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24 September 2014

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You are in: Manchester > Features > Places > Everest: it's breath taking

Everest: it's breath taking

Three-and-a-half miles above Manchester, the air was admittedly on the thin side. But with lungs bursting, all 18 of us walked into Everest base camp and cheered as loud as we could. We were on top of the world. Well, almost.

in the Himalayas

On top of the world: in the Himalayas

'We' are a group of volunteers, aged between 24 and 73, who are taking part in Xtreme Everest, the biggest medical research study ever done at high altitude.

The aim is to understand how the human body is affected by hypoxia or low oxygen with a view to finding new treatments for intensive care patients. It's an incredible project on a huge scale and I feel proud to be a small part of it.

On the exercise bike

Xtremely tired: the dreaded bike test

Everest base camp is 5,350m above sea level and, with less than half the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, is a perfect laboratory. If a little remote.

Each day, we guinea pigs oblige with our blood, sweat and tears in the interests of medical science.  We monitor each other's blood pressure, oxygen levels, and heart rates, and submit to various tests including the gruelling 'ramp test' on the exercise bike. These data, we are told, are crucial to the science.


But we shouldn't be here. And every day, our bodies tell us so.

For instance, if you flew here directly in a helicopter, you would be unconscious in hours, and dead soon thereafter. But by walking here, our bodies have acclimatised.


Summit: Everest

So we can survive. But it's not a place to hang around. At base camp, your lungs burst for air. Wounds don't heal. Ulcers erupt. Nails split. Your head aches. You lose weight as your muscles waste. And the slightest exertion leaves you breathless.

It's not surprising. At 5,300m, we're above the level where human populations live permanently. It's a harsh environment where nothing grows.

It's surprisingly warm in the day yet night time temperatures plunge to -12C. Camped quite literally on the Khumbu glacier, you find yourself woken by the ice cracking beneath your tent. And the rumble of avalanches is never far away.

Yet clear nights reveal a sky full of stars and a backdrop of breathtaking beauty with the mountains of Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse and Lhola reaching above into the night sky.

Base camp

Everest base camp is the weirdest place you can imagine. It's like an icy quarry on the moon. Huge boulders are strewn everywhere and walking anywhere is a trial. Tents of all shapes and sizes are huddled into this barren space at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall. Yet the views are unimaginably beautiful.

" I labour my way to the summit, every step leaves my exhausted. My head aches. I feel nauseous. I realise I have AMS. The only cure is to descend."

Richard Turner

It's here that more than 30 international climbing teams have arrived with the dream of standing on the summit of Everest.

We've come at the right time. A weather window has opened and at 06:37 the next morning, we hear the sound of cheering and a gong clanging. One of the Xtreme Everest climbing teams has reached the summit! 

We race over and witness the relief and delight of the research team who have been here for over two months. The next day, the second team achieves the same goal.

Altitude Sickness

Yet there is sadness too. In the previous two days, the mountain claimed the lives of two South Koreans and a Nepali woman. And according to reports, eight others have died either trekking or climbing on their way up. The death zone above base camp is unforgiving and the mountain continues to take its awful toll.

Pete Maltby

Pete Maltby from Poynton

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is an ever present risk. Also known as altitude sickness, this is a condition that can affect anyone above 2,500m, regardless of how fit or experienced they are. Why it affects some people and not others is not certain. But it's partly why we're here.

Some people use oxygen more efficiently than others and therefore adapt better in this rarified atmosphere. The Xtreme Everest team hope that by studying our differing responses to this oxygen-depleted environment, they will find out why some intensive care patients live and others die.

Take Pete and me. Pete Maltby is a 24-year-old aircraft engineer from Poynton and annoyingly appears largely unaffected by low oxygen levels.

Leaving base camp, a group of us walk up Kala Patar, a 5,600m peak with great views of the summit of Everest. (you can't actually see Everest from base camp)

Everest base camp

Everest base camp

Pete saunters up to the peak, hands in pockets. I labour my way to the summit, every step leaves my exhausted beyond anything I've ever known. My head aches. I feel nauseous. And I find myself stumbling. I realise I have AMS. The only cure is to descend. Fast.

A few hundred metres down, the symptoms lift and I feel right as rain. OK, Pete has got 18 years on me and has bin bags for lungs. But according to the science, he's just as likely to suffer AMS. Maybe one day, the science will answer these questions.

Down the trail, I look back at the awe-inspiring peaks of the high Himalayas and feel very small. It's a privilege to be here. I can only admire the brave climbers and Sherpas who go higher to reach those 8,000m+ summits.

I reached 'my Everest'. And do you know what? To see the top of the world with my own eyes, made it all worth while.

last updated: 11/07/07

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