Monday, May 6, 2019

With oxygen or without?

A satirical yet cogent summary of the arguments for and against

We foregathered in the evening for a social hour, and many a spirited discussion took place at these gatherings. On one occasion we discussed the old question: should oxygen and other artificial aids be used on mountains.

Mallory and Irvine at Everest Base Camp in 1924, with oxygen sets.

Burley said that it was a lot of ruddy lumber; more trouble than it was worth. He told us about his friend Baffles, who carried an oxygen set weighing forty pounds to the summit of Mt Wurdle, only to find when he got there that the apparatus had been out of order all the time.

Wish said that this remark was typical of the layman's ignorant point of view. We had a unique opportunity to test our gear under rigorous conditions, and our duty was to do so. He asked Burley why; if he disagreed with its use, he was willing to use it. Burley asked whether Wish expected him to climb the ruddy mountain naked. Wish said that this was a typically unscientific argument.

He said he had long been aware that to some the ascent of the mountain partook of the frivolous nature of a sporting event. He himself took a sterner view. To him, the climax of our efforts would be the fulfilment of his own self-dedicated task of determining the melting-point of ice on the summit. He reminded Burley that without oxygen the exacting intellectual efforts which this delicate experiment demanded would be quite impossible.

Burley, rather tactlessly I thought, said that, speaking with wide experience and an excellent memory, he could recall nothing which approached this for futility … While they were arguing this point with their usual commendable frankness, Constant said that he deplored the narrow outlook of the others. He climbed solely to demonstrate the triumph of the spirit over adverse circumstances.

He said that artificial aids were unsportsmanlike; if they were carried to their logical extreme we might find climbers impaling the summit of a mountain with a long-range harpoon attached to a rope ladder. If summits could not be climbed unaided they were better left unclimbed. Prone said this was rubbish; if artificial aids were refused, tents and clothing must go with them. He asked Constant if his triumphant spirit was prepared to climb Rum Doodle in a loincloth or worse.


Slightly abridged from W E Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956), republished in 2001 by Vintage, with an introduction by Bill Bryson.

For an account of the original oxygen debate, see Edgar Schuler's take on the 1922 Everest Expedition and its use of "English air". Also Vanessa Heggie's article in the Guardian on "The great Everest oxygen debate: was anyone really a 'rotter'?"

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