Fearless Stevenage adventurer becomes one of the few who have scaled Mount Everest without oxygen
PUBLISHED: 19:51 01 July 2017 | UPDATED: 11:26 03 July 2017
An amazing adventurer who grew up in Stevenage has become one of only a handful Britons ever to have completed the mind-blowing feat of scaling Mount Everest without oxygen.
"“I spent 15 minutes at the summit of Everest, the highest person on earth. What was it like, you ask? Well, not as euphoric as you might expect. It was -23C and somewhat windy up there, and I was really quite tired after the exertion of the climb. I was also acutely aware that I was only at the half way point. Statistically, more people die on the descent than on the way up,”"
James Brooman, 37, an investment banker born in Hitchin and whose parents still live in Stevenage, has just returned to the UK after scaling the famous 8,848 metre peak on an expedition which pushed him to the limits of physical and psychological endurance.
A former Barclay School and Thomas Alleyne pupil, James has always had a taste for adventure. Since graduating in mechanical engineering from Imperial College London, he has competed a long-distance cycle ride across America and run a marathon across Australia.
His mother comes from an alpine Italian village which he used to visit, so to some extent he has mountains in his blood.
At university he joined the climbing club, meeting some “really good guys” and went on an expedition to the Himalayas, which he says “opened his eyes to the world”.
"“I knew I was slowly dying. Without supplemental oxygen at the summit the human body (and brain cells) are actively breaking down, and I was keen to return with most of my brain cells still working. They don’t grow back, after all. Happiness and satisfaction at the summit, certainly, but no elation and little time to appreciate it all anyway.”"
He read about Everest climbs in books like Into Thin Air and when he moved to America to study at Dartmouth Business School he climbed Aconcagua – the highest peak in South America and one of the key pre-requisites for climbing Everest.
He was first set to scale Everest in 2014 using oxygen, but the climb was abandoned after the tragic deaths of 16 sherpas – killed in an avalanche – saw climbing firms temporarily suspend their operations.
He trained for nine months before this year’s expedition, spending two hours each day running with a backpack and going to the gym before undertaking altitude training.
More than 4,000 people have climbed Mount Everest, but fewer than 400 have done so without supplementary oxygen.
"“I could see literally hundreds of miles into both India and Tibet, a view which encompassed the entire width of the Himalaya from plains to plateau. Snowy peaks and endless mountains receeded to the horizon like waves on the ocean, each wave fainter than the previous.”"
Many considered the feat impossible until 1978 when Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became legends for making it to the summit – having crawled the last stretch on their knees, hallucinating and barely able to breath.
Speaking to the Comet while relaxing at his parents’ home in Stevenage shortly after returning from Kathmandu, it was hard to believe he had just scaled the world’s highest mountain.
He told me: “One of the main issues is the cold. It’s -23 degrees when you summit with 25mph wind chill.
“It can get pretty cold up there and, because you don’t have oxygen, you can’t get much body heat.
"“On the climb up my body had started to visualize different actions in strange ways, and here it began again. Each conscious breath in was accompanied by a sense of blue and left. It wasn’t a hallucination and I didn’t see anything visually, it was more like a daydream but one which ran concurrently with my waking mind.”"
“There is a real risk of hyperthermia and frostbite. It can get to the point where your lungs fill up with fluid and you basically drown.
“When you get to that height, you just have to climb very very slowly, take one step, then stop and take a breather to get back to normal.
“It’s really quite an unpleasant experience.”
James says that on the final day’s ascent to the summit, after a brutal climb up the lower slopes, he was literally hallucinating. He said every in-breath made him think of an old man and every out-breath of ‘going left’.
"“And yet their stories of triumph were tempered by tragedy. Several other, less prepared teams attempted to summit that day and several clients needlessly lost their lives. Many others suffered frostbite and other injuries. Members of our group has seen several new bodies along the route to the summit, and a couple of guys even watched as a delirious climber above fell over a cliff to his death.”"
But climbing Everest without oxygen is seen by some as the ultimate way to experience the mountain, with its use sometimes seen as the equivalent of doping or resorting to steroids.
Also oxygen is very expensive and there are many stories of cheap imported oxygen freezing, leading to the death of climbers.
James says: “It’s partly about physical fitness, but it’s also about ‘do you want it enough, are you prepared to keep going and to keep putting one foot in front of the other’.
“I was just thinking ‘this is my one shot and I’m going to make the most of it’.”
James took the more popular route up the Nepalese side of the mountain so was following in the footsteps of the great British climber Edmund Hilary.
He says to make the ascent you have to walk past the ‘creepy white’ forms of the bodies of previous climbers who have not made the distance just a few feet from the path. It was a “quite shocking thing to see,” he said.
A couple of climbers died the day before James’ ascent to the summit, and he amits it made him start to dread the climb ahead.
He also saw quite a few climbers from other expeditions coming down with frost bite.
“This is the dark side of Everest,” he added.
James says the key to success is selecting a reputable company to organise your climb and ensuring it is well planned.
But even the best planned ascents aren’t without incident. During the climb, James skidded and fell over on a patch of ice.
When he got back up, his wrist was painful but he could still grip the climbing rope.
He bravely swallowed the pain and carried on.
It was only when he got back to base camp days later that a doctor told him it was fractured.
But what of that pivotal moment when he finally reached the summit, a feat which he accomplished accompanied by sherpas on May 25, his body furiously burning up his fat and muscle in a bid to keep itself alive at 29,000ft, his brain cells on the point of dying through lack of oxygen.
He says: “I’ve heard people who have said it’s quite anticlimactic.
“Truthfully, you are so cold, you don’t think much, you are just thankful to be there.
“You can see for a couple of hundred miles right across Tibet and the mountains you used to look up at are right down there.
“You are just happy you can go down now, and of course I was extra tired because I wasn’t using oxygen.”
“There were definitely a few tears, but then you realise you are only 80 per cent there and you’ve still got a lot of hard work ahead.
“You have to cross these really dangerous ice flows and many people have still come to grief on their descent.”
When asked why he took on such an extreme challenge, James said: “The reason is that I thrive on personal challenges. Both the difficulty and the additional complexity of making a no oxygen attempt was something I found appealing. The fear factor and the low success rate were real motivators which helped me train and prepare as hard as possible, which, if I’m really honest, I wouldn’t have done quite as vigorously than if I had gone back using oxygen once again.
“Messner said it best when they interviewed him for the BBC for his first no oxygen attempt in 1978. He noted that by then, all the big mountains had been climbed and fully explored, so there was nothing more for him to do in that aspect.
“For him it was about internal exploration, about knowing more about himself. He saw climbing with oxygen as a barrier to some of that intimate knowledge of his own limits and capabilities. For me, I felt much the same way. I often told my sherpa that I would rather try and fail without oxygen than use it and summit, because it wasn’t about summiting, it was about finding those limits.
“Also I’ve been quite fortunate and met people over the years who’ve shown me anything is possible.
“The world is a big place beyond the bounds of Stevenage and Hertfordshire, and there’s no reason anyone can’t go beyond them. Anything’s possible.”
Now living in San Francisco, James’s next challenge could be a swim across the Straight of Gibraltar – a goal he described as completing ‘his ultimate triathlon’.
One thing’s for sure, he won’t stand still for long.
Read more about James’ Everest climb on his blog here.