Climbing mountains is dangerous, there’s no denying that, but going to extreme altitudes is especially treacherous. Above seven thousand five hundred meters the human body is dying, and it ain’t dying slowly - if an airplane were to drop you off on the summit of Manaslu you would suffocate within a few minutes. One solution to thin air is the use of bottled oxygen a common practice on the world’s two highest mountains: Everest and K2. Using oxygen allows you to move faster and stay warmer, but the apparatus is clunky, heavy and unreliable, not to mention the logistical headache of ferrying oxygen cylinders up and down the mountain. In short sucking O’s causes more problems than it’s worth on all but the most extreme altitudes.
Oxygen or no oxygen in order to get to the summit of a high altitude peak you’re going to have to acclimatize - slowly ascending and descending in order to increase the number of red blood cells pulsing through your veins. Acclimatization is not an antidote, it simply means that you will die slower, and it is for this reason that mountaineers refer to the region above seventy five hundred meters as the “death zone.”
In the death zone the small mistake that would normally rank as an inconvenience can easily and quickly kill. You cannot afford to expend precious time and energy wandering aimlessly in a whiteout, you cannot lose a glove and expect to keep your fingers, you cannot afford to spill water on your sleeping bag. Going high is like running through an active firing range: if you do it too often, are too slow or simply unlucky you’ll probably die. The mountain doesn’t care who you are, how much money you made last year, or who you have waiting at home. The “it’s nothing personal” coldness of high altitude mountaineering is quite sobering.
Further research showed that it wasn’t until 1997 that an American climber, Charlie Mace, first reached Manaslu’s summit. As of the fall of 2001 only five American climbers had followed Charlie to the top, one of which was Ed Viesturs. At that time Mr. Viesturs had climbed eleven of the fourteen Eight Thousanders and was arguably the most competent high altitude mountaineer currently pursuing the high peaks. The common adjective attached to Mr. Viesturs is superhuman. It seemed as though Manaslu remained a considerable prize for American mountaineers, which made me quite surprised by the small scale of Tom’s project.
To be honest, I was only attending the meeting as a consideration to Brian, who I believed was only attending out of consideration for his boss. During the drive down we speculated that we would find a large highly funded team of super climbers who would only court two amateurs such as ourselves either to defray costs or, worse yet, consider us low altitude load bearers - a couple of strong backs with fat wallets, but not serious summit contenders.