Background information on Everest climbing

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1 Name: Department of Recreation, Park & Tourism Administration Western Illinois University To us it is known as Mt. Everest; to the Tibetans it is Chomolungma, the holy mother mountain or earth mother mountain. Reaching 29,029 feet into what Edmund Hillary simply but eloquently called the thin cold air, the earth s highest peak is also among earth s most demanding environments. Background information on Everest climbing The route: Most climbers use the so-called standard route following Everest s southeast ridge. This route begins at Base Camp, at 17,700 feet. (Base Camp was leveled by the massive 2015 avalanche, with at least seventeen people killed; the likely effects of this on Everest climbing remain uncertain.) Climbers spend several weeks at Base Camp while acclimatizing to the thin air. At sea level, blood oxygen saturation is generally above 97 percent; at Base Camp it is generally somewhere around 86 percent. To compensate for the thinner atmosphere, climbers must substantially increase their breathing rate while carefully regulating the pace of their physical activity. This problem becomes steadily worse as climbers go higher. The first part of the standard route is through the Khumbu ice fall, a glaciated region of deep crevasses and unstable ice towers. The ice towers have an unfortunate tendency to topple over, especially once the sun is up and has warmed the ice. Climbers use a series of permanently fixed ropes and ladders to negotiate the ice fall, but because the Khumbu glacier moves as much as three to four feet a day, these ropes and ladders must often be replaced. Camp I is beyond the ice fall, at 19,900 feet or 2,200 feet above Base Camp. Depending on how an expedition s acclimatization program is organized, climbers may need to go back and forth between Base Camp and Camp I several times; most come to detest negotiating the ice fall, where fourteen Sherpa were killed in 2014, shutting down climbing for that season. From Camp I climbers move along the edge of a glaciated valley called the Western Cwm (cwm is the Welsh word for such a valley, applied to Everest by early British climbers; it is pronounced coom). Remarkably, because the Western Cwm is often cut off from the wind, climbers regularly suffer from heat caused by the combination of the sun s greater intensity in thin air and its reflection off snow, ice, and rock. Camp II is at the head of the Western Cwm, below the Lhotze (pronounced Lho-ze) Face at 21,300 feet. The Lhotze Face is climbed in two stages, using fixed ropes and technical equipment known as ascenders with loops of nylon webbing attached. This is demanding physical labor, made more dangerous by the debilitating effects of increasing altitude on mental acuity. At 24,500 feet, on a ledge so small that climbers must be attached to safety lines to move safely about outside their tents, Camp III looks back over the terrain traveled so far. Something not mentioned in the film is that a Chinese climber fell to his death here while simply trying to answer the call of nature. The second stage of the Lhotze Face ascent, including some challenging rock formations, brings climbers to Camp IV on the South Col at 26,000 feet. Camp IV has been described as a bit of frozen hell on earth. A col is the low point between two linked peaks. The South Col is a very exposed, flat, rock and boulder strewn flat area with sharp drop-offs on its two exposed flanks, often buffeted by the high altitude winds.. Here climbers set smaller tents and prepare for the final summit push. As the film notes, climbers usually leave before midnight in order to have sufficient daylight for descending to Camp IV from the summit. Summit day is a grueling experience. The Everest summit is some 3000 vertical feet above Camp IV, a distance climbers must both ascend and descend. The ascent itself usually requires from ten to twelve hours. Expeditions set a turn-around time, generally about 2:00 PM, when climbers on the summit are expected to begin descending. Those below summit are expected to turn around and head down. Several elements of the summit route require modest technical rock climbing, notably the Hillary Step. Given the altitude, the cold, and the bulky equipment climbers must wear, these elements can be too much to face, causing climbers to 1

2 retreat. They can also be points where log jams of climbers occur, all waiting for their chance at the ropes. Although most climbers use bottled oxygen, the pace is usually very slow, each step requiring breaths for recovery. Combined with log jams at places like the Hillary Step, delays on the ascent create dangerous situations in which climbers may exhaust their oxygen supplies, daylight, or both before being able to complete the descent to Camp IV. Note that descent climbing can often be more physically challenging than ascending and that fatigue can interfere with exercising good judgment or caution. Expeditions usually return to Camp IV for one night, then try to reach Camp II for a night and on to Camp I for the next, after which it s back to Base Camp through the Khumbu ice fall. The effects of high altitude: The lack of oxygen at altitude affects not just physical performance, but also mental acuity and emotional stability. The most dramatic effects are high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), both potentially lethal conditions that may afflict even experienced high altitude climbers. The only sure treatment is to get the victim to lower altitude as quickly as possible; sometimes even only a few thousand feet will be enough. But with an increasingly debilitated victim, this can be quite a challenge. More subtle are high altitude effects on mental acuity and emotional stability. It s a given that in a stressful environment cold, windy, inhospitable one s motor skills begin to deteriorate, especially when fatigued. People fumble with basic tasks like zipping zippers, fastening safety harnesses, or clipping into safety ropes. Add to this the fact that high altitude begins to impede one s ability to think clearly, and you see how dangerous the situation can become. Forget to double your safety harness back through the buckle and it s useless. Unclip from a rope without a safety backup and it s game over. Drop a glove and your hand can freeze in thirty seconds. There were episodes of HAPE and HACE on Everest during the 1996 climbing season, including the Rob Hall, the Scott Fischer, and the Makalu Gau Ming-Ho expeditions that are the subject of the film. But what led to the final tragedies were other things, things that reflect the difficulty of thinking clearly and maintaining self-control when one s body is oxygen-depleted, sleep-deprived, and pushed to its limits in pursuit of a powerfully felt goal. At 26,000 feet, on the South Col where Camp IV is located, climbers enter what is called the Death Zone. This is not because people die there, but because human life itself is not possible there for more than three or four days without supplemental oxygen. Even with it, the erosion of mental acuity, the simple inability to think as clearly and rapidly as usual, puts everyone at risk. People know this when they begin the climb, but sometimes they forget it along the way. That s a large part of what this film is about. Why This Film The film explores what happens to people placed in difficult, challenging conditions. Such conditions don t happen just in places like Mt. Everest. Depending on our skill levels and the challenges we seek out, they can happen almost anywhere, from a walk in a state park to the Alaskan back country. We can all have individual Everest moments. And we can all learn from others as they reflect on their own such moments. This worksheet is different than others you ve completed. Watch the film in its entirety before you begin answering the questions (perhaps with the exception of the first one). 2

3 Questions Point values for questions are in parentheses. There are 30 points total. 1. (5) Who is Donald Breashears? Why would he have more than technical qualifications to make this film? 2. (5) What reasons do the climbers give for having attempted the Everest climb? What reasons do you think people in general have for making their own personal Everest attempts, for challenging themselves in their own ways and at their own levels of competency? 3

4 3. (10) What went wrong on Everest that climbing seasons? Don t rush to judgment here. Think about it carefully, analytically. This isn t a blame game. We want to understand what happened so we can learn from it. 4

5 4. (10) It has been said that an outdoor leader (and perhaps every leader) must have (in alphabetical order) experience, judgment, knowledge, and skill. Which one of these do you think is most important in outdoor recreation? You can t say all of them are equally important. That ducks the issue. You have to pick one as most important. Explain your answer in terms of the events on Everest in

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