An epochal mountaineering feat was achieved by Reinhold Messner, the climber from South Tyrol, Italy, in 1978 when together with Peter Haebler of Austria, he climbed Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. Although the debate about the potentially detrimental health impact of a climb like this on the brain rages on, it is clear that Messner and Habler have achieved a stellar place in the annals of climbing.
Messner did not stop with that climb. In 1980 he made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest. This was an audacious climb from the foot of the North Col ( Tibet) and back with no support team, no established camp, and no prepared caches. On Aug 16, 1980, as his friend Nena Holguin waited for him at the base of the North Col, he started out his climb wearing jogging shoes and reached the Col. At 5 AM on the 17, he set off on his epic climb. He fell into a crevasse but extricated himself and slept in a small bivouac tent that night; and on the third day with snow fall and poor visibility surrounding him, he staggered on and finally saw the Chinese tripod at the top of Mount Everest.
Messner accomplished in 3 days what had taken many other previous climbers several weeks. At this time in Messner’s career, he had climbed five of the 8000 m peaks in the world without oxygen and he was ultimately to become the first person to climb all 14 of the 8000 m peaks.
What makes it physiologically possible for elite climbers like Messner to accomplish these difficult climbs? Is it just drive and ambition or are there important physiological factors? To answer this question, Dr Oscar Olez, Messner’s personal physician from Switzerland did extensive physiological measurements in six elite altitude climbers like Messner and found, much to his surprise that these climbers had nothing unusual in their physical make up. In fact exercise testing parameters revealed these climbers’ performance to be far below world-class long distance runners.
John West, the famous physiologist likes to say that this “unremarkableness” is reminiscent of the curious incident of the dog in the night time in Sherlock Holmes “Silver Blaze”. When Holmes draws Watson’s attention to “ the curious incident of the dog in the night time”, Watson replies,“the dog did nothing in the night-time”. Holmes says, “That was the curious incident”.