21-27 November 2014 #733

Three hundred metres to Everest

Can the last 300 metres of Mount Everest be scaled without supplemental oxygen?
Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

In 1924, climbers Edward Norton and Howard Somervell, part of the second British-Everest Expedition which also included George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, set on a mission to become the first to summit Everest.

But due to exhaustion and breathlessness, the duo had to turn back even though they were only 300 metres away from the top.

The difficulty in breathing at such high altitudes is captured in many documentaries where the excessive panting of the climber forms the dominant noise in the background. This panting is bad enough even with supplemental oxygen.

The Britishers may have failed to summit Everest that day, but their ability to go that far without proper equipment and gear, speaks immensely of their strength, endurance and mountaineering skill.

It took another 28 years for Everest to be summited for the first time in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. But, it was only in 1978 that Italians Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler (pic) became the first to reach the summit without supplemental oxygen.

Why did it take so long for climbers to successfully climb the last 300 metres of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen? Many scientists of the day believed it was impossible for a person to reach the top of Everest without bottled oxygen, as the body would have reached its point of exhaustion and even taking a single step would be impossible. This conclusion arose from the maximum oxygen uptake which determines the level of fitness of a person. However Messner and Habeler proved the calculations wrong.

There was however one little- known Scottish high altitude physiologist and climber, Alexander Kellas, who thought otherwise. Based on his studies and observations, Kellas went on record to say that Everest could be climbed with supplemental oxygen. But that was not all. He went further and remarked that climbing Everest may be possible even without supplemental oxygen. Few believed him at the time. In his famous treatise on A consideration of the Possibility of Ascending Mount Everest ( written around 1912), Kellas notes that for the last 1000 ft of the Everest climb, the ascent rate would be around 300 ft per hour. In fact the rate of climb in the last 1000 ft by Messner and Habeler in 1978 was almost the exact as what Kellas had predicted decades ago.

Overpowering hypothermia (cold temperatures) and hypoxia (lack of adequate oxygen) are other reasons why people thought Everest couldn’t be climbed. One can imagine how severely cold it must be in the Everest region and what little protection against the cold tweed jackets and hobnail boots (worn by climbers of the time) would provide. In addition, supplemental oxygen equipment of that time was very cumbersome and difficult to use. Many of them were designed so that you could only use them while resting.

Norton and Somervell were not only excellent climbers but also outstanding human beings. Norton went on to become the governor of Hong Kong, and Somervell gave up a promising career as a surgeon in England to become a medical missionary in South India.

Read also:

Solo without oxygen, Reinhold Messner

Everest fever, Buddha Basnyat

Messner – “Don’t mess around with Everest”