The human body has incredible capabilities. It can adapt to deep sea pressure, it can survive extremes of heat and cold. It can rebuild after disease and famine.
It also has systems to cope with extreme altitude, but, as climbers know, you have to approach things in the right way or things can quickly go wrong.
Everest is the ultimate test. To take the body to 8,848 metres pushes the human body to the absolute limit. On the summit there is just 30% of the oxygen we normally breathe. This puts the whole body under pressure:
- Cells cannot rebuild and repair themselves.
- Mental ability and decision making is severely impaired.
- The lungs and brain may suffer catastrophic effects ... namely water build up and subsequent failure.
- The blood may become so thick it causes strokes or even a heart attack.
So, what is the secret? How do Everest climbers manage to adapt?
The answer is to go as slowly as possible, gaining height in a series of gradual stages (with rest days built in) so that the body can produce more red blood cells to cope with the gradually thinning air. The climber's motto is ‘climb high, sleep low,’ pushing the body as hard as possible during the day by gaining perhaps 500 metres or even 1,000 metres of height then dropping back down and sleeping at a lower altitude.
Using this system, it takes about two weeks to be able to live at base camp level, at 5,400 metres.
Even so, sleeplessness, headache, loss of appetite and nausea may still occur. Even the most experienced climbers get these symptoms from time to time.
If you rush to high altitude and get sick there is only one solution: go down as fast as possible. The thicker air will quickly restore normal bodily functions.
On Everest most climbers resort to using supplementary oxygen above 8,000 metres. Fed from a tank, a trickle of air helps the climber to gain height while still remaining warm and strong.
Travelling to Everest is giving me the perfect opportunity to observe climate change in action. The region is filled with many glaciers and climbers frequently have to travel across them to gain access to the high peaks. Climate scientists have published many papers recording the rapid pace at which these high-altitude glaciers are melting. Controversy has flared up about the likely date at which Himalayan glaciers may disappear but it seems one thing is sure: the majority of Himalayan glaciers are shrinking fast.
Earth Observatory provides graphic proof. The organisation takes historic photographs of glaciers from early expeditions and compares them to modern photographs taken from the same position. It is fascinating to see how things have changed.
So, what will happen if the glaciers of the Himalaya do melt away? Will the mountain range become a desert? How will the people who live in this region be affected?
One massive impact would be the gradual drying up of the many important rivers that spring to life in the high Himalaya. Many millions of people in Asia depend on these rivers for their livelihood. If the glaciers disappear so will some very important rivers.
Meanwhile, for our expedition, the Khumbu Glacier is our home. We are camped right on it and the creaks and cracks and groans are a reminder that this vast body of ice is moving, like a great icy snake, heading ever downwards, shaping the mountains in amazing ways.
EVEREST PORTER! THE WORST JOB IN THE WORLD?
The trail to Everest Base Camp is a long and hard trek. Even experienced mountaineers find it a challenge to carry an average rucksack (weighing perhaps 20kg) up and down the valley walls that separate each day’s destination.
A daily trek can easily be six to eight hours and the air gets thinner and thinner the higher you go.
Think that’s tough? Think again! It’s nothing compared to the loads that Everest porters carry.
These are the hard men of the Himalaya. They are mostly young (from eighteen to twenty-five), from poor villages all over Nepal. They often carry in excess of 100 kg on their backs! And some of them only weigh fifty or sixty kg themselves so they are carrying twice their own bodyweight. Imagine carrying two of your friends on your back for hour after hour after hour ... up a huge hill!
For each kilogram they are paid just twenty Nepali rupees for a two day trek between villages. That makes a reward of just fifteen to twenty UK pounds for two days of arduous work, often in cold and wet conditions with inadequate clothing as protection. Often they sleep on the floor in teahouses to save money. They have little access to medical care.
It’s back breaking work. Literally. Many of these porters end up with spinal problems and crippling joint conditions which can last a lifetime.
Reputable western tour operators are doing their bit to try to make things better. They subscribe to the work of organisations such as Porters Progress, The International Porter Protection Group and the Himalayan Rescue Association.
The problem is a deep one. Nepal is a poor country. Many uneducated young men have hardly any opportunities to earn money. Many of them reject attempts to restrict the size of their loads because it reduces their earning power. So long as wealthy trekkers and climbers come to the Everest region it seems porters will always be attracted by the work on offer.
The Everest Team Witnesses Earthquake Destruction in Nepal
Our journey began in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, a country devastated by a terrible earthquake just one year ago. Kathmandu still has many visible scars from that catastrophic event; the central temple area of Barkhor Square is flanked with buildings in a state of collapse.
Outside of the city, we witnessed even greater human tragedy in a small village called Harisiddhi, just one hour from Kathmandu. We were greeted by a villager called Mohindra and taken on a walk of the village, which left us in no doubt as to the lethal effects of the earthquake.
‘Five people died in this collapsed house,’ Mohindra told us sadly. In total the village had lost almost thirty people.
Many of the victims now live in emergency shelters of canvas and corrugated iron. Families of five or six can be cramped into a tiny living space with only the most basic amenities. Many children have been a full year off school. Others in the village of Harisiddhi have been sick as a result of disrupted water supplies.
When we asked villagers when they thought they would be able to re-build their houses, many of them simply shook their heads. ‘They have no money for construction,’ Mohindra told us. ‘There are rumours that money and materials might be available but we don’t know when.’
In another part of the village we did find some construction but only of the most basic type. Working by hand, without a single machine to mix concrete or help to dig foundations, a team of villagers were working side by side. It was a sign of hope in the midst of a terrible tragedy – an earthquake which cost many thousands of lives and which is still affecting the lives of many tens of thousands more, even as the first year anniversary comes round.
Yet throughout this dark chapter the people of Nepal remain positive and optimistic. Many villagers smiled as they welcomed us into their basic shelters. Earthquakes are deadly and unpredictable but they cannot squash the spirit of these wonderful people.