Science Interviews


Sun, 22nd Jul 2007

Xtreme Everest

Richard Turner, BBC Manchester

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Extreme Survival

Well now from very high up in the air in an aeroplane to very high up in the air whilst standing on land! Richard turner is a BBC journalist who volunteered to be part of University College Londonís Xtreme Everest project.

Richard Turner - Xtreme EverestChris -   So then Richard, why were you up Everest?

Richard -   I heard about a project called ďXtreme EverestĒ which was organised by some very clever doctors at University College London (UCL).  They were looking for volunteers to walk up to Everest base camp so that they could do a wide scientific study on the effects of low oxygen, or hypoxia, on the human body.

Chris -   What was it like, actually at Everest base camp, because we hear this trotted out; ďits Everest base campĒ.  But what actually is Everest base camp and whatís it like there.

Richard -   Everest base camp is very much like a very icy quarry, itís a very barren place and thereís not much up there, apart from lots of tents and climbers and doctors in this case.

Chris -   So what sorts of conditions were you experiencing while you were there?

Richard -   Well the conditions were really about how we responded to the altitude, and therefore the rarefied atmosphere that you get at altitude.  The oxygen levels at that height are about half of what they are at sea level. In fact, we were studying ourselves and testing ourselves on the walk, or trek, up there, and you would watch your blood oxygen levels, or the oxygen saturation in your blood fall down to levels which would be quite critical if you were at sea level.  By the time youíve acclimatised you can cope with those levels.  We were down to about 65% where as normally at sea level you would be at 98%.

Chris -   How high is Everest base camp above sea level?

Richard - Everest base camp is 5300m, its on the edge of what people call the ĎDeath Zoneí up there, which sounds quite dramatic.  But the issue is that above that height, and up to the height of Everest, you are at the limit of the human bodyís ability to cope with those low oxygen conditions.  In fact, the summit of Everest, coincidentally, is the exact limit of human ability, it just happens to be that, and there the oxygen is about a third of what it is down here.

Chris -   How did you cope with walking around with oxygen levels so low when you first got there?  Did you notice?

Richard -   Yes, you do, there are various things that you start feeling.  First of all the physical fatigue; any form of exercise or movement suddenly becomes very hard.  We have had time on the way up to acclimatise to those conditions so you can function, but itís the little things like any form of exercise, and little things like your wounds donít heal very well, your nails get very brittle, and youíre very tired.  You donít sleep well, thatís the thing.  When you sleep normally, your oxygen levels fall because your body is saying ĎI donít need all that oxygen, Iím at restí.  If that happens at altitude, where there is even less oxygen your body doesnít get much oxygen, so you donít sleep very well at all.

Richard Turner at Everest Base CampChris -   And what did the medical doctors find with the blood samples and things they took from you?  Have they actually published their findings yet or are they still ongoing with the work up on it.

Richard -   That data is still being analysed, and itís going to be some time before we get the full results.  But theyíre interested in finding, or applying the results of this to intensive care medicine and in other conditions where oxygen is an issue.  For instance what happened was, as intensive care doctors, as they were at UCL, they would see two patients come in with similar traumas into intensive care, and one would live and one would die.  Today, people havenít been able to work out why.  Being mountaineers for a hobby, many of them realised that the symptoms that the patients were experiencing were very similar to mountaineers at high altitude; the low oxygen and swelling on the brain and the lungs.  They realised that if they could study people at high altitude they may be able to find new treatments to help people who come in with very serious traumas, who are critically ill, and also patients who have a number of disorders like emphysema or cystic fibrosis, and premature babies.

Chris -   Richard, thank you for sharing your experience on Everest with us, just finally, any regrets?

Richard -   No, not at all, it was a fantastic experience and it was great to be apart of something which hopefully will benefit a lot of people.

Richard's expedition was sponsored by hosting provider UKFast, who also support the Naked Scientists.


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