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Mountaineering & Expeditions

What Does It Take To Climb One Of The World’s Highest Mountains? These Famous Alpinists Are About To Find Out…

The North Face athletes David Göttler and Hervè Barmasse are about to embark on an expedition to conquer Shishapangma mountain unaided and without oxygen

In the spring of 2016, David Göttler stood 7,800m up the South face of Shishapangma in Tibet, around 200 metres from the mountain’s summit.

Along with his climbing partner Ueli Steck, Göttler had trained for 12 months, waited for five weeks at base camp and spent many hours climbing up the mountain face to reach this point. The elements were not on his side however and due to bad weather it was here, so close to the summit, that he had to turn back and give up on any hope of finishing the route. The pair returned home, never even getting a real look at the peak that they’d trained so hard to reach.

For most people on the planet, one intense battle with nature and this monumental mountain would be enough for a lifetime. For Göttler however, the experience of being on the mountain and coming so close to conquering it only pushed him to return. “For me this mountain is magic” says Göttler. “The minute we finished our expedition last year I thought ‘I can’t wait to come back and try again.’”

True to his word, Göttler has trained since that event to meet Shishapangma once again and returns this spring to try and conquer the peak that once beat him. Joined by his new climbing partner, Hervè Barmasse, the pair aim not only to summit the mountain, but to open a new route on the south side. We went out to meet them at the end of their training in the French Alps, to see how they’re feeling about their upcoming adventure.

“Last year in Spring it was my first time on Shishapangma south face and we had this idea to climb a new route” says Gottler, as we meet him on a snowy mountain in Chaminox, for a morning of training. “The conditions were constantly bad, so we couldn’t do a single metre more on the new route we wanted to do, we got pretty high but we didn’t make it.”

“That expedition opened a new chapter in my alpine career, or even in my life. Mainly in how I see everything and how I learn, that face and that place is really magic.”

38 year old Göttler is one of the world’s leading alpinists and one of The North Face’s top ambassadors. His passion for high-altitude terrain has led him up many of the world’s 8000m mountains over the years and his love of harsh and dangerous climbs, along with his proficiency in the field, have made him a famous name in the world of mountaineering.

During his time as an alpinist, Göttler has currently conquered five of the 14 different 8000m peaks on earth and has reached the summits of Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Dhaulagiri, Lhotse and Makalu, as well as ascending to 8200m on K2. After such extensive exploration of the world’s highest peaks over so many years, you could forgive a person for losing their initial awe and wonder at Mother Nature’s giants. David however, is still as inspired by mountain summits now, as he has ever been.

“It’s like if you stand in front of painting which totally captures you” he explains, when asked on why the mountains inspire him so relentlessly. “For some people, inspiration could be the Mona Lisa, for others it could be Dali, but whatever it is, you see the lines and the strokes that make it up. For me, I see the lines on this mountain that I want to climb and I see that they are perfect.”

“The silence, there’s just you, no other climber, no people, no helicopters coming – its such a huge feeling for me.”

To find someone so devoted to the mountains is unusual, even in alpinist circles, which makes it even more amazing that David has found a kindred spirit in his new climbing partner Hervé Barmasse.

Hervé is a climber who shares David’s inspiring view of the mountains and of their pure alpinist way of climbing. Through their training and joint passion, they’ve created a special relationship.

“It’s not easy to find another person who will climb a mountain in this style” explains Barmasse. “There are only 1 per cent of climbers in the world that would climb this mountain in a pure alpine style. Out of that tiny group, you have to find the right pairing for you and your expedition.”

“When you try a challenge like this where you risk your life, you have to find someone who is much more than an athlete. You need someone who will understand your bad days and will know how to ask for help on theirs.”

Strong bonds in climbing are something that Barmasse understands better than any other climber. The fourth generation of his family to become a mountain guide, he is the son of the mountaineer Marco Barmasse, from whom he inherited his love of exploration. The father and son pair famously succeeded in opening a new route on the south side the Matterhorn in 2010.

“I believe that having a real friendship is the key to the success of an expedition” he says. “There’s all the athleticism and the training that we have to do, but the key to the success is in the relationship. You have to trust, because when you go with someone in high altitude, especially when it’s a new route alpine style, your life really is in their hands.”

The pure alpinist style which Barmasse speaks of is one of the most interesting things about the ascent that himself and Gottler will be attempting.

