Cheruiyot Kirui: The Banker Who Dared Everest Without Oxygen

Cheruiyot Kirui during a past expedition.

The mountaineering community is mourning the loss of Joshua Kirui, widely known as Cheruiyot, a banker, ultra-runner, and revered climber.

His body was discovered on Thursday, May 23, a few metres below the summit of Mount Everest, where he was attempting to become the first African to climb without supplementary oxygen.

Kirui, whose impressive feats in mountaineering and marathon running have earned him global respect, met his tragic end in one of the most perilous expeditions this season. Base camp officials confirmed the discovery of his lifeless body by rescuers from Seven Summit Treks. Efforts are still ongoing to rescue his Sherpa guide, Nawang.

“Kirui went out of contact at Bishop Rock,” the officials stated. “Nawang last communicated that Kirui refused to return and declined bottled oxygen, displaying abnormal behaviour.”

This expedition has proven deadly for several climbers, with a massive ice mound breaking off below Hillary Step, where Kirui and others were last seen. This incident highlights the extreme dangers faced by those attempting to conquer Everest.

Cheruiyot Kirui's journey into mountaineering began in 2012 during a work trip to Outward Bound in Loitokitok. The breathtaking view of Mount Kilimanjaro ignited his passion for hiking, leading him to officially begin climbing in 2014. His early climbs included the Aberdare, Mount Kenya, and finally, Mount Kilimanjaro in December 2014.

A collage of Kenyan climber Cheruiyot Kirui and Mt. Everest in the background.

Despite a background in basic sports during secondary school, Kirui's intellectual fascination with geography and history, coupled with his burgeoning interest in hiking, propelled him into serious mountaineering. His ultra-running prowess allowed him to complete multiple hikes from trail base to summit in a single day, a feat typically taking days for most hikers.

In 2019, Kirui crossed paths with James Muhia, a seasoned climber and fellow ultra-runner. Both became brand ambassadors for a sports gear company, further solidifying their friendship through shared adventures.

By early 2022, Kirui aimed to climb an 8,000-meter peak, starting with Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina. However, work constraints shifted his focus to Gasherbrum II in Pakistan. When logistical challenges arose, the team redirected their efforts to Manaslu, using it as a high-altitude training ground for Everest.

In September 2023, Kirui and four mountaineers embarked on their journey to climb Manaslu, starting from Kathmandu and trekking to Dharapani. Their acclimatisation rotations took them to higher camps, despite Kirui suffering from high altitude Pulmonary Edeoma (HAPE) symptoms. His determination saw him reach the summit on September 24, without oxygen canisters and Sherpa assistance.

Kirui's Everest expedition in 2024 was meticulously planned, with detailed preparations for the extreme conditions he expected to face. 

In his writings a week before the climb, he outlined his strategies for dealing with the cold and high altitude illnesses, reflecting his thorough understanding of the risks involved.

“Without oxygen, one is much more susceptible to frostbite,” he wrote. “I have heated gloves, mittens, and socks with spare batteries, and medications for HAPE and HACE. Nawang Sherpa carries an emergency bottle of oxygen for critical situations.”

Kirui's passion and determination were evident in his final reflections. “Climbing Everest has been done before,” he told the Star. “The difference is climbing without supplemental oxygen. That has not been done by any African. It's the tough way to climb Mt. Everest.”

Despite the tremendous physical, mental, and financial investment, Kirui's journey ended tragically near the summit of Everest. His last words encapsulate his spirit of adventure and resilience: “This attempt looks like a shot in the dark, but we know where the darkness is, and our shot is aimed there.”

Kirui has scaled Mt. Manaslu (8,163m) without supplemental oxygen, achieving this feat in September 2023 as the first African to summit a peak above 8,000 metres without supplemental oxygen. His other notable climbs include several speed ascents of Mt. Kilimanjaro (5,895m), where he completed the round trip in just 15 hours. Kirui has also summited Mt. Kenya (5,199m) over 20 times, setting course records on its three main routes.

His record time on the Sirimon route, from Old Moses to the Lenana Summit, is an impressive 2 hours and 56 minutes.

Additionally, he has completed three back-to-back Lenana summits in under 24 hours. Kirui has also tackled the Rwenzori Mountains, summiting Mt. Stanley (5,109m) on an expedition that spanned six days. His achievements extend to the Aberdare Range, where he has traversed several routes, including a self-supported south-north traverse.

Mt. Everest, straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet in the Himalayas, continues to be the ultimate challenge for mountaineers worldwide.

On May 12, 2022, James Kagambi became the first Kenyan to reach Everest's peak at 8,849 meters (29,032 feet), as part of the all-black Full Circle Everest team from the US.

Joshua Kirui's legacy as a daring mountaineer and ultra-runner will continue to inspire many. His journey from a banker to a trailblazing climber showcases the remarkable heights one can achieve with passion and perseverance.

Kenyan mountaineer Cheruiyot Kirui during a past climbing expedition.
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