Olivier Racine, the Swiss writer and adventurer is known for his extraordinary sporting achievements. He has also experienced what it feels like to attempt to climb a peak of over 8,000m - 26,300ft. Among his many achievements, he completed an Iron Man challenge among the first, swam across Lake Geneva - Europe's largest alpine lake - and back (28km - 15miles) for the first time in 2004 after an initial attempt in 1994. This Swiss man then set out to conquer Cho Oyu 8,201m - 26,800ft.
He had already climbed several major summits in the Alps (including Mont Blanc 4,810m – 15,800ft and the Matterhorn 4,478m - 14,700ft), so it was fairly natural that Olivier set his sights on the great summits above 8,000m. He was fascinated by the idea of experimenting with how his body and mind would respond to an altitude that even planes don't reach! So in 2012 he decided to tackle the 8,201m - 26,800ft Cho Oyu - the 6th highest summit in the world (out of the 14 existing 8,000m – 26,300ft summits, the ascent of Cho Oyu is one of the most affordable). Affordable however does not mean easy, quite the contrary. To be able to climb requires a solid experience of mountaineering techniques, of expedition life, not to mention an impeccable physical condition. This is all the more true since Olivier had decided to make the ascent without oxygen assistance, thus making the challenge more selective.
Intense efforts over several days at high altitude require appropriate physical preparation and time for acclimatization. The drop in atmospheric pressure at altitude has a direct impact on the amount of oxygen available to the body, which forces itself to adapt by increasing the respiratory rate and by inducing the production of additional red blood cells (which in turn increases the transport of oxygen in the blood to the vital organs and muscles). If the stages of acclimatization are not strictly followed, symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and vomiting may occur. If that happened, Olivier Racine knew the only solution would be to come down quickly and abandon the idea of summitting. Severe forms of altitude sickness can indeed lead to pulmonary or cerebral oedema, which is often fatal at such a high altitude.
Olivier was aware of the risks and wanted to ensure he was physically prepared for this climb, so forced himself to do training sessions lasting several weeks, worthy of those of Rocky before a fight. He trained in the Swiss resort of Villars, walking up and down the ski slopes day and night with his snowboard on his back, despite the freezing temperatures. The Swiss adventurer knew that his body would be put to the test in Nepal. It was not unusual to see him walking up 900m (3,000ft) slopes repeating the exercise up to three times in a row to perfect his condition and get ready for this ascension.
In short, Olivier knew that you don't get something for nothing and that this climb was a real challenge. He was therefore highly prepared and ready to submit his body to very extreme and painful efforts when he flew to Kathmandu in Nepal in April 2012 to set out on the conquest of Cho Oyo.
From Nepal, carrying 46 kg of gear, Olivier reached the Chinese border where Cho Oyu, an immense ice-covered mountain, stands. Several other climbers were also on the trip, including the famous mountaineer Arjun Vajpai, known for having reached the summit of Everest, the highest mountain in the world, (8,848m - 29,000ft), at the record age of 16.
However, when Olivier and the other members of the expedition arrived at the base camp at 5,364m - 17,598ft, they were in for a disappointment. The decompression chamber that was intended to help the climbers acclimatize had not been delivered to the camp and the satellite phone, the only means of communication with the outside world, was out of order. It was at this point that the Swiss adventurer wondered what he was doing there. Even more so as the weather conditions on site were particularly extreme. Living for several weeks, going back and forth from one camp to another to acclimatize, putting up with Spartan sanitary conditions and managing everyone's egos was certainly not easy.
Their patience was rewarded, however, and one morning the conditions seemed good enough to attempt the long climb. Although they were accompanied by mountaineers who had a great deal of experience at high altitudes, on the way up Olivier began to have doubts. Even with proper training and optimal acclimatization, the Swiss felt that something was not right. At about 7,300m - 24,000ft, the others overtook him and he realized that his body and mind were sending him negative signals. Bearing in mind the symptoms of altitude sickness (severe loss of lucidity, dizziness and headaches) and seeing that the weather was getting worse, he remembered what his father had told him before he left: "if you see that the situation is dangerous, remember that no helicopter will come to get you and that it is more important to come back alive". He was the first to give up the summit, but the course of events would prove him right. Nobody was able to reach the summit that day. Several members of the expedition lost fingers due to the extreme conditions.
