What happens to your body in the “death zone” of Mount Everest

Mount Everest.

Climbers pass the Hillary Step, pushing to the top of Everest.STR/AFP via Getty Images

  • Climbers who have climbed Mount Everest to more than 26,000 feet 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 a heart attack, stroke or severe altitude sickness.

Human organisms work best at sea level. Here, the oxygen level is sufficient for our brains and lungs. At much higher altitudes, our bodies cannot function properly.

But if climbers want to conquer Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters or 5.5 miles) above sea level, they must face what is known as the “zone of death”. This is an area above 8,000 meters 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 are deprived of oxygen, the risk of heart attack and stroke increases, and judgment quickly deteriorates.

“Your body is breaking down and basically dying,” Shaunna Burke, a mountaineer who climbed 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 has become one of the deadliest Everest seasons in recent memory.

Some expedition companies blamed the deaths on congestion, noting that the summit became so crowded with climbers during a rare period of good weather that people were stuck in the death zone for too long. On May 22, 2019, 250 climbers attempted to reach the summit, reports The Kathmandu Post, and many climbers had to wait in line to go up and down.

These extra, unscheduled hours in the death zone may have put the 11 people who died at greater risk, although it is difficult to determine the specific causes of each death.

One climber said climbing Everest is like “running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw”

Mount Everest in a traffic jam

Deadly traffic jams form on Mount Everest as climbers are forced to wait in the “death zone”.Twitter/@nimsdai

At sea level, the air contains about 21% oxygen. But 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 climbers were surviving only a quarter of the oxygen they were providing. . needed at sea level.

“These were comparable to the numbers found in patients on the verge of death,” Windsor said.

Five miles above sea level, the air is so low in oxygen that even with extra air bottles, it can feel like “running on a treadmill and breathing through a straw,” according to mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears.

Climbers have to get used to the lack of oxygen

Lack of oxygen causes countless health risks. When the amount of oxygen in the blood falls below a certain level, the heart rate increases to 140 beats per minute, increasing the risk of a heart attack.

Climbers must give their bodies time to acclimate to the lung-crushing conditions of the Himalayas before attempting to climb Everest. Expeditions generally make at least three trips up from Everest Base Camp (which is taller than almost any mountain in Europe at 17,600 feet), climbing several thousand feet with each subsequent trip before pushing their way to the top.

During these high-altitude weeks, the body begins to produce more hemoglobin (a 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 around the body. This can lead to a stroke or fluid buildup in the lungs.

A condition called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is common on Everest — a quick check with a stethoscope can reveal a clicking sound 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 produces a white, watery, or foaming fluid. Sometimes the cough is so severe that it can crack or split the ribs.

HAPE climbers always have shortness of breath, even when resting.

In the death zone, your brain may start to swell, which can lead to nausea and a form of psychosis

Acclimating to the height of the death zone is simply not possible, altitude expert and physician Peter Hackett told PBS.

One of the biggest risk factors at 26,000 feet is hypoxia, which is the lack of adequate oxygen supply to organs such as the brain. If the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, it can start to swell, causing a condition called high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). It is basically HAPE for the brain.

This swelling can cause nausea, vomiting, and difficulty thinking and reasoning.

A brain deprived of oxygen can cause climbers to forget where they are and fall into a delirium that some experts consider a form of altitude psychosis. Hypoxic climbers are weakened and have been known to do strange things, such as dropping clothes or talking to imaginary friends.

Other possible risks include insomnia, snow blindness, and vomiting

climbing Everest

While climbing in the “death zone”, your brain receives a quarter of the oxygen it needs.Lhakpa Sherpa

Burke said she suffered from a constant, relentless cough while climbing.

“Every second or third breath your body gasps and you wake up,” she said.

The air was so thin that she couldn’t sleep properly.

“People will start to deteriorate,” Hackett added. “Sleeping becomes a problem. Muscle wasting occurs. Weight loss occurs.”

Nausea and vomiting caused by altitude sickness, including HAPE and HACE, also cause a decrease in appetite. The glare of endless snow and ice can cause snow blindness – temporary loss of vision or rupture of blood vessels in the eyes.

Temperatures in the death zone never go above zero degrees Fahrenheit. “Any exposed skin immediately freezes,” Burke said.

Loss of blood circulation in the fingers and toes of climbers can cause frostbite and, in severe cases, gangrene if the skin and underlying tissues die. Gangrenous tissue often requires amputation.

All this physical weakness and visual impairment can lead to accidental falls. According to Burke, fatigue is ubiquitous.

“It takes everything to put one foot in front of the other,” she said.

Poor decision-making can also lead to climbers forgetting to re-clip back into the safety line, deviating from the route, or failing to properly prepare life-saving equipment such as oxygen tanks.

Mountaineers cross the death zone in a day, but they can end up waiting in line for hours

lhakpa sherpa on top of everest

Climbers can only spend 20 minutes at the top of Everest before they have to descend.Lhakpa Sherpa

Climbing in the death zone is “living hell,” as Everest climber and 1998 NOVA expedition member David Carter told PBS.

Typically, climbers trying to reach the summit try to make it up and down in one day, spending as little time as possible in the death zone before returning to safer altitudes. But that frantic push to the finish comes at the end of weeks of climbing.

Lhakpa Sherpa, who has summited Everest nine times (more than any other woman on Earth), told Business Insider that the day the group tries to summit Everest is by far the hardest part of the hike.

For the summit to be a success, everything has to go well. Around 10:00 p.m., the climbers leave Camp Four at 26,000 feet. The first part of their ascent takes place in the dark, illuminated by starlight and headlamps.

About seven hours later, climbers typically reach the summit. After a short rest filled with celebrations and photos, the expeditions turn around, making the 12-hour trek to safety and arriving (preferably) before nightfall.

Read the original article in Business Insider

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