THE HOWLING WIND OF EVEREST is one of my clearest memories from 20 years ago--those sudden gusts exploding and echoing like thunderclaps off the rock walls of the Rongbuk Valley in Tibet. Even at 6,000 metres, it blasted our faces with showers of ice and gravel and tore at the tents.
Temperatures far below -40[degrees]C, icy winds howling past at more than 160km/h and sudden changes in weather, coupled with the lack of oxygen and its medical complications, make climbing Everest one of our greatest physical endeavours. But what happens to the body at such high altitudes?
There are two main physical components that make climbing Everest so hazardous--low temperature and a lack of oxygen. We all know that it gets colder the higher you go. So, for example, in Denver, Colorado, which lies at 1,500 metres, summer temperatures average 23[degrees]C. But on nearby Pike's Peak (4,300m), the figure is 5[degrees]C. The chilling power of high winds increases the effect, so that a wind speed of 40km/h at 0[degree]C causes an `equivalent chill temperature' of -20[degrees]C. In such conditions, frostbite and hypothermia are never far away.
More importantly, the amount of atmospheric oxygen diminishes at altitude as the pressure falls. The key to adapting to this is gradual acclimatisation--it's best to spend a fortnight getting your body used to the thin air before venturing above 5,000 metres if starting from sea level. An unacclimatised person would soon lapse into a coma if he or she were lifted from Kathmandu (1,500m) and dropped on Everest's summit (8,848m).
In 1953, John Hunt was rigorous about acclimatisation, insisting that his team spent a month at 4,000 metres, climbing peaks of around 6,000 metres. Reading his book The Ascent of Everest, one can't help noticing that there is little mention of the fatigue, headaches or sense of torpor that is now known as acute mountain sickness. This is an unpleasant, but self-limiting illness. It usually lasts for several days and happens to most people above 3,000 metres. Usually it just means feeling rotten.
We don't really …