The Last Gasp: Ralf Dujmovits’s Final Attempt to Climb Everest Without Oxygen

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 Photograph by Bruno Hufschmid


To his surprise, Ralf Dujmovits woke up warm. An hour before midnight, the Garmin GPS watch he’d placed under his hat began to chirp and buzz. Over the years, he’d learned it was all too easy to sleep through an alarm if the watch was way down on his wrist, muted in a mitten or muffled in baffles of goose down. But draped on his head, with the straps pointing at his ears, it was impossible to ignore. It sounded like a bomb.

He sat up in his sleeping bag and switched on his headlamp. He’d slept three hours, propped at an angle to mitigate the high-altitude apnea that had plagued him the last few nights. The wind that had hammered his yellow North Face tent at Camp 2 was gone, and now at Camp 3, at 8,300 meters on the north side of Mount Everest, the air was still, almost balmy—a mere–8 Fahrenheit inside the tent, the warmest temperature he’d ever experienced this high on the world’s highest mountain. If he was, at last, to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen, he could not have asked for better conditions.

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Staring down Dhaulagiri in Nepal, Dujmovits’ first 8,000-meter peak Photo courtest of Ralf Dujmovits

He had been planning the campaign for a year: six months of intense training (running, biking, rock climbing, ski touring in the Alps, hill climbing in the Black Forest with 44 pounds of water in a pack); 42 visits to a physiotherapist to recover from shoulder surgery and then more to rehab a pulled hamstring; untold hours of sorting and packing before driving to Switzerland to ship 330 pounds of gear. Then four weeks of high-pass acclimatization trekking on the south side of Everest sandwiched around an eight-day ascent of 6,440-meter Cholatse, in Nepal; then the flight to Lhasa; more trekking to the north side of the mountain, more up-and-down acclimatization ascents on his way to successively higher camps. Now he’d reached the crux of his quest.

Twenty-five years ago in Nepal, guiding a commercial team on the south side of the mountain, Dujmovits had used a bottle of oxygen above the South Col on a successful six-hour dash to the summit. But it felt like cheating, a breach of the ethics of self-reliance at the heart of mountaineering. A two-liter-per-minute flow of supplemental oxygen effectively reduces the elevation of Everest to the height of Mount Aconcagua, the Argentinean peak that is more than a mile lower than Everest. The physiological effects of a three-liter flow reduce the elevation by some 10,000 feet. You might as well be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Over the decades, Dujmovits had become Germany’s foremost high-altitude mountaineer, the first of his countrymen to ascend all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.“You might focus on Ralf ’s strength, bravery or technical skill in surviving the 14 eight-thousanders,” said Dave Hahn, one of the preeminent mountain guides in North America, who has summited Everest 15 times. “What I appreciate is his caution balanced with perseverance. I remember seeing those qualities back when he was a full-time guide in far-flung places. I tend to like folks who turn around when mountains say no.”

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Photo courtesy of Ralf Dujmovits

In all his years in high places, Dujmovits had never climbed with an oxygen mask on his face except for those hours on Everest in 1992. Since then, he’d returned to the mountain six times, to remove what he called “the black mark” from his alpine résumé. Six times he’d been thwarted. In the fall of 1996, there had been too much snow. In spring 2005, a teammate had taken ill. In 2010, he’d fallen asleep with a teacup in his hand at a high camp and realized he didn’t have the energy for the final push. In 2012 in Nepal, climbing from the south side with the great Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck, Dujmovits came down with bronchitis and got no higher than the South Col. In 2014 in Tibet, climbing from the north side without the support of porters, he carried all his gear himself to Camp 3, but was stopped by 30-mile-per-hour winds. In 2015, he was on his way to advanced base camp in Tibet when Chinese authorities, fearing aftershocks, closed the mountain after a 7.8- magnitude earthquake killed more than 9,000 people in Nepal.

