Mount Everest, Nepal

Did You Know That
adidas Produced a Special Trekking Shoe for Reinhold Messner Prior to his Historic Oxygen-Free Ascent of Mount Everest in 1978?

We all know that climbing Mount Everest involves crossing the dangerous Khumbu Ice Fall, entering the Valley of Silence in the Western Cwm, and front-pointing up steep, icy slopes beneath the ominous Lhotse Face. But perhaps the most important part of the whole climb begins with the approach. The 10-day trek from Lukla into Everest Base Camp is absolutely necessary because it is during this time that the body slowly learns to adapt to the scarcity of oxygen. Were an acclimated climber simply to helicopter in to Base Camp, he or she would suffer horrible headaches, tremors and oedema — and the climb would be over before it even began.

In 1978, this fact was well known. What wasn't known prior to this year, however, were the answers to these questions: Is it possible to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, standing at 8,848 metres, without supplemental oxygen? And is it possible to return from the summit without severe brain damage? In 1978, Reinhold Messner, then 33 years old, was hiking in to Everest Base Camp in a most special pair of shoes — lightweight adidas trekking shoes. Though the shoes didn't have an official name yet, they represented a revolutionary step forward in the trekking world. Super lightweight with a synthetic sole and sturdy leather upper.

Messner first came up with the idea for a light trekking shoe while training in the mountains of his home in the Tyrol. His training runs were infamous, each one involving over 1,000 metres in altitude gain. During those runs, Messner realised that having a lightweight yet sturdy trekking shoe for the all-important approach to the Himalaya would help him conserve much-needed energy. Toni Reiter, an excellent rock climber and the mountain sports expert at adidas, was intrigued by this idea. In 1977, Reiter arranged a meeting between Messner and Adi Dassler to discuss the concept in detail. That year, Messner wore adidas' first prototype trekking shoe during his approach to the south face of Dhaulagiri.

Messner continued to collaborate with adidas on the design, and by 1978 his adidas trekking shoes (still without a proper name) had evolved: sturdier, more quick-drying, and even more lightweight.

It was a good thing, too, that Messner felt so light on his feet during that approach to Everest in 1978, because his mind was surely heavy with uncertainty. Messner and his long-time climbing partner, Peter Habeler, were trying to become the first people to reach Everest's summit without oxygen.

To place this feat in the context of history, it is important to understand that every expert believed that climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen was impossible. In fact, Messner and Habeler were widely criticised as "lunatics". After all, Everest's summit is five miles above sea level. At this altitude, the air contains only 1/3 of the oxygen density as at sea level. Doctors had studied the physiological demands of high-altitude climbing in the 1960s, and determined that the oxygen levels at Everest's summit were so low that they could only support a human at rest. Everyone was convinced that to even attempt such a feat would result in serious, irreversible brain damage or death.

Try for one minute to really imagine what it must have been like to be told by every climbing and medical expert that if you were to do this thing you would either seriously damage your brain or die. Really, try to imagine yourself in a room of doctors who are begging you to realise this climb is scientifically impossible. Now imagine yourself telling them that they are all wrong. Try to imagine having this courage to go forward, no matter what the temperature says or oxygen levels read. Try to imagine yourself climbing toward the impossible.

"Nobody knows whether it is possible to climb Everest without oxygen", Messner said in Base Camp. "But I believe it is possible to climb Everest without oxygen in general. Whether Peter and I will be the first ones to do it, I do not know yet."

As we all know, Messner and Habeler achieved their goal, but their ascent was not without dramas. Habeler got sick with food poisoning, and Messner continued without him. He and two Sherpas pushed on, reaching the South Col the next day. Here, they became trapped in a violent storm with -40°C temperatures and winds over 125 miles per hour for two full days. Finally, the storm cleared and the climbers returned to Base Camp, where they rested and recovered enough to consider making a second bid. Habeler, however, wanted to use oxygen. Yet Messner remained dedicated to their original mission. Reaching the summit wasn't important to Messner. For him, it was all about discovering himself.

"I do alpinism for knowing myself," said Messner in Base Camp. "What's important is to explore myself. If I use supplemental oxygen, then I am placing some artificial aid between myself and the mountains. By relying on artificial aids, I won't ever truly have the possibility of knowing myself."

Habeler relented, and once again the team climbed without any oxygen canisters. In a few days, they were at the South Col, bordering the "Death Zone" — the altitude at which it is impossible to sustain human life for a long period of time. They pushed upward. Habeler experienced headaches and double vision. Messner could only take a few steps before gasping for breath. Progress was painful, slow, each breath as precious as life itself. Above 8,800 metres, they could only go 10 or 15 feet before collapsing into the snow. So they crawled.

On May 8, 1978, around 1 p.m., Messner and Habeler achieved what was widely thought to be impossible: an ascent of Everest without oxygen. Of that moment Messner later wrote: "In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits."

They returned to Base Camp, healthy. Their success caused doctors to re-evaluate what they had once believed was humanly impossible. But what about the fate of this mysterious, special trekking shoe?

In 1979, Messner wore them to K2. He sent a postcard to adidas with the message: "We climbed up to 6,200 metres with adidas shoes. New altitude record (for the shoe). Regards, R. Messner."

In 1980, he returned to Everest to complete the first solo ascent without oxygen. He climbed up to 7,000 metres on the Everest North Face using adidas shoes with studs. Another altitude record for the shoe, and one of the most important achievements of Messner's career. By the 1980s, it was clear that these trekking shoes could handle the most extreme conditions. Now they needed a proper name. In 1983, Messner visited Herzogenaurach and presented the adidas "Super Trekking." The ideas of being light on your feet on the approach and of climbing to the top of the world without oxygen were once both considered impossible. Yet the success in these few crucial years proved otherwise, inspiring the rest of us to push a little harder into that uncomfortable unknown. And, as Messner says, to approach the mountains not for the summits, but as a way to come to know ourselves.