How does the human body adapt to high altitude on Mount Everest?

How does the human body adapt to high altitude on Mount Everest?

The Human Body’s Adaptation to High Altitude on Mount Everest


The human body is known for its remarkable adaptability. This is particularly evident in one of the harshest environments on earth, the summit of Mount Everest. Standing at an altitude of 29,029 feet (8,848m) above sea level, Mount Everest is an imposing challenge to the body’s adaptive capabilities. This article will explore how the human body can adapt to survive and function at such a high altitude.

The Challenge of High Altitude

At high altitudes, the level of atmospheric pressure decreases, which results in reduced availability of oxygen. This is known as hypobaric hypoxia. When ascending Mount Everest, climbers are faced with severe hypoxia, extreme cold, high winds, increased solar radiation, and other hazards.

Acute Responses to High Altitude

Within a few minutes of exposure to high altitude, the body initiates responses to counter the effects of hypoxia. The heart rate and breathing rate increase in an attempt to deliver more oxygen to the tissues. This is an immediate response and is only effective up to a certain altitude.

Chronic Adaptations to High Altitude

If exposure to high altitude continues for longer periods, the body starts making more lasting adaptations. This includes increasing the amount of red blood cells produced, in an aim to enhance the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen. The body may also stimulate the growth of more blood vessels and increase the amount of capillaries in muscles.

The Role of Genetics

There is overwhelming evidence that genetics plays a key role in how well an individual can adapt to high altitude. People of Tibetan and Andean origin are found to have genetic adaptations that allow them to live and work in high altitudes without apparent harm. This is largely due to specific genetic mutations that improve their oxygen utilisation and mitigate the effects of hypoxia.

The Downside of Adaptation

While the adaptations mentioned above are beneficial, they also have drawbacks. Increased blood viscosity due to more red blood cells can lead to problems like venous thrombosis, a dangerous condition where blood clots form in the veins. Prolonged hypoxia can also injure heart and lung tissue.


The human body’s adaptation to high altitude in Mount Everest is a fascinating study of our biological resilience. Whether it’s through an immediate response or chronic adaptation, the body continues to push its limits to survive. However, these adaptations are not without risk, making climbing Mount Everest a feat for the prepared and the brave.


Why is it harder to breathe at higher altitudes?

Higher up, the air is “thinner,” meaning less oxygen is available per breath. As a result, your lungs have to work harder to get the same amount of oxygen as at sea level.

Is there a way to prepare your body for high altitudes?

Yes, gradual acclimatization to high altitude is best. It involves slowly moving to higher altitudes and allowing your body to adapt to the lower oxygen levels.

Can spending too much time at high altitude be harmful?

Yes, prolonged high-altitude exposure can lead to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), both of which can be fatal if not treated appropriately.

Are some people more tolerant of high altitudes than others?

Yes, genetic factors can play a significant role in determining how well a person can adapt to high altitude. People who have lived in high-altitude areas for generations tend to fare better than those from lower altitudes.

What happens if you ascend to high altitudes too rapidly?

Ascending rapidly can put you at risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), a condition characterized by symptoms like headache, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, and impaired cognitive function.