James Brooman Interview taken in 2017
James Brooman stood on the summit of Mount Everest on the 25th May 2017 via the South Col without artificial oxygen.
When did you have an interest in mountains and what was your first mountain that you climbed?
I’ve always enjoyed being in the mountains, ever since my parents took me to the alps when I was 4 years old. My mother is from a small village in the Italian Tirol so I guess the mountains are in my genes. It never get old to seeing clouds below me; it brings a smile to my face every time.
I’m not sure when I climbed my first proper mountain as we never did proper mountain trips when I was young. Oddly it was probably a nameless peak in the Karakoram during a 30 day glacier trek expedition I was part of at university. The first one I fully remember as a proper actual climb though was Huayna Potosi in Bolivia, a 6,000m mountain just outside La Paz. That was quite an experience and it left me wanting more.
What made you decide to try and climb Mount Everest without artificial oxygen when the mountain is hard enough to climb as it is?
There are a couple of reasons. The first is historical. I was first there in 2014, climbing with oxygen with everyone else. I was fortunate to meet some truly wonderful and incredibly athletic people on that trip, and was surprised I was able to hold my own. We seemed miles stronger than many of the other teams and I started to think that if those other folks had a chance of summiting, what was I capable of? Talking to one of the climbers there who had been on Everest several times we talked about climbing with no oxygen. He thought I could do it, and that got the wheels turning.
The second reason is that I thrive on personal challenge. Both the difficulty and the additional complexity of making a no Os attempt was something I found appealing. The fear factor and the low success rate were real motivators which helped me train and prepare as hard as possible, which, if I’m really honest, I wouldn’t have done quite as vigorously than if I had gone back using Os once again. Messner said it best when they interviewed him for the BBC for his first no Os attempt in 1978. He noted that by then, all the big mountains had been climbed and fully explored, so there was nothing more for him to do in that aspect. For him it was about internal exploration, about knowing more about himself. He saw climbing with oxygen as a barrier to some of that intimate knowledge of his own limits and capabilities. For me, I felt much the same way. I often told my sherpa that I would rather try and fail without oxygen than use it and summit, because it wasn’t about summiting, it was about finding those limits.
They say oxygen helps you sleep and keeps you warm in the high camps, how did you find it not using it?
I found it totally fine. I never had a single symptom of altitude sickness the entire time, not even a headache, and I slept like a rock at Camp 3 and the South Col. I think my longer-than-normal acclimatization schedule and the extra rotations helped a lot as well, and I’m fortunate that I acclimatize pretty effectively even up to the really high altitudes. I was never particularly cold either, mostly because I had enough of the right clothes to keep me warm. I also climb hot, and cooling down was often the biggest problem!
When on the mountain did you do any silly things due to the lack of oxygen going to your brain?
No, not at all! I had some strange visualizations on summit day (each breath gave a feeling of “blue” and “left”!) but mentally I was 100% lucid. On the summit I was talking just fine and had a good radio call with base camp. So I was once again fortunate. My sense is that most silly things happen if you get HACE and that was something I was lucky to avoid.
When acclimatizing on the mountain you found it hard from Camp 3 to Camp 4. Your Sherpa Thunang said “I don’t think you will make it to the South Col. You are too slow, and too cold. I think you won’t make it without oxygen, better you use oxygen. We should go down now.” What were your thoughts at what he said?
That day was a bad one, the culmination of a few suboptimal factors (a very cold and tiring climb up the ice fall, and in particular a night at Camp 3 without sleeping because we had a sick fellow climber in the same tent). When I was turned around I wasn’t very happy as I thought I’d improve as we continued climbing. I knew I had way more in the tank so at no point did I really consider this incident as the reality of the situation. We descended to Camp 2 and in the first conversation with Base Camp I said I wanted to go back up and try again. To their credit they were very supportive of that. I never doubted that I could climb to Camp 4 successfully without Os, and ultimately this incident helped me get back a laser focus on the job. The next rotation was a great success, and we were back on track.
