Meeting Munich: Benedikt Böhm - Death as a Constant Companion
Benedikt Böhm is a speed-mountaineer. Without any oxygen he takes on the highest mountains in the world. And as if this wasn’t enough, he tries to complete the climb in the quickest possible time. In 2012, Böhm broke a world record and became the first person ever to ascend and descend the 8163-meters Manaslu from base camp to the peak in 24 hours. Böhm isn’t interested in records though. “My motivation is to have a goal, to overcome and battle against yourself.”
For Böhm this fight pays off every single time, no matter whether he wins or loses. “Every time I’m in the mountains, I come back with a smile on my face and my thoughts cleared. That’s my kind of meditation,” said Böhm.
There’s no doubt he has gone through some difficult moments during his career though. There are those who climb and never return. Böhm has lost some of his friends this way but his love for the mountain has never waivered. “I will never lose my passion and love for the mountains. It’s not the mountains’s fault if we don’t know our limits.”
In an interview with MunichNow, Böhm talks about his motivation, his passion for the mountains and his future plans. In every single minute of the conversation, Böhm is full of enthusiasm.
MunichNow: Speed-mountaineering is rather a remarkable sport. How did you get into this?
Benedikt Böhm: As a ten-year-old I had too much energy. Today they would probably say I have ADD (laughs). So I started with high-performance sport in a cross-country club. I didn’t really know what the sport was about, but it was a case of being as fast as possible. Later it developed into ski touring, because it was a little bit faster and I had good qualifications from cross-country, which has similar movements, technique and strength-endurance.
MunichNow: Do you think it’s a special talent climbing the mountains as fast as you do, or is it something that anybody could learn with a lot of discipline and desire?
Böhm: You need a good altitude tolerance, which a lot of people don’t have, even if they have a talent for mountaineering. We had some of the best ski mountaineers with us, but they couldn’t manage the altitude. If you want to achieve top performances on the highest mountains, you have to do mountaineering for a long time. You have to grow into it for years. You can’t scale eight thousand meter mountains overnight. I had to break through a lot of barriers and suffer some brutal defeats, some of which nearly cost us our lives. Failure is part of it.
MunichNow: You’ve set several world records and you’re one of the best speed-mountaineer ever. What’s your motivation? Are the records your driving power?
Böhm: It’s definitely not the records, they have never been my target. A record makes sense in a 100-meters-race, which is always the same. Of course the time is a factor on the mountain, but a mountain could be totally different the next day. Whether by glacial movement, fresh snow or by wind, the mountain will change so you can’t really make that comparison. The conditions could change within hours, so the times are always relative. I was never interested in records but if it’s possible to achieve. My motivation is to have a goal, to overcome and battle against yourself.
MunichNow: Do you still know your limits on the mountain or is there a risk that you will overdo it?
Böhm: Especially when you first start, you often push yourself beyond your limit because you don’t know yourself yet. You want to try things and you’re very motivated. In the early days we pushed ourselves to the bitter end and so we got into a lot of dangerous situations. But fortunately nothing ever happened. It’s always easier to go back than it is to carry on, but now I always know when to stop. In 2009, I retired only 20 meters short of the peak. The prevailing conditions meant it would have taken me two more hours, making it far too dangerous for me. I decided to go back. A friend of mine desperately wanted to handle it and so she went on. But she never came back.
MunichNow: How do you cope with such things, especially if you lose friends on the mountain? Why do you place yourself in danger?
Böhm: My passion for the mountains is just so great. Also the pleasure I get from them is an important point. Every time I’m in the mountains, I come back with a smile on my face and my thoughts cleared. That’s my kind of meditation. I never come back unhappy, no matter how bad I felt when I started. My passion and my love for the mountains will never get lost. I will never lose my passion and love for the mountains. It’s not the mountains’s fault if we don’t know our limits.”
MunichNow: You talk about the beauty of the mountains. Can you even enjoy it when you climb up so fast?
Böhm: That’s a question I often get asked, but it’s completely the opposite. For me, it’s the only time I don’t have my mobile phone or laptop on me so I truly become one with the nature. People always think I’m not aware of anything because I’m travelling so fast. But the fact is most of the people I pass on my way to the peak aren’t aware of anything because they’re at their own peak. It’s like a marathon. Often the winner looks relatively relaxed when he passes the finish line and the runners coming behind him are on the verge of a heart attack.
MunichNow: There’s more to an expedition than just the club. How long do you train for?
Böhm: Achieving a goal like the Manaslu 24-hour, which I failed in 2007, needs preparation of around eight years, including on-going training. On the mountain you need a further six weeks to acclimatize.
MunichNow: What’s the feeling when you arrive at the top after a longstanding preparation and the haunting climb?
Böhm: Emotions in the death zone (over 7,000 meters above sea level) are like a flame of a candle when you put a glass over it. The flame is very small and about to go out. That’s exactly how I feel. I’m so drained that I have no feelings. You’re completely free of emotion because your body is at its absolute lowest. There’s no real joy on the summit. It only comes when you’re back in the valley.
MunichNow: You´re general manager of Dynafit, the world market leader of equipment for ski trips. You also have a wife and a child. How do you fit it all in?
Böhm: You have to set priorities. And, I sleep very little. I get by with about five hours, that’s something else I’ve trained on. Sometimes it’s not possible to accommodate everything. It’s like juggling with three balls and dropping one of them. Then you try to pick it up as soon as possible. But that’s the life I chose and it would be too monotonous if I only had one ball to juggle.
MunichNow: You spend a lot of time on the mountains and so you have a special relationship with the environment. Munich’s population voted against the Winter Olympic being hosted here due to ecological reasons. Can you understand the decision?
Böhm: Yes, I can definitely understand it. But I was in two minds as well. On one hand I’m an athlete and I work in the sports industry. I always hear people talking about how fantastic it was in 1972. But in those days Munich had completely different requirements and really flourished because of the Olympic Games. But if you take a look at the forecasts, Munich and the surrounding region has a bright future, even without the Olympic Games. So you have to ask yourself are we asking for even more? Do we need to pull even tighter on the already bursting seams of the region? At the end of the day, I wasn’t really that disappointed, regardless of the ecological aspects.
MunichNow: You’ve taken on a big project nearly every day so far. What’s on the menu for this winter?
Böhm: We are keen on taking on the Nanga Parbat in Pakistan (8126 meters) and we’ve already found a very special route. This summer eleven people were executed by the Taliban in the Nanga Parbat base camp though, so that adds another dimension to the risk taking. Of course there are a few other mountains in Nepal or Tibet, but it would be a very special moment. We are looking at alternatives.
Thanks for talking to us Benedikt and best of luck!