How Do Climbers Deal with the Lack of Oxygen on Mount Everest?
Scaling the highest peak on Earth, Mount Everest, is no easy feat. It involves challenges that challenge the human spirit, strength, endurance, and especially, the ability to cope with the increasingly drastic reduction in oxygen levels. Here’s a comprehensive look at how climbers brace themselves against the lack of oxygen on Mount Everest.
The Altitude Challenge
The daunting height of Mount Everest, standing tall at 29,035 feet, presents one of the toughest tests for a climber’s lungs and body – hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, in simpler terms. The higher one ascends, the less oxygen the air contains. For instance, there’s almost 66% less oxygen in each breath by the time climbers reach the Everest peak compared to sea-level.
Understandably, this can pose a major problem. Low oxygen levels lead to altitude sickness, causing symptoms ranging from headache, fatigue and dizziness to severe forms like High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). These conditions can prove fatal if not promptly managed.
How Climbers Tackle the Oxygen Shortage
Given the severe risks, climbers take numerous precautions while ascending the mighty Mount Everest to guard themselves against the low oxygen levels.
Acclimatization is the process in which climbers gradually adapt to the changes in environment, specifically, the decreased oxygen levels. It usually involves climbing to a certain height, resting there for a few days, then climbing higher, only to descend back for rest, and repeat. By spending extended periods at high altitudes, the body ups its production of red blood cells, thereby ensuring more efficient oxygen transportation to the muscles.
Climbers also rely on supplemental oxygen systems which include oxygen tanks, a regulator (to adjust the oxygen flow), a mask and hoses. These systems don’t replace the need for acclimatization, but rather, they help climbers maintain their cognitive and physical abilities during the final stages of the ascent.
Physical Fitness and Controlled Breathing
Climbers also work heavily on their physical fitness, mental fortitude and breathing techniques, which can help maximize oxygen absorption. Controlled, deep breathing techniques ensure that the oxygen supply reaching the lungs is used efficiently by the body.
Finally, medications like Acetazolamide (Diamox) are often used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. They work by acidifying the blood, which triggers increased breathing, thereby improving oxygenation.
1. Why is there less oxygen on Mount Everest?
The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere remains constant but its density decreases with altitude. Due to gravity, gases in the atmosphere are denser closer to the earth’s surface. On Mount Everest, although the oxygen percentage remains the same, fewer oxygen molecules per breath make it feel as if there’s less oxygen.
2. Can your body adapt to low oxygen levels on Mount Everest?
Yes, through a process called acclimatization. The body can increase the number of red blood cells, thus improving its ability to transport the available oxygen to the muscles more efficiently.
3. Does climbing Mount Everest without oxygen cause permanent damage?
Ascent without supplemental oxygen, known as “hypoxic ascent”, can increase the risk of frostbite, hypothermia, HACE, and HAPE. If these conditions are not promptly addressed, they could lead to permanent damage, and in severe cases, even death.
4. What is the Death Zone on Mount Everest?
Death Zone refers to altitudes above 8,000 metres (26,000 feet) where the amount of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life. Climbers typically use supplemental oxygen in this zone to maintain cognitive and physical function.
5. Can breathing techniques help with low oxygen levels on Mount Everest?
Yes, controlled and deep breathing techniques can help maximize the efficiency of the oxygen reaching the lungs thereby improving the body’s oxygenation.
In conclusion, reaching the peak of Mount Everest is a feat which needs not only incredible physical and mental strength but also a tactical approach in dealing with the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. While the climb is fraught with considerable risks, with the right training, gear, acclimatization and support, climbers can safely conquer the world’s highest peak.