Caban is only second mountaineer to hit peaks without oxygen
Nothing about Miroslav Caban screams world-class mountaineer.
He eases into a chair at a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Prague wearing blue trousers, a blue sweatshirt and regular sneakers. He is obviously fit and muscular, but not unusually so — a svelte physique that could owe as much to his background as a professional volleyball player as his current renown as someone who chases crazy adventures in some of the highest places on Earth.
Adventure is just what Caban, 41, was after when he decided four years ago to scale the so-called Seven Summits — the highest peaks on all seven continents.
What followed was an odyssey that took Caban to every corner of the world, from the wet highlands of Tanzania to the roof of Alaska, as he slowly ticked off each summit. In August, when he stood atop his seventh summit, the Carstensz Pyramid in Irian Jaya — a jungle outpost of Indonesia — he joined an elite group of mountaineers and became only the second person to climb all seven summits without the help of supplemental oxygen.
“The main reason was to travel,” he says. “Under the totalitarian system, we weren’t allowed go anywhere, so I felt like I wanted to have a look at the various regions of the world and its peoples. This project seemed like a good way of doing this.”
Over coffee, Caban talks about following in the footsteps of legendary Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, the only other man to scale the seven summits without supplemental oxygen.
He says he only recently learned he was in such esteemed company.
“I basically thought it would be more of a sporting performance if I did it without breathing apparatus on my back,” he says. “It was a really big surprise when I found out that I was only the second in the world to have done it after Messner.”
“I wanted to have a look at the various regions of the world.”
Miroslav Caban, climbing champion
Even with supplemental oxygen tanks, only about 100 climbers have topped all seven summits; Canadian Pat Morrow was the first in 1986.
Caban says Mount Everest in Nepal, the Vinson Massif in Antarctica and the Carstensz Pyramid were the hardest mountains for him to climb since they were so completely cut off from the outside world.
(It is worth noting that the Cartensz Pyramid, though in Indonesia, is widely considered by the mountaineering world to be the seventh summit, as the highest peak in Oceania. It is twice the size of Australia’s highest peak, the innocuous, 2,228-meter [7,310-foot] Mount Kosciuszko. For the sake of regularity, Caban scaled that one, too.)
In addition to handling the challenges of climbing the summits, Caban says there were a number of other difficulties he had to surmount.
“You can have psychological problems in the mountains. You have to cope with spending time away from your family and you also have to live with one or two other people in a small tent,” he says. “The weather can also be a huge problem, because several of these mountains have completely unnatural weather.”
Besides facing up to the physical trials of climbing the world’s highest peaks, Caban also had to set about raising the 2.5 million Kč ($100,000) needed to fund the project.
A chilly reception
Given the scale of Caban’s achievement, the Czech mountaineering community’s reaction to his feat has been surprisingly muted.
This is partly due to a controversy he unwittingly engendered when he incorrectly described his climb up Everest without oxygen as being in the Alpine style — a climbing term for surmounting peaks in one push without any physical aids such as oxygen, fixed lines and multiple camps.
“Many people don’t really know what this term actually entails, and I was no exception,” he says. “Naturally, I retracted my claim as soon as I found out from the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation that I hadn’t done it in Alpine style, but some people in the climbing community viewed it differently.”
Caban has other detractors, who say he hasn’t paid his dues properly in the mountaineering world by going for gold, instead of starting with bronze.
“Mountaineering demands many years of preparation and a gradual approach to climbing challenges,” says Ivan Šifra, a mountaineer who trains young children. “I have never before seen someone who comes to the sport and just starts climbing the toughest routes from scratch. I think the example he sets for young people is alarming.”
His adventure over, Caban, a Slovak and Czech citizen who lives in Moravia, says he wants to spend more time with his wife and two children.
He admits, however, that he would like to try scaling K2, the world’s second-highest peak, in a few years; in 2001 he was forced by bad weather to turn back after getting some 600 meters from the top. After that, there’s the small matter of finally getting around to climbing the highest peaks in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are a modest 1,602 and 2,655 meters above sea level, respectively.
You’re the tops
Mountaineers debate whether the seventh continental summit is Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia or Mount Kosciuszko on mainland Australia. Miroslav Caban has climbed all eight mountains.
- Asia Everest, Nepal/Tibet 8,848 meters (29,029 feet)
- South America Aconcagua, Argentina 6,962 meters
- North America Denali (Mount McKinley), Alaska, United States 6,195 meters
- Africa Kilimanjaro, Tanzania 5,963 meters
- Europe Elbrus, Russia 5,633 meters
- Antarctica Vinson Massif 4,897 meters
- Australasia Carstensz Pyramid, Indonesia 4,884 meters
- Australia Mount Kosciuszko 2,228 meters