Everest was climbed in winter for the first time in 1980, but it has never been climbed in winter without supplemental oxygen. That has become an alluring goal for modern-day alpinists with the skills necessary to do so. Chief among those skills? The ability to suffer and endure some of the most inhospitable conditions on planet Earth.
Battle-tested winter climbers like Spain’s Alex Txikon—who was on the four-man team that made the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat in 2016—have tried, but come up short.
Now Jost Kobusch, a 27-year-old German, has thrown his hat into the ring. And the wildest part? He will attempt to climb Everest in winter without oxygen via the rarely repeated West Ridge. And, oh yea: He plans on doing it completely solo and unsupported.
Kobusch has made several ascents of note in his short career. In 2016, he climbed Annapurna (8091 meters) by himself (see the interview below for the reason he doesn’t consider it a true solo). In 2017, he made the first ascent of Nangpai Gossum II (7,296 meters), solo and unsupported.
The young climber has sought out extreme cold over the past year in preparation for his Everest expedition. This winter he traveled to Alaska in hopes of soloing Denali. Unfortunately, due to the government shutdown, he couldn’t get on the mountain. Instead he climbed the Moose’s Tooth’s west summit. His was the first winter ascent of that sub-summit, but he didn’t publicize it since “it’s not the highest summit on the mountain.”
Rock and Ice caught up with Kobusch a couple weeks ago to find out more about his audacious Everest plans. He has since left for Nepal to start a lengthy acclimatization process.
Q&A with Jost Kobusch
So how did you decide on Everest?
It was pretty easy. I was just asking myself what was the most difficult thing I could imagine to do.
I thought it through and then somebody said, “K2 solo in winter would be way more difficult.” But I don’t feel ready for K2 in winter.
In a way, Everest never really fascinated me. But then a couple of years back Elisabeth Revol and Adam Bielecki—who is sponsored by the same brand that I am, Black Yak; me and Adam are the only Black Yak global athletes—had been talking about opening up a new route on Everest in winter. Elisabeth is a common friend of ours. So we thought a three-person team could be ideal for this project
These guys are very experienced winter climbers, and I was thinking, “Yea, this could be a good thing for me to do.” We were talking about it and so on, but very quickly, before we even started the planning, we realized we couldn’t get a permit and that was the end, before it even started.
That was a couple of years back, and even though we didn’t go, I was
somehow infected with the idea to go to Everest in wintertime. Everest in wintertime—you will basically get a real adventure, real alpinism. Not just standing in a traffic jam.
You’re Planning on trying the mountain via the West Ridge and Hornbein Couloir, right?
Yes. It would be crazy and dangerous to try the normal route. The Hornbein Couloir is probably the safest and most reasonable option.
Look: if you checked out Alex Txikon’s expeditions, it was a huge operation. I am by myself—I can’ t put aluminum ladders through the Khumbu Icefall. And the Icefall has lots of objective risk; it makes absolutely no sense for a solo mountaineer to go through that. People go through that because it’s Everest, but for me that option is not an option at all.
[Also Read K2 In Winter: Can It Ever Be Done?]
There are not a lot of other options on Everest, so suddenly you realize that the West Ridge has really good exposure to winds, which you benefit from. It will be pretty windy on the lower parts, but therefore it will be pretty icy —so not too much deep snow and I can move pretty fast.
When I reach the critical parts, where it’s going to be technical, and you can feel the extreme winds and winter temperatures the most, then I will be protected by the Hornbein Couloir.
What is your timeline?
I go to Nepal on the 22nd of September [interview was conducted on September 9]—exactly three months before calendar winter starts. I will
have some proper time to acclimatize: because time is key to success.
I will hike a bit with my dad and sister for a few weeks in the beginning, we’ll do the Annapurna Circuit.
Then I’ll go for a project where I’ll try a new route on a mountain I haven’t decided on yet. There are two options I’m still thinking about. But I don’t plan to push too hard.
So I will be spending lots of time in altitude before Everest to prepare.