Now at 55, no longer young—he needed reading glasses to see the fill line on packages of freeze-dried food—he was embarked on what he had publicly declared would be his seventh and final try. “The older I get, the more I understand that I cannot do this forever,” he’d told me before the climb. By tomorrow night, May 27, 2017, he would know whether single-mindedness, vast high-altitude experience, and a training regimen calibrated to burn fat and maximize aerobic efficiency could overcome not just the concessions the body makes to age but the diminution of youthful zeal and daring—as well as what Germans call one’s inner Schweinehund, the indolent pig-dog who’d prefer to pass a day sipping Riesling with a full set of fingers and toes. If successful, Dujmovits would be the second-oldest person to summit Everest without an oxygen mask, three months younger than Abele Blanc, an Italian mountain guide who’d accomplished the goal at age 55 in 2010.

“The older I get, the more I understand that I cannot do this forever,” Dujmovits says.

Dujmovits lit the small MSR Reactor gas stove and began to melt the ice that had reformed in a pot of water. He had slept with his double boots inside his sleeping bag. He activated some chemical hand and foot warmers and slipped them into his boots, a breast pocket under his down suit, and a pair of spare gloves in his backpack. He put the pot of hot water between his legs, then poured it into a package of muesli. A half-hour passed, much of which he spent staring at his spoon as if uncertain of its purpose. He had no appetite. Tasks that would have taken seconds at home dragged on for minutes. Once, on Everest’s South Col, he’d been given some cognitive tests by a German doctor studying the effects of hypoxia—the dangerous and potentially deadly condition in which there is insufficient oxygen in the arteries. He’d been shown rows of letters and asked to circle either b’s or d’s or p’s or q’s—as many as he could find in 20 seconds, before moving on to the next row and repeating the hunt. Breathing air with a third the oxygen pressure of the atmosphere at sea level, he was shocked at how difficult it was compared with his baseline performance in Kathmandu.

Now, knowing he would need the calories, he forced himself to eat. He filled three water bottles. He sipped some hot lemon juice. Suddenly he found himself lunging for the tent’s vestibule. A third of the muesli came rocketing back up. He wiped his mouth. One last time, he checked his pack. He unzipped the tent door, pulled on his gloves, and crawled out.

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Nepali Sherpas carrying loads of gear en route to Camp 1. 7,050 meters high on the Tibetan side of Everest. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hansen

It was exactly 1 a.m. He stood on a desolate rise of snow and loose sedimentary rock that more than 400 million years ago had been the floor of an ancient sea. High on the northeast ridge, he could make out the headlamps of Japanese climbers who had started their oxygen-assisted ascent hours earlier. As the forecast had promised, there was no wind. Despite the contretemps with the lemon juice, he felt good. Strong. Happy. Certain his time had come.

“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 mist and summits.” So wrote Rein-hold Messner in 1978, after he and Peter Habeler achieved what many considered impossible—climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen. Since that pioneering climb, the alpine equivalent of the four-minute mile, roughly 200 people have reached the summit of Everest without extra O2. Climbers foregoing bottled oxygen account for around 2 percent of Everest ascents. And as of 2016, they comprised some 38 percent of fatalities on the mountain, a testament to the insidious dangers of hypoxia.

Although the early British expeditions to Everest in the 1920s were ambivalent about bottled oxygen, considering it less sporting, climbing with a mask on your face and a cylinder in your pack has been the norm on Everest ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s oxygen-assisted first ascent of the mountain in 1953. The gold rush of commercial mountaineering that began in the late 1980s could not have happened without bottled oxygen, which has facilitated thousands of Everest ascents, helped fuel an economic boom in dozens of Sherpa villages, and brought millions of dollars in climbing fees and tourist revenues to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.

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Photo courtesy of Nancy Hansen

But veteran mountaineers like Dujmovits argue that the expanding use of bottled oxygen by commercial expeditions has eroded the alpine ethic of self-reliance—and on Everest in particular has created dangerous traffic jams of often less-than-qualified climbers who have no margin for error if their apparatus malfunctions or their gas runs out. Descending from the South Col in 2012, Dujmovits took a widely published photograph that captured the rush-hour madness promoted by supplemental oxygen: hundreds of climbers queued up conga-line style on one fixed rope on the Lhotse face.

