Climbers who ascend more than 26,000 feet on Mount Everest enter the “death zone.”
In this area, oxygen is so limited that the body’s cells begin to die and judgment is impaired.
Climbers can also experience heart attacks, strokes, or severe altitude sickness.
Human bodies function best at sea level. Down here, oxygen levels are adequate for our brains and lungs. At much higher altitudes, our bodies cannot function properly.
But if climbers want to reach the top of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters or 5.5 miles) above sea level, they have to brave what is known as the “zone of death”. This is the area above 8,000 meters in altitude, where there is so little oxygen that the body begins to die, minute by minute and cell by cell.
In the death zone, climbers’ brains and lungs starve of oxygen, their risk of heart attack and stroke increases, and their judgment rapidly deteriorates.
“Your body is breaking down and essentially dying,” Shaunna Burke, a climber who summited Everest in 2005, told Business Insider. “It becomes a race against time.”
In 2019, at least 11 people died on Everest, almost all of whom spent time in the death zone. It became one of the deadliest seasons on Everest in recent memory.
Some expedition companies blamed these deaths on overcrowding, noting that the peak became so crowded with climbers during a rare period of good weather that people were trapped in the death zone for too long. On May 22, 2019, 250 climbers attempted to reach the summit, The Kathmandu Post reported, with many climbers having to wait in line to get up and down.
These additional unplanned hours in the kill zone could have put the 11 people who perished at greater risk, although it is difficult to determine the specific causes of each death.
One climber said that climbing Everest feels like “running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw.”
At sea level, the air contains approximately 21% oxygen. But at altitudes above 12,000 feet, oxygen levels are 40% lower.
Jeremy Windsor, a doctor who climbed Everest in 2007 as part of the Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition, told Everest blogger Mark Horrell that blood samples taken from four climbers in the death zone revealed that the climbers were surviving on just a quarter of the oxygen they needed. needed at sea level.
“They were comparable to the numbers found in patients near death,” Windsor said.
Five miles above sea level, the air is so low in oxygen that even with extra air tanks, it can feel like “running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw,” according to mountain climber and filmmaker David Breashears.
Climbers must adapt to the lack of oxygen.
Lack of oxygen results in countless health risks. When the amount of oxygen in the blood falls below a certain level, the heart rate shoots up to 140 beats per minute, increasing the risk of heart attack.
Climbers have to give their bodies time to acclimate to the lung-crushing conditions in the Himalayas before attempting to summit Everest. Expeditions generally make at least three trips up the mountain from Everest Base Camp (which is higher than almost every mountain in Europe at 17,600 feet), climbing a few thousand feet more with each successive trip before attempting to reach the top. top.
Over the course of those weeks at high altitudes, the body begins to make more hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that helps carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body) to compensate. But too much hemoglobin can thicken the blood, making it harder for the heart to pump blood throughout the body. That can lead to a stroke or fluid buildup in the lungs.
On Everest, a condition called high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is common: a quick check with a stethoscope can reveal a popping noise as fluid that has leaked into the lungs rattles. Other symptoms include fatigue, a feeling of impending suffocation at night, weakness, and a persistent cough that brings up white, watery, or foamy fluid. Sometimes the cough is so intense that it can break or separate the ribs.
Climbers with HAPE always have shortness of breath, even when resting.
In the death zone, your brain can start to swell, which can lead to nausea and a form of psychosis.
Acclimatization to the altitudes of the death zone is simply not possible, physician and high-altitude expert Peter Hackett told PBS.
One of the biggest risk factors at 26,000 feet is hypoxia, the lack of proper circulation of oxygen to organs like the brain. If the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, it can start to swell, causing a condition called high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Essentially, it’s HAPE for the brain.
This swelling can cause nausea, vomiting, and difficulty thinking and reasoning.
A brain starved of oxygen can cause climbers to forget where they are and enter a delirium that some experts consider a form of high-altitude psychosis. Hypoxic climbers’ judgment is affected and they have been known to do strange things like start taking off their clothes or talking to imaginary friends.
Other possible dangers include insomnia, snow blindness, and vomiting.
Burke said that while climbing, he suffered from a constant and unrelenting cough.
“Every second or third breath, your body gasps for air and you wake up,” he said.
The air was so thin that he couldn’t sleep well.
“Humans will start to deteriorate,” Hackett added. “Sleep becomes a problem. Muscle wasting occurs. Weight loss occurs.”
Nausea and vomiting caused by altitude-related illnesses, including HAPE and HACE, also cause decreased appetite. The glare from endless snow and ice can cause snow blindness: temporary loss of vision or ruptured blood vessels in the eyes.
Temperatures in the death zone never exceed zero degrees Fahrenheit. “Any exposed skin freezes instantly,” Burke said.
Loss of blood circulation in climbers’ fingers and toes can cause frostbite and, in severe cases, if the skin and underlying tissues die, gangrene. Gangrenous tissue often needs to be amputated.
All this physical weakness and impaired vision can lead to accidental falls. Fatigue is ever-present, according to Burke.
“It takes everything to put one foot in front of the other,” he said.
Poor decision making can also cause climbers to forget to re-attach to a lanyard, stray off the route, or fail to properly prepare lifesaving equipment such as oxygen tanks.
Climbers traverse the death zone in a day, but can end up waiting in line for hours
Climbing in the death zone is “hell,” as Everest climber and 1998 NOVA expedition member David Carter told PBS.
Typically, climbers attempting to reach the summit attempt to climb up and down in a single day, spending as little time as possible in the death zone before returning to safer altitudes. But this frantic rush to the finish line comes at the end of weeks of climbing.
Lhakpa Sherpa, who has summited Everest nine times (more than any other woman on Earth), previously told Business Insider that the day a group attempts to summit Everest is by far the period harder of the hike.
To reach the top successfully, everything must go well. Around 10 p.m., the climbers leave Camp Four at 26,000 feet. The first part of your ascent is done in the dark, illuminated by starlight and headlamps.
About seven hours later, climbers usually reach the top. After a short break filled with celebrations and photography, the expeditions turn around, making the 12-hour journey back to safety and arriving (ideally) before nightfall.
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