On the night of January 24 this year, German climber Jost Kobusch sat alone in his broken tent at 19,000 feet on the west ridge of Mount Everest. The jet stream pounding the mountain had ripped the poles out of his tent. After that, microcrystals of snow and ice whirled up inside the collapsed shelter, making it impossible to breathe. In a desperate movement, Kobusch wrapped the thin fabric of the tent around him like a child’s blanket, buried himself in the snow, and tried to survive the night.
“My tent started doing all these different yoga positions until it broke,” Kobusch recounts Outdoors. “It was like being on a German autobahn, rolling down the windows and sticking your head outside. It was extreme.”
When the storm hit, Kobusch attempted a seemingly impossible feat on Mount Everest: become the first person to scale the mountain via its grueling southwest ridge, alone, without oxygen, in the middle of winter. To date, only 15 people have climbed the mountain in the winter, and seven have died trying. Only one person, Nepalese mountaineer Ang Rita Sherpa, has managed this without supplemental oxygen.
But Kobusch has been training full-time for that goal for the past two years, and he’s committed to it no matter how long it takes. His quest shows how difficult it has become to make history on the world’s highest peak. As the high success rate of commercial expeditions to Mount Everest has increased in recent years, many of mountaineering’s most ambitious climbers have sought other peaks for history-making ascents. The few who still want to write themselves in the annals of Everest history have made it getting more and more overwhelmed dangerous – or oddly specific –Challenges.
“A few years ago, a woman wanted the record for the longest-haired summiteer. And then there was the first certified veterinarian,” says Bili Bierling, director of the Himalayan Database, a non-profit organization based in Kathmandu that records and verifies all Himalayan ascents. “And of course we have Wim Hof - he tried to climb Everest in his shorts.”
“People all want to be first,” says Bierling – herself the first German woman to climb the 26,718-foot Manaslu and the 27,940-foot Lhotse.
According to the Himalayan Database, 10,656 people have reached the summit of Everest in 2,212 expeditions so far. A handful of records from the early decades of Everest expeditions still stand out. In 1960, the Chinese government launched an all-out attack to win the first ascent via the north face of the mountain. Three years later, American climbers Tom Hornbein and Willi Unseold pushed a difficult route up the west ridge – the second half of which Kobusch hopes to follow.
The first woman, Junko Tabei, reached the summit in 1970; 1975, a The massive British effort took climbers Doug Scott and Dougal Haston via a direct route up the south-west face to the summit. 1979, A Yugoslav team brought five climbers directly to the summit via the west ridge. To accomplish this, they mobilized 24 high-altitude climbers and 750 porters, and installed a portable cable car to transport 18 tons of equipment to the Lho La Pass – just below where Kobusch took shelter in his smashed tent.
The most notable expedition of the 1970s was the ascent of the standard route in 1978 by Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler without supplemental oxygen – a feat then considered impossible.
Climbers recorded more firsts on Everest in the 1980s, but notable achievements diminished as more reached the summit. A team of Polish climbers made the first winter ascent in 1980. In 1988, British climber Stephen Venables scaled the rarely explored Kangshung Face on the east side of the mountain.
In the 1990s, commercial expeditions replaced alpinists on Everest, and more experienced climbers sought more difficult routes on other peaks or set up their own mountain guide companies. Veteran mountaineer Conrad Anker says the explosion of commercial expeditions has changed the mountain’s reputation within the mountaineering community.
“Previously, you would kneel across the street to shake hands with an Everest climber,” says Anker. “Now when you climb professionally you’re like, ‘Oh, this is the rich man’s game. I stand above it.’”
But Mount Everest continues to attract climbers hoping to be the fastest to the top or take on a new challenge. Mark Synnott, Everest summiteer and author of the book The Third Pole: Mystery, Possession and Death on Mount Everestsays the mountain’s iconic status will always make it a destination for climbers looking to leave their mark.
“Everest is the most famous mountain on earth. It appeals to the whole spectrum of our society, from scrappy, grassroots-supported dreamers to hardened mountaineers like Jost Kobusch,” says Synnott.
Everest record holders have increased in recent years largely focused on speed and avoiding going off track from the standard routes and the relative safety of the miles of fixed ropes, camps and rescue facilities set up. In 2017, Catalan runner Kilian Jornet set the speed record from Everest’s Advanced Base Camp to the summit without oxygen in 26 hours. According to Guinness World Records, Pemba Dorje Sherpa holds the record using oxygen at eight Hours and ten minutes, which he discontinued in 2004.
Other climbers, like the late “Swiss Machine, Ueli Steck, have been chasing the record books by attempting to connect multiple peaks such as Everest and Lhotse in a single frantic push. Regarded as one of the best climbers in the world, Steck died on Everest in 2017 after falling during a routine acclimatization exercise.
Kobusch’s goal for record hunters like Steck and Jornet stands out. When he was asked about the search of German, Anker said, “It still puzzles me.” But he also explained that mountaineers have always had to generate funds to support expeditions, and those dollars are often dependent on being able to tell a good story to tell. “We are involved in the storytelling and experiential aspect of all outdoor activities. Even the greatest accomplishments always have a story attached to them in one way or another,” says Anker.
Synnot agrees. “Everest sells,” he says. “Try to do a super hard route on an obscure peak that no one has ever heard of and then try to sell that. See how far you can get.”
In many ways, Kobusch’s goals are perfectly designed for global attention: One man against the toughest route, under the most difficult conditions, on the highest mountain on earth. He’s tackling the summit with no Sherpa assistance, minimal fixed ropes, and no oxygen, making his expedition more geared towards some of the mountain’s most famous icons than climbers looking to perform stunts at the summit.
But some experienced climbers have dismissed Kobusch’s project as so difficult that it has become an exaggeration; others have called it a publicity stunt. Reinhold Messner called Kobusch an “advertising world champion”.
When asked about the criticism, Kobusch says he lost cash because of the extreme nature of his expedition.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Did you decide to do this extreme project because it’s good for marketing and you get sponsors easily?’ In fact, some of my sponsors said, ‘This project is too crazy for us,'” says Kobusch. “From a marketing perspective, I could have chosen better.”
The winds eventually blew Kobusch off the mountain, forcing him to retreat to base camp, where he ended his 2022 winter expedition at the end of February. After two months on the mountain, he only climbed 21,000 feet: a full 8,000 feet less than the summit and 3,000 feet lower than his 2019 peak. As he packed up his gear, Kobusch found himself fully satisfied with another two years. Qualifying before his next attempt from December 2023.
Why tackle a seemingly impossible route on the world’s highest mountain alone in the depths of winter? Kobusch says the answer is very personal.
“Basically, the fascinating thing about mountaineering is that there are no rules. It’s art,” he says. “Imagine you are an artist and someone criticizes your art. It doesn’t make much sense. Because you do it on your own terms. You do it how you want it.”