Dujmovits, of course, is not immune to criticism that he helped foster the trends that now dismay him. In 1989, with his first wife, Belén Díaz Amodia, he co-founded AMICAL alpin, Germany’s second commercial high-altitude trekking and expedition company. In 1992, he took 10 client climbers to Everest, and though the cold and windy weather kept clients from the summit, Dujmovits made a six-hour dash from the South Col to the top with one bottle of oxygen. On the descent, the gas ran out. “It was like someone hitting me in the back of the head with a wooden hammer,” he says.

Two years later, he organized the first commercial expedition to K2, the second-highest and arguably most formidable of the 8,000-meter peaks. Long before expeditions offered base-camp internet, he and client Rob Hall brought the first satellite phone to the Karakoram Range. It weighed nearly 50 pounds and came with a warning about the health hazards of standing within 10 feet of the antenna. It enabled the expedition to get weather reports, but it also insinuated the cares and concerns of the outside world into what had always been the spiritual seclusion of a mountain fastness.

Hall had launched his own commercial guiding business on Everest and was an adamant believer in the value of supplemental oxygen. Dujmovits argued with him about it when Hall arrived at K2 base camp with his own supply. Four years later, Hall died in the 1996 “Into Thin Air” disaster on Everest, in part because he would not abandon a client who would never have been stranded high on the mountain had supplemental oxygen not helped get him there.

After Hall’s death on Everest—11 other climbers died that spring—Dujmovits stopped offering expeditions to the five mountains higher than Cho Oyu. “The average recreational climber can ascend many of the 8,000-meter peaks without bottled oxygen if they take time to properly acclimatize,” Dujmovits says. “But to reduce acclimatization time, and shorten expeditions, it’s become the norm to use oxygen in places where early commercial expeditions didn’t use it.” It’s not uncommon now to see Everest climbers above Camp 2 using supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day. Some are even using it right from base camp. “It’s become so normal,” Dujmovits says, “climbers now have to specify they’re not using it when they describe their climb. What bothers me most are the crowds of inexperienced climbers who now flock to many of the 8,000-meter peaks, able to do so because the heights of the mountains are being artificially lowered, fixed lines are set on even the lowest angle terrain, and each client has at least one Sherpa watching over them every step of the way.”

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Filling a water bottle; to prevent altitude sickness, climbers drink four to six liters of water a day. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hansen

But for all practical purposes, the question of oxygen on Everest is settled, and climbers such as Dujmovits who aspire to go without it are driven by a personal aesthetic and an anachronistic spirit of adventure that has been largely eclipsed by the commercial ethics of high-altitude tourism.

It’s not uncommon now to see Everest climbers using supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day.

Dujmovits made his first climb at age 5, when his father Georg led him up a three-pitch route called the Cowpath, at a crag near the family’s home in Bühl in southwestern Germany. The second of four kids, Ralf quickly came to share his father’s joy in mountains. “When I was 10, I discovered a copy of Edmund Hillary’s I Stood on Everest on my dad’s bookshelf,” he recalled. “I was fascinated by glaciers and by those heroic guys.” Two years later, his father introduced him to the ice-capped peaks of the Alps, letting Ralf break trail on a snowy traverse of the 4,506-meter Weisshorn in Switzerland.

Dujmovits showed an early aptitude for sports that emphasized physical endurance. At 14, he bicycled 325 miles from Bühl to Paris in five days. A year later, he ran his first marathon. In 1981, when he graduated from high school, he bought a ticket with money earned cleaning at a bakery and took off to travel alone around South America for a year. He drove a sausage truck in Chile and worked as a tin miner in Bolivia and as an electrician in the Galápagos Islands. He fell in with some Polish alpinists and climbed the highest peaks in the Andes.

Returning to Germany, Dujmovits started medical studies at the University of Heidelberg, while continuing to climb in the Alps. He soon realized he was more interested in mountains than medicine and began the rigorous training and evaluation process of becoming a certified mountain guide, a Bergführer. When he broke the news that he was abandoning medicine, his father shook his head: “He said I was a fool,” Dujmovits says.

