Mount Everest is often the site of impressive physical feats, as climbers brave brutal conditions to scale the tallest peak in the world. But the extreme altitude takes quite a toll on the body, causing hypoxia, muscle loss, sleep apnea, and other ill effects. Many of the same symptoms are more commonly found in elderly patients suffering from heart conditions or other chronic ailments—meaning Everest provides a natural laboratory for researchers to gain a better understanding of these diseases.
A brutal Mount Everest storm might have doomed legendary climber George Mallory. How do we know? Because it’s there—in his team’s meteorological records.
Mallory was the man who, according to legend at least, responded to a question about why he’d want to climb Everest with the immortal reply, “Because it’s there.” But he and his partner, Andrew Irvine, never returned from their 1924 attempt to summit the world’s highest peak. Their lost expedition spurred decades of curiosity about their fate, a curiosity that only intensified when explorers found Mallory’s body in 1999.
For a paper published in the journal Weather, scientists have scoured the meteorological measurements taken at the expedition’s base camp at 16,500 feet and recorded in the logs. Despite the fact that those logs were brought back to Britain in 1926, the researchers argue that they haven’t been part of the discussion of Mallory’s downfall, even though the answer could be right there on the decades-old pages.
The researchers analysed barometric pressure measurements and found that during the Mallory and Irvine summit attempt, there was a pressure drop at Everest base camp of approximately 18 millibars (mbar). Lead author GW Kent Moore, from the University of Toronto, Canada, described this as “quite a large drop”. He said: “We concluded that Mallory and Irvine most likely encountered a very intense storm as they made their way towards the summit” [BBC News].
Now that’s going above and beyond the call of duty: Four doctors braved the dangers of Everest and scaled the world’s tallest mountain in order to study their tolerance to low oxygen levels experienced near the peak of the 29,000-foot mountain. The doctors, who had spent several weeks acclimatizing to the thin atmosphere, had the lowest blood oxygen levels ever recorded in a healthy, non-hibernating mammal. “You sometimes see levels this low in people who are dying because they’ve had a cardiac arrest,” says team member Mike Grocott…. “We were able to talk, walk, take the blood gas and think clearly with these levels” [New Scientist].
The doctors couldn’t take blood samples on the summit because conditions were too severe, with high winds and temperatures of around -13 degrees Fahrenheit. But once they descended to about 27,500 feet the doctors removed their gloves, unzipped their down suits and drew blood from the femoral artery in the groin. The samples were then carried by Sherpas back down the mountain and analysed within two hours at a science lab set up at the team’s camp [BBC News] at about 21,000 feet. Although the climbers had used oxygen tanks during their ascent, they removed their masks twenty minutes before conducting the test to avoid skewing the readings. The findings, they say, may have implications for doctors who worry about the blood oxygen levels of critically ill patients.
A new study has found that 1.3 percent of the ambitious climbers who test themselves on the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, will die before returning to base camp, a higher rate than that of other peaks. The host of hazards awaiting those who dare to climb the 29,000-foot (8,850 meter) Himalayan mountain include extreme cold, whipping winds, changing weather, treacherous climbs and avalanches. Oxygen content in the air is only a third of that at sea level [Reuters]. But the main cause of death isn’t avalanches, falls, or respiratory problems brought on by the thin atmosphere, researchers found–nor is it monster attacks. “Nobody was attacked by any Yeti or anything else” [Reuters], study coauthor Paul Firth helpfully added.
Instead, the most frequent cause of death is brain swelling brought on by the altitude, which is accompanied by confusion and lack of coordination. Study coauthor Kent Moore explains: “With the low barometric pressure and lack of oxygen, there tends to be a seepage of fluid out of the blood vessels. When this happens in the brain, it causes swelling. It tends to impair cognitive function. That’s probably what causes a lot of the deaths.” Climbers with this problem fall behind, become lethargic, and may become disoriented – none of which has anything to do with their level of physical fitness [Canwest News Service].