In 1978, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first humans to summit the world's highest mountain without the use of supplementary oxygen. Both mountaineers were more than determined in their pursuit, and chose to ignore the concern of the medical community of the time, which viewed the endeavor as suicidal. The climbers lived to tell their story, while their success - and that of many others after them - raised the standard and brought the logical and inevitable question: is the use of supplementary oxygen to reach a mountain summit to be considered now tantamount to doping?
The truth of the matter is that the feat can be achieved without this external aid. In other words, the use of additional oxygen serves the purpose of enhancing performance, of allowing you to yield more than you are actually capable of. And this is unequivocally doping. To most of those involved in this discipline, mountaineering is not merely a sport, but rather a strong link to nature and to a natural way of living, as well as a path to self-awareness. The comradeship achieved while practicing it is comparable to that built among brothers in arms, for death in both environments is a constant presence. Any deviation to the unwritten code of ethics of mountain climbing will be viewed with scorn.
There is a sacredness here that true mountaineers aim hard at preserving. This is allegedly not a place where cheating will be tolerated. As it happens, we live in a world where quick fame and success are much sought for, and everyone wants to be a hero with practically no risks involved. To the uninitiated, making it to the top of an eight-thousander is a remarkable achievement only the daring can pull off, something extraordinary for the select few who truly live and not merely survive, those who inspire books and films. Who would not wish to be one of these super humans?
And who cares whether they use their own lungs or require artificial aid to catch their breath? Well, purists such as the legendary Mark Twight care, and they will acknowledge your summit only when you have adhered to the highest standards. There is, however, a contradiction most choose to ignore: the use of other elements such as dexamethasone, so common on the world's highest slopes.
Originally meant as a life saver to be taken upon early symptoms of edema, many climbers who have made it a point not to use bottled oxygen have nevertheless accepted the aid provided by the so-called dex in order to be more lucid on the way to the summit. And they fail to notice the contradiction. And what about relying on fixed ropes and ladders, and even porters? Anything that does not comply with the rules of true alpine-style climbing, for that matter, is anathema to diehard mountaineers.
There is indeed a fine line between survival and success, and one should take all precautions to return alive and in one piece, as reaching the top completes only half of the mission. Nevertheless, if one fails to distinguish such line, one is not truly a mountaineer in the ethical sense of the term.