Are climbers who use prescription medications, supplemental oxygen, or methamphetamines during extreme ascents cheaters?
by JOHN O’CONNOR, Gear Patrol
Before Hermann Buhl’s first ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953, the 26,660-foot peak in the western Himalayas was synonymous with death.
Thirty-one climbers had died on summit attempts, including 10 in an infamous 1934 debacle. Many more had been thwarted by impossible conditions. But Buhl, a “small and delicate” (his words) 29-year-old Austrian, did it with a faulty crampon and without supplemental oxygen, Sherpa support, or Gore-Tex gloves.
On his descent, he was forced to spend the night standing up in a notch below the summit, hallucinating while drifting in and out of consciousness. Then, at the end of his tether, as he recalls in his memoir, Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage, he remembered his methamphetamine pills, Pervitin: “It was the only chance; its brief renewal of my strength might last long enough for me to get down to the tent.” Pervitin — prescription speed, basically — was well known among German and Austrian climbers then for inducing superhuman energy and focus. It had been distributed during WWII to Nazi infantry, who called it panzerschokolade, or “tank chocolate.”
Buhl popped two. Later on, he took some Padutin, a blood-flow agent that wards off frostbite, and eventually three more Pervitin; he had also been drinking tea brewed from coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine. Buhl survived. And as he hints in Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage, without the drugs, he wouldn’t have.