“Billli, where exactly are you?” Russell called me over the radio. “I am about 10 minutes away from the real summit,” I replied from the point everyone calls the “rock tower”. I had been climbing for exactly eight hours and as Russell was determined that I should make it back down to Camp II after the summit, he wanted me to hurry up. Most of my climbing mates, who had been using supplementary oxygen, had already made it back down to Camp IV, where they were re-hydrating and getting ready to descend to the safer altitudes of Camp II. “I am already on my way down to base camp,” I heard Herbert say over the radio, who probably could not wait to get some proper food after hardly having eaten for three days.
Only 14 peaks in the world raise up over 8000m into what today is known as “the dead zone”. All are situated in the Himalaya range spread over countries like: Nepal, India, Pakistan and Tibet.
The first expedition to set foot on a 8000m peak was achieved by a French expedition in June 3th 1950, when the guide Louis Lachenal from Annecy together with Maurice Herzog from Lyon, set foot on the summit of Annapurna. As a first time ever achievement, Lachenal and Herzog climbed the dangerous peak of 8091m without the use of supplemental oxygen. A big French success, as just the logistic problems transporting the gear and equipment from France to Nepal in 1950, was a major and expensive obstacle, to what you can add climbing up into unknown conditions. Maurice Herzog was the first to reach the summit, followed closely by Louis Lachenal, though reaching the summit, and especially without the use of supplemental oxygen, they were forced to pay the price: Herzog’s decision to opt for lighter boots, and the loss of his gloves near the summit allowed frostbite to set in quickly, resulting in extensive amputations on both hands and both feet.
What makes the French expedition to Annapurna special is not only the fact that it was the first 8000+ meter peak climbed, it was also the first that was scouted and climbed entirely in one climbing season, a feat not easily repeated, especially in the golden era of mountaineering.
Since Annapurna in 1950, Climbers have learned from the experiences made, and what was in the beginning heavy National expeditions, are now light international “low budget” expeditions. At the end of 2011, only 24 people have climbed all 14 8000, and the latest to join “the club” is Japanese climber Hirotaka Takeushi, who summited his last 8000m peak: Dhaulagiri May 26th at 05:30PM local time.
Alpinism is often infused with the fundamental question of puritanism. In this spirit, climbs being made without the use of supplemental oxygen, nor porters and hence in alpine style, are regarded as the ultimate human engagement confronted with a 8000. And in this game, there are only a small club left of 13 climbers in the world, having completed this achievement.