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It’s Harder Than Ever to Break Records on Mount Everest

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On the night of January 24 this year, German climber Jost Kobusch sat alone in his broken tent at 19,000 feet on the west ridge of Mount Everest. The jet stream hammering the mountain had ripped the poles right out of his tent. After that, microcrystals of snow and ice churned around the interior of the collapsed shelter, making it impossible to breathe. In a desperate move, Kobusch wrapped the tent’s thin fabric around himself like a child’s blanket, buried himself in the snow, and tried to survive the night.

“My tent started to make all of these various yoga positions until it broke.” Kobusch told Outside. “It was like being on the German autobahn, rolling down the windows and sticking your head outside. It was extreme.”

When the storm hit, Kobusch was trying to notch a seemingly impossible accomplishment on Mount Everest: become the first person to scale the mountain via its punishing southwest ridge, solo, without oxygen, in the dead of winter. To date, only 15 people have ever summited the mountain during winter, and seven have died trying. Just one person, Nepali climber Ang Rita Sherpa, has done so without supplemental oxygen.

Yet Kobusch has trained for this goal full-time over the past two years, and he is committed to completing it, no matter how long it takes. His quest highlights just how difficult it has become to make history on the world’s highest peak. As the high success rate of commercial expeditions on Mount Everest has increased in recent years, many of mountaineering’s most ambitious climbers have sought out other peaks for history-making ascents. The few who still want to etch their names in the annals of Everest history have to throw themselves at increasingly dangerous—or oddly specific—challenges.

“A few years ago, there was a woman who wanted the record for being the summiter with the longest hair. And then there was the first certified veterinarian,” says Bili Bierling, director of the Himalayan Database, a nonprofit organization based in Kathmandu that chronicles and verifies all Himalayan ascents. “And of course we have Wim Hof—he tried to summit Everest in his shorts.”

“People all want to be the first at something,” says Bierling—herself the first German woman to summit 26,718-foot Manaslu and 27,940-foot Lhotse.

According to the Himalayan Database, 10,656 people have now reached the summit of Everest on 2,212 expeditions. A handful of records from the early decades of Everest expeditions still stand out. In 1960, the Chinese government mounted a full-scale assault to claim the first ascent via the northern side of the mountain. Three years later, American climbers Tom Hornbein and Willi Unseold pushed a difficult route up the West Ridge—the second half of which Kobusch is hoping to follow.

The first woman, Junko Tabei, reached the summit in 1970; in 1975, a massive British effort pushed climbers Doug Scott and Dougal Haston to the summit via a direct route up the southwest face. In 1979, a Yugolslavian team put five climbers on the summit via the West Ridge direct. To accomplish this, they mobilized 24 high-altitude climbers and 750 porters and installed a portable ropeway to haul 18 tons of equipment up to the Lho La pass—just below where Kobusch took shelter in his shattered tent.

The most notable expedition of the 1970s was Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler’s ascent of the standard route in 1978 without supplemental oxygen—a feat thought to be impossible at the time.

Climbers recorded more firsts on Everest in the 1980s, but the noteworthy accomplishments became fewer as more reached the summit. A team of Polish climbers notched the first winter ascent in 1980. In 1988, British climber Stephen Venables ascended the seldom-explored Kangshung Face on the mountain’s eastern side. 

In the 1990s, commercial expeditions replaced alpinists on Everest, and more seasoned mountaineers sought out tougher routes on other peaks or launched guiding businesses of their own. Mountaineering veteran Conrad Anker says the explosion of commercial expeditions changed the mountain’s reputation within the alpinism community.

“Back in the day, you would walk across the street on your knees to shake hands with an Everest summiter,” Anker says. “Now, if you’re climbing professionally, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a rich person’s game. I’m above that.’”

But Mount Everest has continued to attract climbers hoping to be the fastest to the top or take on a new challenge. Mark Synnott, Everest summiteer and author of the book The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest, says the mountain’s iconic status will always make it a destination for climbers who are looking to leave their mark. 

“Everest is the most iconic mountain on earth. It appeals to the full spectrum of our society, from the scrappy dreamers that are getting support on the grassroots level to hardened mountaineers like Jost Kobusch,” Synnott says.

In recent years, record setters on Everest have focused largely on speed and avoided straying from the standard routes and relative security of the miles of fixed ropes, established camps, and rescue opportunities. In 2017, Catalan runner Kilian Jornet set the speed record from Everest’s Advanced Base Camp to the summit without oxygen at 26 hours. According to Guinness World Records, Pemba Dorje Sherpa holds the record with oxygen at eight hours and ten minutes, which he set in 2004.

Other climbers, like the late “Swiss Machine” Ueli Steck, have chased the record books by attempting to link up multiple summits, like Everest and Lhotse, in a single frantic push. Steck, who was considered among the best climbers in the world, died on Everest after a fall during a routine acclimatization exercise in 2017.

Even among record chasers like Steck and Jornet, Kobusch’s goal stands out. When asked about the German’s quest, Anker said, “I’m still scratching my head about that.” But he also explained that mountaineers have always needed to generate funds to support expeditions, and those dollars are often reliant on being able to tell a good story. “We’re tied into the storytelling and experiential aspect of all outdoor pursuits. Even for the greatest feats, there is always a story connected to it one way or another,” Anker says.

Synnott agrees. “Everest sells,” he says. “Try doing a super-hard route on an obscure peak that no one has ever heard of, and then try to sell that. See how far you get.”

In many ways, Kobusch’s goals are perfectly designed for global attention: one man versus the hardest route, in the most difficult conditions, on the planet’s tallest mountain. He is pursuing the summit with no Sherpa support, minimal fixed ropes, and no oxygen, making his expedition more aligned with some of the mountain’s most famous icon than with climbers looking to notch stunts on the peak. 

But some seasoned mountaineers have dismissed Kobusch’s project as being so difficult that it veers into hyperbole; others have called it a publicity stunt. Reinhold Messner called Kobusch a “world champion of advertising.”

When asked about the criticism, Kobusch says he has actually lost out on cash because of the extreme nature of his expedition.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Did you choose this extreme project because it’s good for marketing and you easily attract sponsors?’ Actually, some of my sponsors said, ‘This project is too crazy for us,’” Kobusch says. “From a marketing perspective, I could have chosen better.”

The winds eventually chased Kobusch off the mountain and forced him to retreat back to Base Camp, where he ended his 2022 winter expedition in late February. After two months on the mountain, he reached only 21,000 feet: a full 8,000 vertical feet shy of the summit and 3,000 feet lower than his high point in 2019. As he packed up his kit, Kobusch resigned himself to another two years of full-time training before his next attempt beginning in December 2023.

Why tackle a seemingly impossible route on the world’s highest mountain, in the dead of winter, alone? Kobusch says the answer is highly personal.

“The fascinating thing about mountaineering alpinism is, basically, that there are no rules. It’s art,” he says. “Imagine you are an artist, and somebody criticizes your art. It doesn’t make much sense. Because you do it according to your own imagination. You do it the way you want to do it.”

The post It’s Harder Than Ever to Break Records on Mount Everest appeared first on Outside Online.

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