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American Alpine Club Research Fund

• The American Alpine Club Research Fund was established in 1945 to promote scientific, literary, educational, or historical research and publication related to mountaineering, geology, or geography. The members appointed to the Research Committee by the President are William B. Osgood Field, William R. Latady, Christine L. Orcutt, Chairman.

American Alpine Club Research Fund


Because of unforeseen circumstances beyond our control the Research Committee’s plans for the implementation of an Equipment Symposium were necessarily postponed. It is only during the past three months that your Chairman has been free to concentrate on the problems and opportunities such a program will provide.

It is our belief that members of the American Alpine Club because of their widespread activities in many fields of science related to mountaineering, and in mountaineering itself, have a wealth of experience and first-hand knowledge of equipment items which it is hoped that this Equipment Symposium can correlate and make available to all.

The prompt and full cooperation of all our members is necessary for the successful implementation of this program. We invite your recommendations. Correspondence should be addressed to: Christine L. Orcutt, Chairman

The American Alpine Club Research Committee

93 West Cedar Street

Boston 14, Massachusetts

We regret that because of space limitations in the American Alpine Journal, 1953, the map showing “Surface Features of Dinwoody Glacier, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming,” by Mark F. Meier was omitted. Publication of the map, separately, is anticipated in time for inclusion with the 1954 edition.


On 2 June 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary and Sirdar Tensing Bhutia, equipped with open-circuit oxygen sets, reached the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, altitude 29,002 feet. On 12 December 1953 Major Charles E. Yeager, U. S. A. F. and Assistant Chief of the Air Force Flight Test Center, Operations Laboratory, Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave Desert, California, wearing crash helmet, pressurized G-suit, and oxygen mask, was borne aloft by a B-29 mother ship, released, and then rocket powered to about 70,000 feet, at which height, in his Bell XIA jet plane, he attained the record speed of 1,650 m.p.h.—Mach. 2.5, two and a half times the speed of sound. On 15 February 1954, French Naval Commanders Pierre Wilm and George Houot descended 13,282 feet to the ocean floor off Dakar, Africa, and remained there for 5½ hours in their yellow steel bathyscaphe which had been pulled down to this record depth by heavy weights stuck to the cabin by electromagnets. In each of these record achievements oxygen played an important role, and but for oxygen, the high-speed flying and ocean depth records would not have been possible. And what of Everest?

It is not possible to discuss all phases and aspects of this question in the space available, nor may one claim to be an authority on the subject in three months time. Those who are concerned with this problem cannot do better than to study the pros and cons in regard to the use of oxygen for high-altitude mountaineering as they have been so clearly and objectively set forth in that magnificent summarization of 30 years of Himalayan mountaineering, The Ascent of Everest by Brigadier Sir John Hunt.

On 18 February 1954, the California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu (27,790 feet) left Travis Air Force Base under the leadership of Professor William Siri, physicist at the University of California.

Other members of the party are Dr. Nello Pace, Professor of Physiology, U. C., who will provide medical assistance in the extreme cold and high-altitude conditions to be encountered; Dr. Bruce Meyer, Dr. Lawrence Swan, Richard Houston, Fritz Lippman, William E. Long, William Unsoeld, and Allen P. Steck.

In the meantime the following selections from our Research Committee Mail Bag will be of interest—if not the final answer.

February 14, 1954

General Nathan F. Twining

Chief of Staff

United States Air Force

Washington, D. C.

Dear General Twining:

The PROBLEM I wish to solve boils down to one question: “Where can oxygen masks and oxygen cylinders be obtained which are suitable for ascents of mountains exceeding in altitude 21,000 feet? See The Ascent of Everest (British Edition) or The Conquest of Everest (U. S. Edition) by Brigadier Sir John Hunt (copy forwarded under separate cover) Chapter II—The Problem; also Appendix V and Appendix VII.

If open-circuit and closed-circuit sets are procurable only through the U. S. Air Force, is there any possibility of two or more sets being made available to members of the California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu (27,790 feet) for high climbing tests?

