Photo Tom West Everest 2004 ©EverestNews.com
Doctors working at the edge
of extreme are set to climb the world's tallest mountain to look death in the
face – and take its pulse. The medical research team will make the first ever
measurements of blood oxygen in the ‘death zone', at altitudes above 8,000
metres where the human body has struggled - and frequently failed - to
The Centre for Aviation,
Space and Extreme Environment Medicine (CASE) team, based at University
College London (UCL), will lead the expedition to Mount Everest 's 8,850m peak
in 2007. At the summit, clinicians will measure the amount of oxygen in their
own blood along with running tests to see how well their brains, lungs and
metabolisms are working at extreme altitude. The experiments alone entail a
risk of thrombosis and other complications; combined with the harsh mountain
conditions, only the toughest are likely to finish the job.
The summiting team, all of
whom work with anaesthesia, intensive care or remote medicine, hope to draw
parallels between the human body pushed to its limits during critical illness
and changes that occur in extreme environments. Low levels of oxygen in the
blood of high altitude climbers is similar to levels in critically ill
patients on breathing machines with severe heart and lung conditions, “blue
babies” and cystic fibrosis sufferers.
The summiteers will also test
a prototype closed-circuit breathing system. This type of circuit has only
once previously - and unsuccessfully - been used by climbers attempting the
summit. The equipment, adapted from firefighters' apparatus, will be
redesigned to cope with icy conditions.
Overall, the Xtreme Everest
expedition will consist of research teams exploring the following science
themes: Hypoxia (oxygen deficiency); Brain; Breathing Systems and Genetics.
High altitude laboratories set up en route, including one on Everest's South
Col (8,000m), will enable collaborating scientists to investigate many aspects
of extreme altitude physiology including illnesses such as fluid on the brain
and lungs and acute mountain sickness. The genetics project will track and
compare the genetic profile of high altitude natives, lowlanders and
summiteers to identify genes that aid survival in extreme altitudes.
A separate initiative called
Project Everest will recruit over 1000 volunteers to take part in
cardiovascular fitness research at UCL in the run up to the expedition.
Participants will undergo Cardiopulmonary Exercise Testing (CPEX) which will
measure their heart rate and breathing to determine their maximum exercise
potential and endurance, which can then be used to tailor fitness training
CASE director and expedition
leader Dr Mike Grocott says: “If you reached the top of Everest without
acclimatizing you would be unconscious within two minutes, and death would
follow rapidly. Acclimatization has allowed human beings to survive and thrive
in the most extreme conditions, but it remains a poorly understood process.
Our goal is to study life at the very limit.”
The core climbing group of
seven, two of whom have yet to be recruited, include cardiovascular geneticist
Dr Hugh Montgomery, GP Dr Sundeep Dhillon, high altitude clinician Dr Mike
Grocott, clinician Dr Roger McMorrow and diving expert Dr Denny Levett. Space
expert Dr Kevin Fong along with Dr Levett will act as medics for the
Dr Dhillon is the only
participant who has experience of climbing above 8,000m. The others will test
their aptitude along with the equipment in two dry runs to Cho Oyu (8,201m)
scheduled for the autumns of 2005 and 2006.
For the big push, the
expedition plans to set off in the spring of 2007 before the monsoon season,
with a ‘window in the weather' of only a few days when conditions are good
enough to attempt the summit. Along with the usual climbing dangers of
rockfalls and avalanches, the group will be risking medical complications such
as high altitude illness, frostbite, hypothermia and brain damage.
More details of the
expedition will be discussed at a conference to be held in London on 27th
April 2005 . The conference, Lessons Learnt from Life at the Limits, will
discuss the parallels between extreme environment physiology and critical care
along with the history and future of extreme high altitude research.
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