Risks of Mountaineering

by Andrew Stein

In preparation of my small, civilized hike in the Himalayas, I chose to get in the mood by watching a couple documentaries on Everest and reading Nick Heil’s “Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season”.

The first realization was that death is too much of a reality while climbing Everest. Over the last 15 years, Everest’s trek to the summit has claimed on average about 5 lives. And whether that death comes from falling and sliding down some of the highest snow and ice formations on Earth, or whether it is a slow death from hypoxic hypothermia, the risks of making this journey are very real. According to Heil, hypoxic hypothermia is a slow death where initially hands and feet begin to tingle and throb. Eventually, your limbs begin to ache as if being relentlessly squeezed. The brain will start to starve and swell causing slurred speech, poor balance, and finally persistent dementia. Humans are not meant to exist at 29,000 feet, where the summit of Everest resides.

In Nick Heil’s book, to describe the affects of hypoxic hypothermia, he writes:

“As the deep cold intrudes, nerve endings go numb and the pain recedes as circulation retreats toward the core. Often, ironically, it is around this point where freezing feels like being tossed into a furnace. Victims tear at their clothes, throw away gloves and hats, and frantically unzip their parkas, accelerating the slide. Flesh farthest from the heart—toes, fingers, nose, cheeks—freezes first, death advancing from the perimeter. Skin turns pales with frostnip, white during the full throes of frostbite, red and purple with blisters, and ultimately black with gangrene—cellular necrosis, doctors call it, the point at which living tissue is permanently destroyed.

“In the final stages, limbs become insensate and immobile, freezing into place as your body shunts blood toward the lungs and heart, trying to preserve the vital organs. Vision blurs and darkens. Involuntary shivering ensues, a last-ditch attempt to generate heat through movement. You mind swirls deeper into the subconscious, a deep dream state. A few who have returned from the brink of hypothermic oblivion have recounted their last conscious moments as almost pleasurable. ‘You really do start feeling warming,’ Weather wrote in his memoir Left for Dead. ‘I had a sense of floating. I wondered if someone was dragging me across the ice.’

“The ends arrives a few hours later, quietly, in the dark waters of unconsciousness. You blood runs chilled; most brain activity has ceased. The heartbeat slows, fluttering erratically, a wounded bird. This action might continue for a while, the vessel destroyed by the encroaching cold while the heart presses courageously on. At last the pump shuts down, and with that the limited circulation ceases. Internally, there is perfect stillness, equilibrium returning between a delicately calibrated but dissonant energy field in the form of a man and the larger energy field around him—the mountain, the air. The only movement now is wind, ice crystals skittering over rocks and snow, a jacket flap rustling, a clump of hair, stiff with rime, flicking across the forehead.”

Not to worry though, because in contrast, the Annapurna Base Camp Trek, which I am attempting will only take me to a maximum of 13,500 feet. Still a formidable height that will probably cause me to experience some altitude sickness, shortage of breath, and fatigue, but nothing that will threaten my life or necessitate me to bring my own oxygen.

For a little more of the science of altitude sickness, I did a little research. Higher altitudes come with a limited supply of oxygen, and oxygen levels in our blood are determined by the saturation of hemoglobin. After a certain elevation, this oxyhemoglobin begins to decline. Luckily, as amazing as the human body is, we can adapt in many ways, both short term and long term, to the effects of the decrease in oxyhemoglobin. That said, there are theories which show that above 26,000 feet, most humans can no longer acclimatize. This area has come to be known as the “death zone”.

The oxygen saturation of air at sea level is about 21%, and this concentration remains relatively constant until about 21 kilometers up. 21 kilometers is equal to about 70,000 feet, so I’m not planning on having to worry about anything except 21% concentration of oxygen. However, although the percentage stays constant, the atmospheric pressure decreases exponentially with altitude. This lack of oxygen pressure is believed to be the main cause of symptoms of altitude sickness.

I am aware of the symptoms that can arise at high altitudes and I will be careful as I ascend. If I am feeling really bad, I am prepared to stop and see if I start to feel better. A photograph of the final destination is less valuable if I am not around to enjoy it.