Members of the Makalu Expedition ’54 are scheduled to leave San Francisco in groups on or about February 20. Their supplies and equipment are already on the high seas en route to Calcutta, according to a letter received here recently.

If procurable through the U.S.A.F. it is my understanding that such masks must be adapted to climbing needs and carefully fitted to climbers. Could the masks be procured from an Air Force Base in the vicinity of San Francisco to save time and transportation expenses?

If not procurable for Makalu, the time factor is no longer pressing—but the PROBLEM will be recurrent since this country and many of our Allies are establishing Himalayan Foundations for the purpose of High Altitude Research in many fields of science.

Your assistance would be deeply appreciated,

Christine L. Orcutt, Chairman

The American Alpine Club Research Committee

Department of the Air Force


United States Air Force Washington, D. C.

26 February 1954

Dear Mrs. Orcutt:

I have received your letter of 14 February, which I referred to our Materiel people for their consideration. You should be hearing from them in the near future.

Thank you for the copy of The Conquest of Everest, I enjoyed it very much and appreciate your thoughtfulness.


N. F. Twining

Chief of Staff, United States Air Force

Department of the Air Force


1 March 1954

Dear Mrs. Orcutt:

Your letter to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, dated 14 February, has been forwarded to our office for answer. As you know the Air Force is one of the sponsors of the California Himalayan Expedition to Makalu and arranged for their transportation on 18 February from California to India by military air transport aircraft.

During the preparatory phase of the Expedition, Air Force oxygen equipment was offered to Mr. William Siri, the leader of the expedition, and to Dr. Nello Pace, its scientific director. After careful consideration of the advantages and disadvantages and due to the excessive weight and size of the gaseous cylinders involved, Mr. Siri elected not to use our oxygen equipment.

The key to the success of the oxygen equipment used on the Hunt expedition to Mt. Everest was their use of aluminum high-pressure cylinders. This type of cylinder is not made in this country and there was insufficient time for Mr. Siri’s group to purchase the equipment from England.

The Air Force and the Navy have both contributed technical equipment to the Makalu expedition which, we hope, will contribute to the success of the expedition.

Your interest is greatly appreciated,

Sincerely yours,

A. P. Gagge, Colonel, U.S.A.F.

Chief of Human Factors Division

Directorate of Research and Development

From the Department of Metallurgy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have learned that to manufacture oxygen cylinders of drawn dural tube (duraluminum is preferable because of its light weight, great strength, and hardness) such as were used on Everest, specially shaped tools, heavy power presses, and a forger skilled in the knowledge of how to make the grain of the metal flow in the right direction are essential to the forging of a gas cylinder capable of holding some 800 litres of oxygen at a pressure of 3,300 p.s.i. This process is extremely expensive, and for aviation purposes considered at present unwarranted.

Through the courtesy of Captain Harry Sartoris, U. S. N., Commanding Officer, South Weymouth Naval Air Station, Mass., Lieutenant Gustave H. Shubert, U. S. A. F., Base Personal Equipment Officer, and Mr. Thomas C. O’Donald, Foreman, Base Operations Branch, Base Personal Equipment Section, 6520th Air Base Group, Lawrence G. Hanscom Field, Bedford, Mass., and Lieutenant Richard Mason Bellinger, U. S. N., Harvard University R. O. T. C. an examination of the several types of oxygen masks available through the United States Air Force and the United States Navy—Demand Masks, Pressure Demand Masks, and Continuous Flow Masks—was made possible. Once again were revealed the ingenuity and skill necessary for the production of the Oxygen Breathing Assault Sets designed by the British for Everest and manufactured by Normalair, Ltd.

In place of the rubber rebreather bag common to both R. A. F. and U. S. A. F. closed-circuit sets, which Hunt suggests may prove to be the better type for climbing purposes (See The Ascent of Everest, page 262), but which when worn unmodified, would have been comparable to climbing with an inflated balloon bobbing about under one’s nose, and always in danger of being punctured at any moment, the rebreather bag and container for its protection were placed on the Everest carrying frame. For the open-circuit sets, at Tom Bourdillon’s suggestion, the bottles (cylinders) and an economizer were placed there too.