Dujmovits got his guiding license in 1987; that same year he found a mountaineering mentor in Michel Dacher, who’d climbed K2 with Reinhold Messner in 1979. With all his savings and a loan from a local bank, Dujmovits headed off with Dacher on his first 8,000-meter Himalayan expedition. Their objective: Makalu, the 8,481-meter giant east of Everest. They reached 7,800 meters but were turned back by severe winds. High on the mountain, with a gastrointestinal explosion imminent, Dacher scrambled for the entrance of the tent and hung his butt out the door. The explosion happened, but the wind flung everything back inside. Dujmovits found himself lacquered in diarrhea, marveling that he’d actually borrowed money for the experience. “It was 20 years before I went back to Makalu,” he says.

But the friendship with Dacher was invaluable. “Michel taught me a lot about high-altitude mountaineering,” he says. “Where to set camps, how to feel for the wind, how to put enough distance between the tent and the lee of a snow wall, how to avoid the hazard of carbon monoxide when the stove is going, how to take time to acclimatize. I always wanted to be strong and fast. I saw how Michel was slow in the beginning and fast and strong later on.”

Something else he learned not long after Makalu: He’d often climbed alone, most notably on the Nuptse, the 7,742-meter peak that looms over Everest base camp. In 1989, Dujmovits had gone to Nuptse with a team of climbers. They encountered difficult cornices on the northwest ridge above their second camp, and all but Dujmovits turned back. He climbed to the end of the fixed ropes at 7,050 meters and bivouacked for a “terrible” night of racking winds. In the morning, alone, he climbed the last 700 meters to the lower northwest summit of Nuptse. The wind was blowing so hard he ascended the final 50 meters on his knees.

Dujmovits later learned the legendary Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka, the second man to climb all of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, had just died in a fall down the south face of Lhotse. That same month, a massive avalanche swept down Pumori on the other side of Everest base camp, killing five Spanish climbers. “I was 28, I had no kids at the time, no responsibilities,” he says. “But after Nuptse, I realized we are all mortal. I stopped solo climbing.”

As for his son’s future, Georg needn’t have worried. Ralf’s professional career took off. In 1999, Dujmovits and three Swiss teammates climbed the north face of the Eiger—the two-day expedition was broadcast live on television and seen by millions of people in Germany and Switzerland. The climbers wore microphones and primitive helmet cameras. Dujmovits’ newfound fame and the growing success of AMICAL alpin led to contracts with a half-dozen outdoor gear companies. Crowds flocked to his slide shows.

By the time he sold the company in 2011, he’d been all over the world with clients and friends. He’d scaled the highest peaks on the seven continents. He’d proposed to his second wife, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, in 2006, as they looked down at thunderheads filled with pink lightning from a camp high on Lhotse; five years later on K2, he helped her become the most celebrated female mountaineer in history, the first woman to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. They built a school together for 550 kids in the Nepalese village of Thulosirubari. On his adventures, Dujmovits had often stumbled onto the low comedy of life. Trekking through jungle once to 4,884-meter Puncak Jaya on the island of New Guinea, he stopped to play volleyball with a member of the Dani tribe who somehow got his two-foot-long penis gourd stuck in the net.

But over the course of 30 years, Dujmovits had reached the summits of 8,000-meter peaks 18 times, and in that rarest of air at the margins of life, he had come face to face with the sublime. He was hoping now to get back there again one last time.

High on the northeast ridge of Everest, Dujmovits could see stars. The sky was clear and, amazingly, free of wind. Resolved not to exhaust himself hauling his own gear as he had in 2014, he had hired Namgyal Sherpa, a 41-year-old from a village in Solukhumbu who’d summited Everest eight times using supplemental oxygen, and who, on oxygen again, had carried their tent and pitched it at Camps 2 and 3. Namgyal had slept beside him for a few hours before the final push. He would follow Dujmovits up the ridge, carrying an extra bottle of oxygen, in case Ralf got into trouble.

