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Reaching bottom at the top of the world
August 7, 2012 3:00 PM   Subscribe

"As a climber goes up even higher in altitude, into the so-called death zone, the dangerously thin air above 26,000 feet, there is so little oxygen available that the body makes a desperate decision: it cuts off the digestive system. The body can no longer afford to direct oxygen to the stomach to help digest food because that would divert what precious little oxygen is available away from the brain. The body will retch back up anything the climber tries to eat, even if it’s as small as an M&M." -Excerpt from To the Last Breath: A Journey of Going to Extremes
posted by Brandon Blatcher (39 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
I continue to not understand why anyone would do this, but there will always be someone willing. Not everyone is destined to die of old age.
posted by tommasz at 3:12 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


What's interesting is that the stomach is capable of puking up M&Ms even though it's not being given any blood. Reverse peristalsis is a powerful reflex; in fact, you can puke even if you're unconscious on the floor and your heart is stopped dead.
posted by Scientist at 3:16 PM on August 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


Ask your Doctor if new Oxygenase Diet Pills are right for you.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:16 PM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


All that work at it seems like you'd hardly be cognizant of even being there.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:19 PM on August 7, 2012


This can happen well before 26,000', depending on one's vo2max, build and ACE genotype. I've seen people start rejecting food at 9,000'. Of course with vigorous enough exercise one can get to that point just as well.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:19 PM on August 7, 2012


Command-F for "Messner". None found.

There's a guy from an assisted living home who is wheeled around the neighborhood streets around here, he's hooked up to an oxygen tank - we're at sea level.

Did you know that Tibetans Developed Genes to Help Them Adapt to Life at High Elevations? That's a whole population right there. I doubt they are the only ones. Many populations living at high altitude develop adaptations.

Perhaps there's a population living somewhere where there's a slight excess of oxygen, and they'd be particularly badly off at high altitude.

At the other end of the oxygen tank level there's Reinhold Messner:

"He is renowned for making the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and for being the first climber to ascend all fourteen "eight-thousanders" (peaks over 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) above sea level)."

Solo. With NO supplemental oxygen. Repeatedly all over the world.

Of course, he's physiologically remarkable. But he's also trained. People have all sorts of advantages and disadvantages in health, body makeup, training and so forth.

I don't know what to make of this story from that point of view. I read:

"As a climber goes up even higher in altitude, into the so-called death zone, the dangerously thin air above 26,000 feet, there is so little oxygen available that the body makes a desperate decision[...]"

And I wonder, what "climber"? Messner? Some random guy? A Tibetan? The Average Human Certified To Be Average?

People are different, and react differently to different conditions. I wonder how extremely exciting this is. Somebody mentioned that many others have altitude sickness at a much lower level and that some of it can be conditioned for.

It's a crazy world out there, I guess. Or something.
posted by VikingSword at 3:21 PM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's so cold your snot freezes to your face. It's snowing so hard you can't see more than 20 feet, and that indistinct. There's so little air that your body is eating itself rather than digest food because that requires oxygen. All this, and you're walking on a balance beam, four thousand feet up.

By choice.

Societies have locked people up for saner shit than that.
posted by Mooski at 3:22 PM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


There are few people to whom I would naturally apply the adjective "superhuman" but Messner is one of them.
posted by Egg Shen at 3:23 PM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


Everest seems to be the go-to place for having an adventure that impresses, but...

Radiation poisoning is a bit like being sunburned all the way through - so instead of just your sunburned skin dying and sloughing off, it's all through you, and you go septic.

The death zone seems like a lite version of this. Slowly killing you all the way through.

That's just... not my idea of adventure.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:28 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because it's there.
posted by Apocryphon at 3:50 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd totally climb a mountain but only if it made me puke up Smarties.
posted by srboisvert at 3:58 PM on August 7, 2012


In my mind, Jhonny Depp is channelng HST and screaming "Finish. The. Fucking. Story!"

Fucking excerpts.
posted by empatterson at 4:00 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a part at the end of Krakauer's Into Thin Air where he's doing some reflection on the disaster the May 1996 climb that he was on turned into. He talks about this human tendency to react to all of the deaths with the question "What can we learn from this? How could we do it better/safer next time?"

And his answer, more or less, is that we can't. That there's an inherent problem with overall physical impairment -- and in particular, impaired brain function and with it judgment -- at high altitudes. It might make more sense to ask how we could get better at drunk driving.

I think I do understand why zones like this are so attractive to people. I like climbing mountains, I like being engaged in challenges, and while I'm not one of the people that prefers the the rewards confronting mortal risk can bring, I kindof get it. There's a sense of focus, flow, and importance about what you're doing: you don't feel halfway engaged, you're braced and *on*. Then there's the feeling of narrative importance involved in doing something nobody's sure can be done or something surely can't be done safely and coming through.

And along with it, the sense that maybe *you're* the person who can do it, who knows something about coming through, and hey, maybe we've *all* moved forward this way, because you can share what you know that got you through it.