Olivier's adventure was not yet finished: he still had to return to the camp to recover and make sure he descended in the best possible conditions. Two days later, the Swiss saw Arjun Vajpai's teammates return to camp in a panic. The great Indian mountaineer was in trouble, suffering from a cerebral oedema that could potentially endanger his life. Olivier could see that the climber's lips were swollen and that he was close to losing consciousness, made the right diagnosis, and gave him the emergency medication he had brought with him. When Arjun Vajpai recovered, he teamed up with Olivier and the two climbers returned safely from base camp to Kathmandu. This unique human experience in pain and hardship sealed their friendship for life.
Even though Olivier Racine didn't reach the summit, this expedition was unquestionably exceptional. It was an incredible and unforgettable adventure. As the Swiss often say: "the real adventure is not reaching one's destination, it's the getting there”. I discussed this personally with Olivier, and he acknowledges that today, the preparation for this type of high altitude ascent has evolved. This is particularly true in terms of nutritional care. Some food supplements have indeed shown to have benefits on blood circulation, global energy levels or levels of concentration. These new scientific discoveries significantly increase the odds of success on this type of extreme ascent.
Olivier Racine is a Swiss writer and adventurer who is always looking for new challenges. He has a varied professional background including coordinating the surgical unit at the University Hospital of Lausanne, managing a Swatch store at the Olympic Museum, working as an executive in health organizations or as a medical delegate, but above all, Olivier Racine is a man of action. He was also a sub-officer in the special forces of the Swiss army, and when he retired from military service he went to Thailand where he worked in the tourism sector for 4 years. This experience abroad was the starting point for many other trips around the world.
As well as being an ironman enthousiast, Olivier is the first person to have swum across Lake Geneva (the largest lake in Europe) and back (28km/15miles), a physical feat achieved in tribute to the courage of a Cuban refugee. This adventurer is always interested in pushing the limits of the human body, and has also climbed several great peaks such as Mont Blanc (4,810m/15,700ft) and the Matterhorn (4,478m/14,700ft).
In 2012, he decided to tackle Cho Oyu (8,201m/27,000ft), the 6th highest summit in the world on the border between China and Nepal. At nearly 7,300m (23,950ft), Olivier decided to give up the climb, as he felt that the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, coupled with an extreme state of fatigue, could compromise his safe return. His valuable experience in difficult situations probably saved his life. In the end, none of those who continued to climb that day managed to reach the summit and several climbers even lost fingers. Facing difficulty during the descent, the famous Indian climber Arjun Vajpai (the youngest climber to have climbed the Everest at the age of 16), teamed up with Olivier to come down safely. This difficult adventure sealed their friendship forever.
Olivier has always been inspired by the exploits of Auguste, Jacques and Bertrand Piccard, the first Swiss scientists and adventurers who reached the stratosphere in a balloon, the Mariana Trench in a bathyscaphe and flew non-stop around the world in a balloon. As for diving, the Swiss did not go into the abyss, but he did carry out a submarine experiment at the bottom of Lake Geneva, reaching a depth of 116m - 380ft. Olivier had already had the unique experience of a flight on board an army fighter plane in combat simulation, but took a step further, in fact, into the stratosphere (18,000m - 59,055ft), when he flew on the famous "Concorde" at 2,145km/h - 1,133mph . Speed freak by nature, on land he has also sped a Formula 1 car round a racing track.
Olivier is a man made for travel. He has visited 114 countries and even gone around Cape Horn via the Furious 50s, but his adventures have been so numerous that it is impossible to list them. He is recognized in both Switzerland and France for his books and for being the man who can achieve anything. As a result, he is a regular guest on television programmes where he shares his long and rich experience of life, travel and adventure.
Author - Boris Hueni
Boris Hueni is a biologist by training and has worked for over 10 years in research and development laboratories. He holds an MBA in business development and currently works as a consultant and entrepreneur in the biotech and agro-food sectors.