And so, at 1 a.m., brimming with confidence that the seventh time would be the charm, Dujmovits set off for the summit, 550 meters above. He clipped his jumar ascender onto the fixed rope that had been set by Sherpas. He had the prewarmed mittens in his pack, but it was easier in gloves to nudge the ratchet open and slide the jumar along the rope. As he’d hoped, he had the route to himself. He moved slowly but steadily over ground shingled with broken limestone and mostly bare of snow. Each step took him farther into a landscape he knew only from pictures. He was astonished how little photographs did justice to the steepness of the slope. He admired anew the bravery of the British climbers who had labored up this way in the 1920s, venturing into the unknown without the benefit of weather reports or the certainty that there even was a route which could be navigated.

For two hours, he made good progress toward the ridge. Some 200 meters above Camp 3, he climbed the first of the three rock “steps” that are the predominant features of Everest’s northeast ridge. It was not hard to negotiate. A half-hour later, at around 3:30, he reached a well- known landmark called Mushroom Rock at 8,549 meters. He stopped to exchange his gloves for mittens. Fifteen minutes later, the wind picked up. It began to snow. Again he stopped, this time in the shelter of a small cove. The altimeter on his watch put the elevation at 8,580 meters.

By the light of his headlamp, he could see his fingers were blanched with cold, and he knew he had to be careful because freezing white fingers could quickly lead to frozen black ones. Perhaps he should have switched to mittens sooner. He windmilled his arms, trying to warm his hands. He swung his legs back and forth trying to bring the blood into his feet. On Makalu in 1988, the tip of his right ring finger had turned black and fallen off. It was now three millimeters shorter than the others.

Up ahead he could see the Second Step and the so-called Chinese ladder, an aluminum ladder anchored to the mountain that enabled climbers to bypass a short but technically difficult section of rock. It was the crux of the whole route. “Only three or four hours to the summit,” Namgyal said.

But the calisthenics weren’t warming him up. Namgyal urged him to continue, but he knew it would be longer than three or four hours if his limbs began to freeze. He had seen too many frostbite photographs of maimed hands, butchered feet, disfigured faces. Of course, he could have jogged to the summit with the oxygen Namgyal was carrying but he’d vowed he wouldn’t use it even if he were just 10 meters from the top. No summit meant anything if he couldn’t reach it under his own power, autonomously, without a mask, or for that matter without someone belaying him on a short-rope to keep him from stumbling to his death. It wasn’t the top of Everest that mattered, it was the way you got there.

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Camp 3 on Everest’s north side, at 8,300 meters, just before the final push. Photo courtesy of Ralf Dujmovits

For 10 long minutes, Dujmovits stood at 8,580 meters, hovering on the brink of a decision he could hardly face, a decision ineluctably emerging from years of mountain experience, the knowledge of his body, his ingrained, almost instinctive feel for risk. It was 4:30 a.m., and the first faint inklings of dawn were seeping into the night sky. To acknowledge that he shouldn’t go on, that this was the end of the dream, the anticlimactic culmination of the Herculean effort he’d put in over the last six weeks, and over the months before that, months and months and months of planning and organizing and daring to believe that this time would be the time…

He was suddenly overcome. Two hundred and sixty-eight meters below the summit of Everest, he broke down and sobbed.

In the Spring of 2017 following the same route that Dujmovits had, three climbers reached the summit of Everest without using supplemental oxygen. The most extraordinary ascent was by 29-year-old Spanish “mountain runner” Kilian Jornet, who in May climbed from just below base camp at 5,100 meters to the summit of Everest in 26 hours using neither fixed ropes nor supplemental oxygen. Less than a week later, again eschewing fixed ropes and bottled oxygen, Jornet ascended Everest a second time from 6,500 meters, completing in 17 hours a trip that can take a strong mountaineer three days. “He is from another planet,” Dujmovits says.

Dujmovits had been home from Everest a week when I went to visit him in Germany. He picked me up at the train station in Baden-Baden, and we drove 15 minutes south to his home in Bühl, an idyllic town in the Black Forest where you can sit on the veranda of a castle and watch the summer twilight linger over the Rhine Valley and never notice the Dow Chemical plant or the automotive parts factories. Dujmovits lives in a modern house on a spotless street beneath a hill of vineyards. He fixed us a lunch of brown bread and cheese and a grapefruit-tanged German beer. Dujmovits was 13 pounds lighter than he’d been in March in Nepal, when I had tagged along for a month on the acclimatization trek he’d done with his new partner, the Canadian alpinist Nancy Hansen, and their Canadian friends Don and Michelle Havens.

