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Science
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Why do mountaineers risk the dangers of the high altitude climb?
Friday 23 May 2003 11.00-11.30am

What happens, uncontrollably, to your body at high altitude? Why do some climbers get sick and even die? Tim Malyon investigates the psychological drive, the physiological consequences and the payoffs of climbing above 8000 meters.

Chris Bonington and Doug Scott on Everest
Chris Bonington and Doug Scott on Everest

When trekkers first started going to Everest, one in 50 died. Nowadays that figure is 1 in 20,000. Whilst technology may have helped offset some of the dangers of enduring extreme weather and temperature, the hidden threats - the medical symptoms encountered at high altitude - will never go away. What changes in body and mind does a climber undergo as he reaches a height where oxygen levels radically affect physical and mental wellbeing? Tim Malyon examines the personal, moving, often witty accounts of climbers who have cracked 8000 metres. Their delight is often infectious. Although they have lived to tell their tale, the endurance at this height has made them all too aware of the fragility of human life and the unpredictable way our bodies can behave - as the ascent begins, the ground station falls away and the oxygen levels begin to drop.

If terror and an individual's unique psychological drive fuels the enthusiast to endure his or her physical limit, what challenges does the body undergo? Alan Hinkes, the UK’s leading high altitude climber, is trying to climb all fourteen 8000m peaks without supplementary oxygen. He still has Nanga Parbat and Annapurna to complete. Why does he go back for more? Alan and other mountaineers, are occasionally struck by a mysterious 'flu like illness and just as mysteriously they get better when they head down. This isn’t 'flu however, but a mysterious dangerous build up of fluid in the lungs leading to a feeling of fatigue. Many climbers also report hearing their tent mates repeatedly stop breathing, gasp heavily for a while, then stop breathing again. Why does their breathing get out of whack? And what is the cause and solution to high altitude cough, which Jon Krakauer (survivor of the 1996 Everest disaster) suffered at Everest base camp - “each hack felt like a stiff kick in the ribs slowing my climbing and stopping me sleep” - and which has been 'the straw that broke the camel’s back' for many attempting the summit.

High up in his new laboratory at the top of the Swiss Alps, Simon Gibbs leads a team of researchers from the University of Zurich to examine the key links between high altitude and the sudden and unexpected changes our cardiac and respiratory systems undergo . He is striving to gain insight into similar symptoms, such as cardiac hypertension (altitude sickness) seen in individuals with cardiac and respiratory illness back down on the ground. But his research is having great payoffs in working out how to tame the identical symptoms of climbers at 8K. Severe mountain sickness is capable of altering your mental state. Tim Malyon hears from climbers such as Steve Venables as they recall memory interference, hallucinations and extremes of depression and elation and assesses where the physical and mental goalposts of endurance really lie during the epic ascent into thin air.

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