While in Base Camp waiting for the right weather window for your summit push what did you do with all that spare time?
Excellent question, because I’m not sure! Time there seems to ebb away somehow. Breakfast, lunch and dinner doesn’t leave much time it seemed! Most days after breakfast I’d walk to Pumori Base Camp, about 1,200ft above, to stretch the legs or stress the lungs if I climbed faster. Then maybe a nap in the afternoon. After dinner if we were all in base camp (my rotations were sometimes out of sync with everyone else) we’d do movie night in one of the communal tents, which was fun. Somehow the days just went quickly.
On your summit push from Camp 4 to the Balcony it took you 5 hours 15 minutes instead of the target of 4 hours. Again, Thunang suggested that you should start to use the oxygen. Were you tempted to use it?
No, never. I knew I could take more suffering and go faster, and until I got the point I couldn’t take another step I wasn’t going to put it on. I knew that if I put it on and made the summit before then I would forever wonder if I could have continued on without it. That would have caused me so much pain for the rest of my life that a few hours of extra suffering at the summit was a no brainer. I never reached the point where I couldn’t take it any more, so I didn’t even think about the oxygen.
You spent 15 minutes on the summit, what was the weather like and did you get much of a view?
It was -23C and the wind was blowing about 25 mph when I summited, so not particular comfortable but a virtually perfect day in Everest terms. The view was spectacular. By the time I summited at 10.50am some clouds had moved into the most distant valleys, but you could see all the mountains for a hundred miles in each direction. Sunrise was even clearer, with not a cloud to the horizon. I remember climbing up from the Balcony and looking over the ridge to my left towards the beautiful stratified colors of the sunrise. Clear as day there was a dark triangle which started in front of me and ended at a point on the horizon. It was the shadow of Everest, and it was utterly breathtaking. It was a view I’d wanted to see my whole life and there it was. I didn’t take a photo as I was climbing hard, but those few moments will stay in my memory forever.
The descent from the summit can be harder than the ascent due to being tired, cold, exhausted etc. Did you have any worries?
At the summit I was acutely aware that more people die on the descent than on the climb. I wasn’t worried; it was more the knowledge that now things were going to get hard and that I needed to concentrate like my life depended on it, because it actually did. I summited with a broken wrist (why make things easy), so the prospect of arm wrapping a thousand vertical meters to the South Col was also not an encouraging thought. I think my summit celebrations were somewhat muted because of these factors, as it felt like I was celebrating half a job. In the end it was a brutally exhausting descent, but one which I did safely.
There has been confusion this season if the Hillary Step is still there or it has collapsed. What is your opinion on it?
Looking at the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos I think that the step has gone. Certainly, when I climbed it there was no rock section which I would have expected. Its a little hard to tell because there was quite a lot of snow up there this year, but even with that caveat I’d be very surprised if we found the step has not fallen.
Looking back at your ascent on Everest, do you now wish that you had used artificial oxygen to make things a little easier or are you happy with the way things went?
I am 100% happy with the way things went and I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes it was hard without using supplemental oxygen, but victory was so much sweeter because of that. It was also more of adventure with some unique experiences which I always enjoy. And of course, I learned more about myself in the process.
Have you read any mountaineering books, if so which is your best?
My favorite is Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. Its a wonderful and harrowing account of just what those early pioneers went through, and what they were prepared to do to succeed. What I just did was child’s play compared to those guy’s achievements. Incredibly inspiring, if you look at it from the right perspective at least.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I’m certain I don’t know! However, I did once ask aa good friend of mine who was on the expedition which discovered Mallory’s body whether they summited, and his take is that they were killed on the way up rather than the way down. Whether they could climb the second step, well, that’s a tough one to answer.
If you would like to find out more about James Brooman then please pay a visit to his website at www.everestwithoutoxygen.wordpress.com