But, no. Not in this case, not so far. There is a hard limit to how much you can mitigate the risk, and it's because the environment there can strip you of your very ability to apply anything you know. Or even of your perceptions.

Sure, for some of the people who go up on Everest and die, it's easy enough to say they weren't prepared or trained well enough. But some of the people who go up and die are strong and prepared climbers. Heck, one of the people in trouble in the linked Slakey piece is a Sherpa, genetically prepared over hundreds of not thousands of years, conditioned to high altitude all his life, and presumably practiced in high-altitude mountaineering if he's decided to be a guide.

It's there, as Hillary said. And so some people go, to watch the very spirits of the air dance at their feet. But always at mortal risk, always marginally managed at best, always lucky when they come back.
posted by weston at 4:03 PM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


There are places on Earth where people simply don't belong.
posted by scratch at 4:30 PM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


Solo. With NO supplemental oxygen. Repeatedly all over the world.

Messner also climbs Alpine style, not Expedition style. The big advantage of this is you spend much less time on the mountain. The big disadvantage is you don't get much time for acclimatization.
posted by eriko at 4:38 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eventually, he'll have to climb naked. Just to make it sporting.
posted by Egg Shen at 4:41 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


"...above 26,000 feet, there is so little oxygen available that the body makes a desperate decision: it cuts off the digestive system. The body can no longer afford to direct oxygen to the stomach to help digest food because that would divert what precious little oxygen is available away from the brain. The body will retch back up anything the climber tries to eat, even if it’s as small as an M&M."

I have my doubts about an absolute bar to the absorption of any food at these altitudes because a variety of tissues in the body can anaerobically metabolize glucose to lactic acid without the need for added oxygen, muscles, for example, which get about a sixth of the energy from it they'd get from aerobic metabolism of the same amount of glucose, as I recall-- and there is some fairly recent, elegantly obtained evidence that even neurons can also metabolize glucose anaerobically and leave the lactate to astrocytes.

So perhaps it's no coincidence that when I moved to Seattle back in the 70s with mountaineering on my mind, I went down to REI to check out their supplies and found stacks of mint cake-- which turned out to be huge bars of compressed table sugar saturated with peppermint oil, and one of the most disgusting things I've ever tried to eat-- extolled as the essential food of Hilary's Everest expeditions.
posted by jamjam at 4:45 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Kendal mintcake was a mainstay of my Scouting experience growing up. I attribute all my fillings to it's sugary goodness.
posted by arcticseal at 5:33 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hyperbole, everyone's body is different and will react differently at altitude. Mt. Everest has been climbed over 5,645 times, 177-ish without oxygen. It's not extreme, it's a crowded walk up of a peak with little technical difficulty, ropes fixed by Sherpas the whole way, and the vast majority of the danger is due to incompetence, financial incentive and crowds. The present state of "climbing" on Everest is a disgrace and the mountain should be shut down to guided climbing as it has become an environmental disaster as well.

This style of climbing on 8,000m peaks hasn't been relevant to the sport for well over 30 years, but somehow people keep writing and selling books about repeating the same crappy route that was first climbed 60 years ago.
posted by alpinist at 6:02 PM on August 7, 2012 [11 favorites]


The photos of Annapurna are beautiful, but this paragraph is doozie:

The Annapurna peaks are the world's most dangerous mountains to climb, although in more recent history, using figures from only 1990 and after, Kangchenjunga has a higher fatality rate. As of 2007, there had been 153 summit ascents of Annapurna I, and 58 climbing fatalities on the mountain.

58 / 153 = .38 as many people have died trying to summit it as have succeeded. Of course there have been a lot more than 153 attempts. It's not like 2 /5 ths of the people who try to climb it die trying. Still.
posted by bukvich at 6:03 PM on August 7, 2012


I don't even like snow at ground level, this is just mind-boggling to me.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:07 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


This can happen well before 26,000', depending on one's vo2max, build and ACE genotype. I've seen people start rejecting food at 9,000'.

Depends on the airline.
posted by hal9k at 6:30 PM on August 7, 2012 [25 favorites]


One of these days, we're going to be able to go to YouTube and watch continuous HD helmet-cam videos of the entire Everest ascent and descent. I am really looking forward to that.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:46 PM on August 7, 2012


Now THAT would have made an impressive product demo for Google Glass!
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:57 PM on August 7, 2012


qxntpqbbbqxl -- honestly, it's probably not that exciting, watching real time footage of a person climbing Everest. Part of the challenge of real climbing is the patience it takes... and sure, physical conditioning is a big part of successful endeavors, but the willingness to slog it out, that's kinda where it's at.

Anyway, if you want to know why people do this, let me share this awesome Teddy Roosevelt quote: "It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, who's face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and come up short time and time again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of great achievement, and who at the worst at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
posted by ph00dz at 7:23 PM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah, the helmet cam view is probably pretty dull. Mostly just the back of the guy in front of you in line.
posted by echo target at 7:54 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why wait for potential vaporware when a GoPro will suffice?
posted by Apocryphon at 7:55 PM on August 7, 2012


it's probably not that exciting, watching real time footage of a person climbing Everest. Part of the challenge of real climbing is the patience it takes.

