to-pronounce names)- certainly no school kids or lay people would remember those names. They are probably known in the alpinists’ circle among those mountaineering buffs/historians who follow notable climbs or among their own citizens. However, the 6-7 most famous mountain climbers known the world over (not just in the mountaineering circle or specific countries) have got to be (in no particular order): Herzog (not many know he went up there with Lachenal unless they’ve read his book), Hillary & Tenzing Sherpa (everybody knows – even school kids – unless… Read more »

Josu
Josu
9 months ago

The real climbing is without oxygen and in alpine style.

+3
Uttam
Uttam
9 months ago
Reply to  Josu

a rose is a rose by any other name and would still smell just as sweet. the real climbing is climbing it, with or without oxygen or with or without alpine style, and would still be real climbing.

+2
David
David
9 months ago

I can’t see why the argument exists. There are always going to be two goals like every other 8000er, 1st to summit with and 1st to summit without. The main difference is 99.8% of people couldn’t do it with and 99.9% of people couldn’t do it without. Anyone who can get to the top of this beautiful beast is a hero for me.

0
Damien François
Damien François
9 months ago

I can only recommend, once again, Elisabeth Revol’s wonderful words about her Everest 2019 (she summited on May 23rd, one hour before I did) in her book “Vivre” (2019) and article “L’Everest. Mon rêve de gosse” (Montagnes-Vertical Magazine, 2019). Now you have someone who had climbed Nanga Parbat in winter, without support, without O2, who survived an epic journey and lost her climbing partner, writing that Everest was the best she EVER experienced, even though she climbed the BIG E with… gas. The dogmatic “No O2” is outdated, sorry. The position are clear and have been repeated 100 times. As… Read more »

Damien François
Damien François
9 months ago

Isn’t interesting, to be… politically correct, that Elisabeth Revol’s, a true expert of the O2 question, gets disliked here?
I wonder who exactly is always dislikng: Usually it’s people who don’t even climb or have never been in the Big Hills.
Naysayers, wherever one looks…

+1
Jesse
Jesse
9 months ago

Rich, privileged and self absorbed. That’s climbing K2. Me, me, me. Wasteful. Why not do an African Safari Hunt as well.

+1
Damien François
Damien François
9 months ago
Reply to  Jesse

What exactly are you talking about? You have summited K2 in winter? ohh, why don’t we know it?
Rich? Why “rich”? Rich in guts, yes!

+1
Robert LeClair
9 months ago
Reply to  Jesse

Agree..not a high skill level

+1
Maro
Maro
9 months ago

It’s easy. Only alpine style counts. Everything else is just jogging not worth any attention. Period.

+3
Robert LeClair
9 months ago

I so totally agree. Yes there is great danger on K2 with or without O2. But climbing with O2 and fixed ropes placed by others ( with or without O2) is just not climbing per se. I have looked at the climbing of K2 with oxygen, fixed ropes and jumars and don’t see incredible technical difficulty. Physically strenuous…yes indeed. And dangerous .. definitely. But it’s more of an endurance thing than real climbing. I hope eventually there will be a list of people who climbed K2 and Everest without O2 on or available, and no fixed ropes not placed by… Read more »

Dale W
Dale W
9 months ago

Essentially it doesn’t really matter, if/when someone manages to summit K2 in winter, they will have the appropriate label attached to them…..1st ascent with/without oxygen. If it is someone using Os then the challenge is still there for someone else.

Personally I’m hoping it is without O’s but either way it’ll be an amazing effort.

+1
Vlad
Vlad
9 months ago

Amundsen reached the South Pole by using the dogs. Scot attempted to reach it by using the motor slades. Amundsen was there first, Scot second. So who can be regarded as the first to reach the South Pole in a proper way? Whose strategy was most fair?

+1
Jim
Jim
9 months ago

It is complicated subject but as long as there are people like Urubko, Bielecki, Moro or even Gavan and Lungren who trying to do it without oxygen, it is not fair to go on K2 winter on O2. Do you know that there is polish national team for winter K2, they really could do it with oxygen.

+2
Paul
Paul
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim

Everyone uses fixed lines on abruzzi, even the poles or Urubko

+1
Uttam
Uttam
9 months ago

the dogs keep barking but the caravan moves on. good luck to the Nepali ‘team’ on K2. “the first ascent of K2 in winter” means just that – with or without bottled oxygen, or crampons, or ropes-carabiner-harness system, or ice-axe with leash or down jacket or underwear or whatever accessory/item happens to make a world of difference in mountain climbing, not just oxygen.

+2
Paul
Paul
9 months ago
Reply to  Uttam

Yes some day someone will solo K2 in winter with no O2 and no fixed line like Messner did Everest
No one in 1960 could have imagined Honnald free solo of El Cap

+1
Uttam
Uttam
9 months ago
Reply to  Paul

yeah someday in the future, there will be more oxygen available to breathe in all mountain peaks ’cause of climate change. it is already happening on Everest, probably also in K2 and others. climbing without oxygen will not have any cache then, it already means much less now than during Messner’s days. climbing with oxygen will be overkill then. anyway, don’t believe 80% of the people who claimed to have climbed eight thousanders without oxygen – there is very little monitoring that goes on up there. the mountaineering world probably has more liars and cheaters per capita than any other… Read more »

Mirek
Mirek
9 months ago

OKAY. So what about the first ever a winter ascent to the 8-thousand meters high (Moun Everest, 1980 – Wielicki, Cichy)? And also other first ascents to the 8,000 meters with oxygen? We cancel? Because on oxygen?

+1
Pav
Pav
9 months ago

K2 montain is dangerus enough to climb it with or without oxygen, doing it in winter is even more challenging. They are first team to do so in winter and huge respect for doing so.
If someone is such a purist they can climb K2 without oxygen as first, that honor is still to grub, if they foolish enough to put at risk they own helth.

+1
Nev
Nev
9 months ago

Nonsense! Achievement is an achievement. Someone Climbs K2 winter with oxygen Amazing. Someone Climbs K2 winter without oxygen again amazing, 2 different things. You can’t knock someone’s achievement just because they use oxygen. It’s never been climbed in the winter with or without oxygen so any top out is an awesome achievement.
There’s always a naysayer, always someone ready to piss on ye chips! Jealousy say I.

+2
Josephine Johnson
Josephine Johnson
8 months ago

If I had one comment to make it would be this: “If I were to hire a guide to take me to the top of any of the world’s highest peaks, it would be a guide who had summited that peak without O2.” Remember the disaster on Everest in 1996? The hero of that ordeal was Anatoli Boukreev — the lead guide for Mountain Madness who climbed without oxygen. After summiting, he returned to save three climbers stranded above 8,000m from certain death. Such a pity that Jon Krakauer’s book, “Into Thin Air” didn’t give him the credit he deserved.… Read more »

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