A collection of thoughts: how it’s like to be above 8,000 m

Radu is now off on his first attempt to reach a peak above 8,000 m, namely Manaslu Peak, at 8,163 m. Of course nothing can prepare anyone for this, and many people that have been there could only say that making it to the top is a matter of genetics more than training. Still, during his preparation, he did want to find out as much as possible about what he should expect to feel like to be in the “death zone”, at an altitude with only 30% of the amount of oxygen we experience at sea level.

In this article I’ve tried to look out and gather the impressions of many mountaineers that have experienced being above 8,000 m (or the “death zone”), and beyond how they’ve felt, I was curious about their motivation as well.

I’ve started with a book I’ve bought last year in Namche, during the Everest Base Camp trip I did together with Radu’s team. “Into Thin Air” is the personal account of the events on Mt. Everest of Jon Krakauer, the journalist joining Rob Hall’s expedition during the fatal 1996 (depicted in the “Everest” movie).

Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I’d been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.

Of course for some Everesters myriad other, less virtuous, motives came into play, as well: minor celebrity, career advancement, ego massage, ordinary bragging rights, filthy lucre. But such ignoble enticements were less a factor than many critics might presume.” – Jon Krakauer

In his book “The Crystal Horizon”, the famous alpinist Reinhold Messner recounted of his summit experience on Everest using no supplemental oxygen that it was a continuous agony.

When I rest I feel utterly lifeless except that my throat burns when I draw breath… I can scarcely go on. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have not lost the mastery of my feelings, there are actually no feelings. I consist only of will. After each few meters this too fizzles out in unending tiredness. Then I think of nothing. I let myself fall, just lie there. For an indefinite time I remain completely irresolute. Then I make a few steps again.” – Reinhold Messner

I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high altitude […] I used to console myself with the thought that one year ago I would have been thrilled by the very idea of taking part of this adventure, a prospect that seemed then like an impossible dream; but altitude has the same effect on the mind as upon the body, one’s intellect becomes dull and unresponsive, and my only desire was to finish the wretched job and to get down to a more reasonable clime.” – Eric Shipton “Upon That Mountain”

Nature allows us to stay above 8,000m for only a very limited amount of time because your body cannot work properly at that altitude. There is so much less oxygen up there which means it is hard for your brain, your heart, your muscles and all your body’s organs to function. Using the muscles needed for walking and climbing reduces the oxygen available even more, which is why you can easily get cold and end up with frostbite. At that altitude your blood gets really thick so you need to stay really hydrated too. Above 8,000m there are a lot of simple but important things you have to think about which all come completely naturally when you’re down at sea level.” – David Gottler

“When you reach the summit of an 8,000m peak, you feel so light and relieved after all the stress and pushing yourself through exhaustion and tiredness. It is like a weight falls off your shoulders. You just look around at this sea of mountains and snow around you. It is kind of like the surface of the Earth is starting to bend a little bit because you have a huge horizon ahead of you and you can see so far. You feel blessed and honoured that you are this tiny little fragile being up there and everything is so big around you.” – David Gottler

Taking all this into account, I think it’s easy to understand what Radu set himself up to do. Hoping his will is strong, that his genetics are good and that the weather will favor his journey (as strong winds contribute to an even lower amount of oxygen available up there), we can only keep our fingers crossed! Manaslu will be for him like a test, to see if his body can put up to the things his mind hopes to achieve. Good luck in your expedition Radu, and may God be with you!

To know what it’s happening with Radu, follow his adventure on Facebook and Instagram, we’ll be trying to post as much as possible and hopefully we’ll soon be able to announce he made it to the peak in good conditions! Expected date of the summit is Sept 29th, but it’s all depending on the weather conditions. Now they’re close to the base camp, and the following 2 weeks will be dedicated to acclimatization. I’ll follow-up with a blog post on how the acclimatization process happens for an above 8,000 m peak. Stay tuned!

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