The Death Zone

Some of you may be wondering what on Earth the Death Zone is. A new X-Box game, a teenagers bedroom maybe? Well, you could be right on both counts, but the one I'm referring to is to do with height. In mountaineering, anything above 8000m (that's 26,250 feet or 4.9something in miles) is known as The Death Zone. 
The thing is, we humans evolved mostly around coastal areas or African plains where altitude was not a big deal, in fact it didn't come into the equation of our evolution at all. When you live at 2cm above sea level, high altitude is for birds. As a result of this, our bodies developed to survive in an oxygen rich environment. I'm not going to go deep into the mathematics or anatomy of it all, but at sea level there is a high atmospheric pressure (Well over 1000 millibars). Around 21% of this atmosphere is good old O2 (Oxygen) and we need this to live. Every cell in our bodies needs oxygen to live. It's the level of oxygen along with the pressure that basically fills Haemoglobin (part of the red stuff in your veins) with life giving oxygen. So, Oxygen, under pressure, fills blood, keeps you alive. Simple!
When we humans discovered mountains and started climbing them, we also came across a little annoying phenomena called Altitude Sickness. Why do people get sick when they get high? (above sea level not stoned) Well despite what people think, even some mountaineers, it's not the lack of oxygen. SHOCK NEWS. the whole atmosphere has about 21% oxygen regardless of altitude. Until you get to over 70 miles then we're talking space. So what's the problem? Pressure my friend, pressure. The higher above sea level the lower the atmospheric pressure. Air, like water, has mass (weight), not much but it has a mass all the same. So if you are at sea level the weight of the air on top of you is far greater than the air above your head if you were, for example 20 miles high. Lets see if I can make this easy to understand. Stand on a beach with a party balloon, take a deep breath, now blow hard into the balloon, balloon fills up right? Imagine the balloon is one of your lungs, where haemoglobin in your blood takes on oxygen, you blowing hard is high pressure, you put loads of atmosphere, with it's 21% oxygen, in the balloon. Now take an imaginary trip up to about the height of Everest Base Camp. You're over 5000m above sea level and the pressure has dropped to less than 500 millibars. This time when you blow into the balloon you blow with less than half the effort you put into the first attempt. Now your balloon is not as full of atmosphere, but it's still 21% oxygen. Right, now your imaginary trip takes you to the summit of Everest, 8848m, this time the pressure is down to less than 350 millibars, when you blow into your balloon this time there is about the same pressure as it takes to blow out a candle. So your balloon looks like a shrivelled prune. There is not enough atmosphere in there to sustain life, even if there is still 21% oxygen. Now your body is suffering something called Hypoxia, lack of oxygen, not because there isn't any but because there is not enough pressure to get the stuff where it's needed, in your lungs. Your blood hasn't got enough to go round so you breath faster and your heart beats faster to try and compensate, things start going wrong, extremities (finger and toes) have hardly any blood rushing round because you need it elsewhere to stay alive, this makes them more susceptible to frost bite, your lungs and brain start going pear shaped, oh the possibilities are endless. At 8848m you'll be dead in about 2-3 minutes. "Steve's talking rubbish, loads of people have spent more than 3 minutes on the summit of Everest, some without taking their own oxygen so how did they do that?" Simple answer, acclimatisation, but that's another story for later in the week maybe. 
I wrote all of this because I was asked where I would rather be on a Monday morning, other than my usual place of work. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy teaching first aid, I enjoy being a wilderness medic even more. I even sometimes get a kick out of studying. Hell, even the day job has it's moments. But I also enjoy mountains, walking around them, up them, getting cold at high altitude (having acclimatised, naturally) getting on a pair of crampons and challenging myself to another peak. I can't get enough of the outdoors, and two of my ambitions are the South Pole, and Everest from the North. That way I get to go to Tibet too, another one of my ambitions. 
OK, I know what you're thinking. I just spent ages telling everyone why going to high altitude is a bad idea and humans are not made to spend time up with the clouds. It's called the Death Zone because you'll die a horrible death... No... let me stop you there. I said what would happen if you went straight to the top of Everest from Sea level, carrying a party balloon. I have no intention of carrying any balloons up Everest, although it might be funny watching it get bigger as I got higher. (Ask me why, if you're interested). I want to summit Everest for several reasons, mostly personal, some medical, and also just because I want to experience a challenge that has to be right up there among the best. I won't be the youngest, first, tallest, oldest or any other kind of record breaker. I won't make the news (at least I hope not, because it usually means you fell off) I just want to do it for me. Nobody else is going to benefit apart maybe some med students studying the effects of high altitude. So where would I rather be on a Monday morning. North Col, Everest, on the way down. I'd have done it. I'd have ticked off my mountain ambition and climbed the highest mountain in the world, I'd have stood on the top of the world, knowing that everyone else on the planet was below me. So why the North Col, why not the summit? I do the odd bit of motivational talking, (very odd, and only when I can't get out of it) and I tell everyone who thinks they've 'done it' in life, 

"Getting to the top is only half way"


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