Climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest without supplementary oxygen was a feat which was thought to be scientifically impossible for many years. Experts predicted that the reduced oxygen levels near the top would not be able to support the human body during such an exhausting climb. The summit sits about 8 kilometres high, which means there is only a third of the oxygen available at sea level, not to mention the dangerous icy slopes that have claimed the lives of many climbers. It wasn’t until 1978 that two talented mountaineers proved studies wrong when they reached the top after a long and challenging ascent. During a climb like this, the human body demonstrates its amazing ability to adapt to hostile environments. Conditions on Everest demand a change in breathing rate and the blood will thicken to continue supplying the muscles and brain with enough oxygen to stay conscious and climbing.
Step one: Acclimatizing your Blood
Without spending time acclimatizing, climbing Everest would be impossible. While the human body performs best at sea level, our bodies do have the capacity to adapt to different environments. However, if you do not give your body the time it needs to adapt to the low oxygen levels, you will likely succumb to one of the three altitude based illnesses:
Acute Mountain Sickness shows non-specific symptoms and resembles the flu or a hangover. If you show symptoms, you must wait to acclimatize before continuing. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (fluid accumulating in the lungs) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (fluid accumulating in the brain) are much more serious and deadly. Symptoms include loss of motor function, vomiting and fever. If experienced, the climber should immediately descend to a lower altitude and seek medical attention.
To let your blood adapt, you must wait. Your body will start to produce more red blood cells so it can carry more oxygen. These extra cells lead to blood thickening, and it will continue to adapt as you continue ascending. There no outlined “perfect schedule” for acclimatization but there are recommendations. Since everyone is different, it is important to read your body’s signals and not push ahead too quickly, never ascending more than 1000 feet per day.
Step two: Deep Breaths
Everyone breathes deeper and faster at high altitudes, it’s our bodies’ response to the decreased oxygen in the air. The purpose of our lungs is to keep a steady flow of fresh oxygen available to our blood stream. That oxygen is carried by our blood to the tissues throughout our body. Once we start to elevate, we take in less oxygen per breath so we must increase our breathing rate to keep enough oxygen coming in. Purposeful hyperventilation or “pressure breathing” is often utilized by mountain climbers to combat nausea or raise oxygen levels if they are low. But be aware, hyperventilation can lead to dehydration as you breathe out moisture with each breath.
Step three: Supplemental Oxygen
So you have acclimatized your blood, you have hyperventilated, and you are approaching the summit. The air is so thin there that helicopter blades may fail to catch and plummet suddenly. If supplemental oxygen is not used, any climber is in immediate danger, regardless of time spent acclimatizing. This lack of oxygen can lead to hypoxia and strange behaviours in humans, such as chatting with imaginary companions and seeing strange visions. Altitude experts claim that the lack of oxygen near the summit weakens the brain’s higher functions: judgment, perception, memory and will. Impairing these critical functions has resulted in many high-altitude tragedies.
A 2008 study of professional and amateur climbers showed that every climber who climbed Everest showed brain damage upon their return in an MRI scan, and many were not aware. A scan was not necessary for some climbers, who showed obvious symptoms of brain injury such as problems with speech (aphasia), transient memory loss and slowed mental function. Does your brain heal from this damage? While some of the extreme symptoms reduced over time, scans showed that damage was still apparent in all of the climbers scans 3 years after climbing.
Step four: Motivation and Ethics
Motivation is clearly important to get to the top of a mountain, but is too much motivation a bad thing? The term “summit fever” is often used to describe climbers who make questionable decisions during their climb because they are blinded by their desire to reach the summit. One example is that of David Sharp, a 34 year-old man who attempted to climb Everest alone. He was near the summit and took a break near a well-known frozen human corpse known as “Green Boots.” Sharp never mustered the strength to stand up again and needed help to return to the next closest camp. Over 40 climbers walked right past Sharp that day, some attempting to give him oxygen or water, but each one of them decided for one reason or another that they were not going to help him. People invest many things in this experience including money, time, physical training and emotions, and this fixation with succeeding makes the slopes of Everest even more ruthless.
The idea of climbing Mount Everest, or other large mountains, continues to grow in popularity, but they come at quite a price. It can provide an experience of a lifetime—pushing your body to its limits to reach the upper limits of the globe. But, along with the rigorous mental and physical preparations, be prepared to fund your trip, which will typically cost you about as much as new car. However, as science shows us, you will pay for your Everest climb with more than just money; you’ll also pay with precious, precious brain tissue.
Despite the risks, Everest continues to capture the imagination. This weekend (May 21 and 22, 2016) marks the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster which was recorded by an IMAX film crew. The resulting film, Everest, will be showing in our OMNIMAX® Theatre May 21-23, 2016, at 5pm.