Not only are the athletes planning to open a new route up one of the highest mountains in the Himalayas, they’re also planning to do it unaided and without the support of supplementary oxygen, it’s the most uncompromising type of mountaineering and also the most dangerous. While the rest of the world sees their methods as intense, the two climbers have a very different view. They see alpinism as the only way that man can put himself against the elements in a genuine way.

On this new route the athletes will have to create their own lines and fix their own ropes, Barmasse sees this as the purest form of climbing. “If you climb up using a fixed rope, you don’t climb” he explains. “There was someone climbing before you, someone who fixed the rope. So really there’s no ability from that climber, they just follow the line. This is why it’s not possible to compare our kind of ascent with a normal ascent.”

The fact that they won’t use any artificial or supplementary oxygen is because of this same principle of man against nature at its purest.

“We go to that kind of altitude and this kind of mountain because the lack of oxygen is one part of the challenge” says Göttler. “For instance, It’s a nice experience to swim a hundred meters underwater while being able to breathe – this is the same experience that people have when they climb Everest with oxygen, yet that’s not the challenge that nature actually gives you.”

“I think it’s important that we learn and we understand that there is this difference and it is two different kind of sports. A person who climbs with oxygen, they have a different mountain in front of them, to the people who don’t use artificial oxygen and climb it naturally.”

The fact that they call themselves alpinists however, is about much more than technical ways that they climb the mountain.

“True alpinism is all about respecting the mountain” explains Barmasse. “I love the mountain and want to respect it. The mountain will be clean when we arrive and will be just as clean when we leave.”

“Alpinists have to demonstrate how to respect the mountain, the landscape, the natural world. Our goal is not just to climb faster and faster, it’s to show people how to treat the mountains, we have to realise that we have just one world it’s our home for everyone, we have to start to respect it.”

“It’s something that you have to believe in it, because you have to respect what you love. My style, my life has always been about the mountain and respect.”

The pair make an alpinist ascent of the mountain sound so natural , simple almost, as though any of us could join them on the south face and make our way to the peak. In reality however, that is far from the truth. Gottler and Barmasse dedicate months of their life to intense training and conditioning, in order to be able to take on this momentous challenge.

“The training is very structured,” says  Gottler. “I work with a coach from Uphill Athlete called Scott Johnson. We have a very strict and structured training routine every day which takes us through different stages like building up and tapering and more, so it’s very planned.”

“A long day for instance could be doing 3,000 vertical meters on skis which takes four hours, then strength exercises like walking up a steep piste with a 25kg backpack and crampons on and doing intervals. We mix that with indoors climbing and exercises, as well as yoga and much more.”

As well as being in peak physical condition, the athletes also have to acclimatise themselves for such a high-altitude ascent, one of the most important variables in the preparation, but also the most difficult to get right.

“The base camp has a height of about 5,000m and for that altitude, to feel fine and like you can go higher, you need to acclimatise for one to two weeks” explains Gottler.  “In Nepal, we’ll go upto 5,000m for three weeks training. We sleep at this altitude and we train, doing trail runs, long days out of low intensity exercise. We go Alpine climbing, ice climbing, trail running and we hope that from these three weeks we will adapt much faster.”

“The acclimatisation process takes up a lot of energy, so by returning to Chamonix in the middle we gain back some energy and fill up our stores, so when we go there we feel fitter and more powerful than before.”

As the pair complete the end of their training and make their  final preparations before heading back to Nepal to face Shishapangma, they must now ready themselves mentally for the challenge ahead. Göttler knows better than anyone that no amount of preparation and training can guarantee success, the chance of failure is always incredibly high.

“When you do something like this where you push your limits, there’s always the possibility of failure” he says, “that chance that you won’t reach the summit. It’s as important to train mentally for that outcome, otherwise it would be so much more frustrating.

“You need to be mentally prepared to not be overcome by fear. It’s really intimidating to be there, you’re suddenly really small. It’s just you and then there’s nature and this big mountain all around, you need to mentally train to cope with the realisation that you’re a really small dot and you’re somewhere where, maybe, you’re not supposed to be.”

While Göttler might be humble about his  and Barmasse’s place in the mountains and on Shishapangma, it’s clear that these two men belong in the mountains and have never been more prepared to conquer this peak. As the expedition grows closer and their training draws to a close, you can feel both the excitement and trepidation of what lies ahead.

We can’t possibly know at this point whether the new ascent will be a success and if the summit will be reached, but what we can be certain of however, is that if there are two people on the earth that can conquer Shishpangma, it’s David Göttler and Herve Barmasse.

Follow David and Herve’s expedition here:

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