Quite true. I've climbed Rainier a few times, so I have some idea, but it's a tiny bump compared to Everest. I'd be watching to continually ask myself "Could I do that?". I've heard Everest isn't very technical, except for a few bits like the Hillary Step which has an aluminum ladder nowadays; that the reason it's hard is mostly the thin air and the fickle weather.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:14 PM on August 7, 2012


All that work at it seems like you'd hardly be cognizant of even being there.

Indeed. A relative of mine climbed Everest a few years ago (he's climbed quite a few other notable peaks and now works as a professional guide). He was glad he had pictures from the summit because he barely remembered it at all.
posted by jedicus at 8:14 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


If climbing Everest is important to you then it most likely will get done. A reasonably fit person can be hauled to the top for $60,000 in about 3 weeks. If you want respect then try the North side of K-2 without oxygen or Sherpas. Climbers are a mixed bunch but once bitten by the bug you no longer need a reason the mountains are a place to test yourself. You commit yourself to the climb and cannot give up to do so is to accept your death
posted by pdxpogo at 8:16 PM on August 7, 2012


I'd be embarrassed, except I'm proud of myself. I was staying on the shoulders of Zermattal (by the Matterhorn) last week, and chose a walk. I have severe arthritis in my knees, so the trail needs to be mainly flat, or mainly upward. Down is a killer.

Having made a choice, we set out. We misread the map. Oops. Far more up than expected, far more steep than I'd have thought myself capable. But partway up, when we talked to someone and understood what was ahead, it was worrisome. Down was impossible. It was either up, or phone in the rescue helicopter (for which we pay an annual subscription that we fortunately never use). Panic hit, but only briefly. Rescue would be embarrassing.

It was "only" about 500 meters up. From our hotel to the next highest stop on the mountain train. But it started out at 2222 meters, and ended above the tree line. I was huffing and puffing fairly hard. Good thing I quit smoking 2 years ago. It's obvious the stents in my heart are still keeping things open!

So now I know, I can handle some reasonable altitude. I remember being in Big Bear, California, about 15 years ago, and finding walking quite a strain (about 8k feet, IIRC). The photos are awesome, too. We took spherical panoramas along the trail, which I'm still finishing up (5DMarkIII. w00t!!).
posted by Goofyy at 10:43 PM on August 7, 2012


I'd be awfully pissed off if I climbed all that way and didn't find a decent restaurant at the top. Now that I read that I couldn't eat there anyway? Forget it, I'm not going. Trip's off!
posted by 1adam12 at 10:58 PM on August 7, 2012


Exercise will help you to an extent, but only that. Acclimatization is determined primarily by your genetics, and as pointed out above, sometimes thousands of years of genetic history isn't even enough for particular persons. I've been to just under 20k, the highest point on one continent, and I saw people puking before halfway up. My guide went batshit with AMS 200m before we reached the crater rim and so once I got him stabilized I had to jog the last 2 k's or so to the peak so I could be there for sunrise. People all around me doubled over losing last night's dinner, and here I am jogging. I hadn't worked out in the previous six months due to recovering from an injury.

You don't get to choose the mountain, the mountain chooses you.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:08 AM on August 8, 2012


I recently went from my home at 491 feet above sea level to the top of Mount Evans (14,265) over the span of about 16 hours. About an hour later, I hated myself, wanted to go home, and was basically a petulant two-year-old. (another couple hours and I was glad to be back in Colorado.) I can't imagine what twice that elevation will do to a mind.
posted by notsnot at 5:11 AM on August 8, 2012


I pressed favorite on what alpinist said hard enough to drive a piton into the second step*.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:36 AM on August 8, 2012


It's too cold and dangerous for me to read this guy's book. So someone will have to tell me if Bob Clemey ever makes it back.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:07 AM on August 8, 2012


A few years ago, I was in Albuquerque and decided to go up Sandia Mountain. I got kind of a late start, so rather than hike up I opted for the cable car. Once at the top, it was a short walk - maybe 2 miles - along relatively flat terrain to a CCC shelter with a nice view.

At sea level, I will happily walk two miles for a hamburger. At two miles up, I was completely winded and falling over by the time I made it to the shelter. My legs were on fire from lack of oxygen. I really couldn't believe how different the experience was.

Hypoxia is an interesting phenomenon. The FAA has been concerned about it for awhile, even for GA pilots that fly well below altitudes that require supplemental oxygen. Here's an interesting article. Also, if you're in Oklahoma City and have a student pilot certificate, you can take a physiology course by the FAA that includes a go in the altitude chamber.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:16 AM on August 8, 2012


It's there, as Hillary said.

It was Mallory, not Hillary, who said that. Which makes it either particularly ironic or particularly profound, depending on your viewpoint.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:50 AM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was Mallory, not Hillary, who said that.

I'm sure Hillary said it about something or other. You know, "Hey, Hillary, where's that ice ax?"

"It's there."
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:43 PM on August 8, 2012


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