1. Your body starts to completely shut down in the ‘death zone’
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.
2. Everything happens in super-slow-motion
I have never climbed with artificial oxygen so my experience of climbing above 8,000m is very pure and intense. The feeling is like you are moving in super-slow motion. Sometimes you can see the summit about 200m away but it can take you two hours to get there. It just never gets any closer. You have to force yourself to take ten steps, stop, try to get some more air into your body, then take another ten steps.
On a smaller climb like Mont Blanc (4,809m, France/Italy) you know exactly how much altitude gain you can make in an hour. Above 8,000m that is impossible. You have to switch off your brain or you will go mad with frustration.
3. Climbers communicate with glances and body language instead of words
When I climb above 8,000m on mountains like Dhaulagiri (8,167m, Nepal) or Makalu (8,485m, Nepal/China), I always have my friends nearby but we don’t say anything. All the air is needed for breathing and moving.
On one expedition we were doing some filming so they put microphones on us, but they soon realised we just didn’t talk for hours. You don’t have the energy so you communicate by just looking at each other. You can tell from how people look at you or from their body language exactly how they are feeling. We have super-minimal conversations up there. Even on the summits, you just hug and smile and start to cry. It’s not like having a chat while running through Hyde Park.
4. Fitness can’t help you overcome the altitude
The funny thing is that being able to perform well at altitude is not at all related to how fit you are. I have been joined on expeditions by people who are trained mountain runners and I know at sea level I would have no hope of keeping pace with them but above 8,000m I would arrive at each tent an hour before them. It’s about genetics and even doctors are not entirely sure why some people can cope better at altitude than others.
5. The cold is like nothing you have ever experienced before
Above 8,000m the terrain is not necessarily really technical or challenging—although it can be—but the conditions are usually what make it tricky. You know if you fall down, you have a problem. There tends to be a lot of ridges and some scrambling when you get to high altitude. With the lack of oxygen, the wind and the cold it is easy to turn around. I remember one winter on Nanga Parbat (8,126m, Pakistan) the winds were so cold we needed to get into the tents immediately as soon as we reached a bivvy site. After putting up the tents, we had to desperately try to heat up our fingers again.
6. Mountain weather can change in an instant
Sometimes I have been at a base camp and the weather feels good but the conditions at the top of the mountain can be deadly. Even at base camp you can hear what sounds like an airplane taking off. It’s actually a windy storm miles above you near the summit but you can hear it even at base camp. You can sometimes be in sunshine but look up and see what I call a ‘flag’ of snow blowing up at the top of the mountain.
7. You don’t have to reach the summit to have special memories
There are times on a big 8,000m mountain when everything is really special. I remember when I climbed Makalu I ended up alone on the summit with all my best friends. Everybody else had turned around earlier because they had run out of fixed ropes. But we made it and it was like a dream come true. But I’ve also had times when I didn’t make the summit but it was still beautiful to be in this incredible winter mountain scenery, even if the expedition was not successful in terms of making it to the summit.
8. Altitude even messes with your taste buds
It is very difficult to plan what to eat at altitude because your tastes completely change. And different types of food become forever associated with different memories. I can remember having an energy bar on one expedition and my brain forever stamped that flavour with the memory of suffering. When I went on the next expedition, as soon as I pulled out the bar, I thought, ‘Oh no, not this again.’ So I always try to take different flavours of food.
9. You know you are high up when the Earth begins to curve
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.
10. An expedition isn’t over until you get back down
After all the euphoria on the summit comes the feeling that you need to get back down. You still have so much ahead of you until you are back in a safe place and when your body and mind are suffering everything is harder. Only when you get back to base camp do you suddenly realise what you have achieved.