Dujmovits was still sorting out his feelings.

The sadness that had staggered him on the mountain had given way to disappointment, and disappointment to surges of chagrin and exasperation with himself. After deciding to turn around at 4:30 a.m., he’d descended quickly, rappelling on the fixed ropes and retracing all the ground he’d gained in an hour. Back at Camp 3, Namgyal suggested he sleep on oxygen. No point now in not ensuring a safe descent. After a rest, he helped Namgyal strike the camp, and continued down on oxygen. He stopped briefly to chat with Jornet, who was on the way up, then continued down to advanced base camp. He felt numb and befogged, too exhausted and depressed even to call his mother or his son. He spent the day alone in his tent, and then on May 29, moved down the Rongbuk Glacier to the Chinese base camp, where he posted the news of his defeat on Instagram.

After lunch, I asked if he’d been surprised to find himself so emotional when he turned back. “I never asked myself that,” Dujmovits said. “I was 100 percent sure I could make it, and then—no. What surprised me was to suddenly become aware that I was wrong. The desire was there, the passion was there, but the body was just not strong enough. Perhaps I was too certain of success. Perhaps I should have changed from gloves to mittens earlier. Perhaps I should not have drunk the lemon juice. Perhaps I should have gotten new boots a half-size bigger so I could have used electric warming socks.

“All these little things that don’t seem important at the time become important when you put them together. I did a lot of things right, but I also made mistakes.”

He was struggling for perspective. “It would have been so stupid to freeze my hands,” he said. In Kathmandu, he had met the Austrian climber Hans Wenzl, who had summited Everest from Nepal without supplemental oxygen—but lost part of his nose in the process. He’d seen pictures of a young Sherpa whose hand had turned black and now faced the prospect of being disabled for the rest of his life. And it was hard not to count one’s blessings reflecting on the fate of his friend Ueli Steck, who at 40 was perhaps the finest alpinist of his generation. On April 30, while Dujmovits was making his first rotation to the North Col, Steck had fallen to his death soloing on Nuptse.

Dujmovits would be 56 in December. His feeling that there was a blemish on his résumé, his hunger to stand on Everest without an oxygen mask, had been a haunting constant of his life for a quarter of a century. It had not changed as mountaineering had changed around him. Commerce had altered the character and ethics of the sport he loved, and it made him sad that now it was much harder to take mountaineers at their word—harder, absent proof, to trust that they’d actually done what they said.

The desire was there, the passion was there, but the body was just not strong enough.

There had been upheavals in his personal life too. He has known more than 50 people who died in the mountains; at least 15 had been close friends. And he and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner—Europe’s royal alpine couple for more a decade—had grown apart. Kaltenbrunner moved back to Austria. They were still on amicable terms. They raised money for their school in Thulosirubari. Sometimes they still appeared together in climbing magazines modeling clothes and equipment. But they were officially separated in 2013. A year later, Dujmovits’ father died.

Intimations of mortality were making Ralf regret what he had missed being away on Everest or what he might miss in the future. His son, Joshua, was 26; his daughter, Alina, 16. His mother was 84 and still cried every time he set out on another expedition. He had no desire to unleash his Schweinehund, but it would be good to be with his family more and not gasping on Everest. And there was the new love that had come into his life. He felt absurdly lucky to have found a partner in Nancy and would have been smitten even if she couldn’t lead him up 5.12 rock climbs.

After seven tries, he found he could imagine life without the siren of Everest beckoning. There were conspicuously rational reasons why he should never again lie down for a restless night in its shadow with a wristwatch on his head. “I have said this was the last time and that I will not try again, and I don’t think I will,” he said. “But I can feel the desire starting up again inside me.”

He sighed. There was a note of bewilderment in his voice, a mix of wonder and dismay, as if to be alive was to be helpless in the face of passion.