And then, finally, I will start my Everest expedition at the beginning of calendar winter —December 22. Some people argue over what winter is—meteorological winter is December 1 to February 28, calendar winter is December 22 to March 22. So my definition of winter is the tightest possible definition: the beginning of calendar winter, and end of meteorological winter, or December 22 toFebruary 29. It’s a leap year, so I have one extra
Will you have a support team?
I will have a base camp team. It was mandatory. I couldn’t avoid it. If it up to me, I’d put my tent down and that’s it.
I think it’s way safer in the end though to have a base camp team. I will
have a cook and a kitchen helper—some redundancy in case something happens to one of them. And there will be a photographer in the base camp.
What style will you climb in? Will you fix ropes? Use old fixed ropes if you find them? Or do it all in pure alpine style?
First of all, in the beginning, I will go up to Camp 1 with the photographer to get some footage, to film a bit and so on. Then I will take everything down again to start a proper solo! That way the photographer has no means of supporting me in any way.
My idea is to maybe have one fixed line installed at Lho La—it’s this tiny col where the West Ridge starts. This part is very technical, about 5.8 or so. So I’d like a fixed line there if i need to rappel, or if a rescue team needs it. That will be the only fixed line on the mountain.
I will, of course, acclimatize. I will try to sleep up at around 8,000 meters, go down, spend some rest days at 4,400 meters, and then be prepared for a summit push.
And during that summit push, I’ll plan to avoid the fixed line that I put there for safety, so that it is a pure push to the summit.
And here’s something I want to emphasize strongly: This is not an expedition where I want to push by all means to the summit. This is basically a training expedition, you know? I’m going there, I’m checking out the microclimate, the route, the conditions, and I’m building up experience that will be very valuable for a second try.
Because for the first try, to be realistic, maybe there’s a 5-percent chance of being successful. Maybe even lower. But by doing it this way, I increase the chances of success for the second expedition dramatically.
People were asking me, “Jost, why don’t you do another 8,000 meter peak in wintertime first?” They were saying, “You’ve done only one [8,000er], you’re fucking crazy.” But if I do a different 8,000 meter peak in winter, it’s a different climate, a different route, different conditions. So then some people ask, “Why wouldn’t I climb Everest in the spring or summer before?” First of all, I’m totally not interested in standing in a queue and watching somebody’s ass in front of me instead of the snow. And second of all, it’s still going to be a completely different experience than Everest in winter.
So if my goal is to do Everest in wintertime, then I need to train under Everest wintertime conditions to be prepared the best.
Even if I only reach 7,200 meters or something like that, I think I will learn more than if I tried Everest in the normal season.
If another expedition is there as well, would you be opposed to teaming up?
I’m doing my thing, and that’s what I do. I like these other guys, I like their spirit. To me mountaineering and alpinism is not about competition, and we’ll hang out and stuff. And we’ll do what makes us happy.
But I have very high expectations for myself. I’m a minimalist. I like to do things in a very pure way, in a very archaic way, to just go over what’s in front of you. That’s my philosophy. I want to be deeply connected to nature and not use all these things that separate me from nature and from the experience.
You’ve only climbed one other 8,000er, Annapurna. You did it solo. What was that like?
That was 2016. To be precise, it wasn’t a solo. I went unsupported without Sherpa support. I went by myself, without supplemental oxygen. But the day I summited there were probably 18 other people summiting. So at that time I thought, “Cool, it’s a solo.” But in hindsight, I think it wasn’t a
solo. I used the lines Sherpas put up, I gave shelter to another climber in my tent because his wasn’t good enough.
Part of the reason I’m going in winter to Everest is because I realized—even on the most rarely climbed 8,000-meter peak—you can not do a solo in the high season if you stay on the normal routes.
So this for me is searching for a way of pure minimalistic soloing. I found that on Nangpai Gossum II: I’m there. I just am. There are no other people.
So I was like, Ok, how can I transform this now to bigger projects? And this is what I came up with.