What Climbing At High Altitude Feels Like | Alan Hinkes's Column - Outdoors Magic

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What Climbing At High Altitude Feels Like | Alan Hinkes’s Column

Britain's first and only mountaineer to climb all 14 of the world's mountains over 8000m recalls the hellish toil on the body wrought by altitude

“My head ached and my body felt like it was being crushed in a vice. Climbing at extreme altitude is agony. Torture. Yet even through that haze of suffering, my oxygen-starved brain was aware of the intense seriousness of my situation. No celebration was due yet. I was completely alone on the summit of K2, the world’s second highest and possibly hardest mountain. Now I had to get down.

**Warning: This article contains some graphic images.**

“Some of the world’s best climbers have died descending K2. Many have been killed in good weather, with optimum conditions and in daylight. It was now between 6.30 and 7.00 pm and the light was already fading. I would be descending in the dark.

“Essentially there are 3 cures: descent, descent, descent.”

“I had to keep reminding myself, ‘I must get down in one piece. No mountain is worth a life, or a finger or toe to frostbite. Returning from an expedition is a success. The summit is only a bonus.’ I had to concentrate on the descent back to the world, back to my daughter Fiona.

“As the sun dropped and the temperature plummeted even lower, K2 began to cast a huge triangular shadow across the Earth. The temperature was 40 below and in the bitter cold I realised frostbite was a real danger. I checked my head torch and, drawing on many years of mountaineering experience, started my descent.”

Alan on the summit of Everest.

I wrote those words 25 years ago, it was a graphic description of what it felt like to be at extreme altitude, in the death zone, where human life is measured in hours.

The region above 8000m (realistically above 7500m) is the most inhospitable on the planet. It is impossible for human beings to survive for more than a few days at the most, no matter how well acclimatised they are. Life expectancy can be measured in hours. The oxygen-depleted air is too thin, the atmospheric pressure too low. It is known as the death zone.

Being at extreme altitude is unpleasant and dangerous, and an ability to overcome suffering and tolerate hardship is essential. Just living is an arduous task and you must constantly be aware and monitor what is happening to your body. Symptoms of mountain sickness, such as a bodily malaise, nausea, headaches, shortness of breath or gasping and a rapid pulse rate, can be felt at much lower altitudes and care needs to be taken even well below 8000m. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) can rapidly develop into either high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), both of which are killers. Some drugs such as dexamethasone might help mitigate AMS, but essentially there are 3 cures: descent, descent, descent. If you get trapped in the death zone in bad weather or injured and not able to move you will die.

The body of a climber on the summit of Dhaulagiri. Photo: Alan Hinkes
Alan on the summit of Kangchenjunga holding a picture of his daughter and grandson. Photo: Alan Hinkes
Frostbite from a long spell in the death zone. Photo: Alan Hinkes

Climbers going on so called ‘commercial’ expeditions to Everest and Cho You should be made starkly aware of this real and present danger. Above 8000m is not a mountain playground.

Related: A Guide To The World’s Highest Mountains
Related: How To Prevent Frostbite

The environment within the death zone is extremely hostile and harsh. All the water you need for survival is locked in snow and ice and requires great effort to melt. The sub-zero temperatures increase the risk of frostbite, exacerbated by dehydration from inhaling dry, cold air as you breathe. Levels of ultraviolet light are very high and areas of exposed skin are at risk of burning, this includes the inside of your nose, mouth, tongue and gums as you gasp with your mouth open in the rarefied atmosphere.

There is very little anyone can do to help or rescue someone from within the death zone. I reckon you would stand more chance of rescue if you were on the moon or orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station, because at least the technology exists to enable something to be done. The death zone is too high for helicopters as their realistic operating ceiling is 6500m. There are no MRTs and even if there were, it would take them a couple of weeks to acclimatise.

In the death zone you are on your own.

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