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
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 programmes.
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.”
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 expedition teams.
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.
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