Since no oxygen masks, cylinders, or carrying frames light enough, or in other ways suitably adapted to high-altitude climbs, are available in the United States, we contacted Messrs. Normalair, Ltd. of Yeovil, Somersetshire, England, who are specialists in high-altitude aviation equipment, in regard to the availability of their oxygen equipment, and prices. Their reply is as follows:


Yeovil, England

12th March, 1954

Dear Mrs. Orcutt.

Thank you for your letter dated the 7th March and copies of the correspondence on the Everest oxygen equipment.

We much appreciate your comments, and enclose with this letter such literature and photographs as we have immediately available.

We have also been in touch with the “Times” newspaper (Mr. Astor) who, I understand, will be sending to you today some photographs of the advertisement which appeared in their Mount Everest supplement.

As regards the actual bottles and other items, the equipment for the British Everest expedition was all made as a special venture and I am sorry that we have none of it in stock or in production.

It was slightly out of our normal run of activity and we had, up to that time, primarily been concerned with aircraft equipment, so I hope you will excuse us from quoting prices for the supply of those items.

We are, however, at the present time engaged in the design and development of certain oxygen breathing sets specifically for climbing use, and we should like to send you information on such equipment when we have reached the point of having something definite to offer you, which should be later on this year.

May I once again thank you for your kind remarks and say that we should look forward to keeping in touch with your Committee on such matters. If there is any further information you would like to have on the 1953 Everest equipment, please do not hesitate to ask us.

Yours sincerely,

for Normalair Limited Commander F. W. N. Bassett Commercial Manager

In regard to the physiological aspects of oxygen use we have the following statement from Dr. Charles S. Houston, leader of the Club’s expedition to K2, 1953, and member of the Club’s first expedition to K2, 1938.


Third Karakoram Expedition

K2 1953

March 10, 1954

Dr. Charles S. Houston

Robert H. Bates

Exeter, New Hampshire


So far as oxygen is concerned my feelings can be summarized as follows: I am satisfied that well acclimatized men, given proper weather, good health, and proper support, can reach 28,250 feet without oxygen. Please note the emphasis on well acclimatized men. Whether or not the summit of Everest can be reached without oxygen I am not so certain. Physiologically it is possible; practically it may not be. I have no particular feelings about the sporting aspects of using oxygen.

So far as the technicalities of oxygen equipment are concerned I am not sufficiently up-to-date to be very helpful. In general I favor the open system, because of the weight factor, and the certainty of pure oxygenation with atmospheric air sufficient to bring the climbers to an altitude of 10 or 15 thousand feet only. Our Air Force, Army, and Navy, have an excellent regulator called the Diluter Demand, which comes in various forms and which is quite light. It has not been used in the mountains to my knowledge. A rig of cylinders and Diluter Demands, together with some type of oxygen mask, can be put together from present equipment weighing 22 pounds and to last about 5½ hours at 28,000 feet. We took two sets to base camp, but took them no higher. They were obtained through the cooperation of the U.S.A.F. They can be obtained commercially from a company in California.

Unquestionably the light-weight cylinders made in England and Switzerland would be very helpful, and unquestionably would be worth obtaining. In my own book I would not plan to use oxygen on any mountain under the altitude of K2, and would take oxygen to K2 only because of the pressure of public opinion.

I am informed that sleeping is much better when climbers use oxygen, and it might be possible to use oxygen at night in order to insure a better rest. So far as accomplishments are concerned I think it is worth pointing out that Passang and his two companions climbed from Base Camp to Camp IV on K2 in one day without oxygen, a feat which is superior in fact to the great accomplishment of Hillary in the Western Cwm last year with oxygen. Also it is worth mentioning that Longstaff climbed 6,000 feet in one day up to over 23,000 feet without oxygen, being perfectly acclimatized.

Certainly the use of oxygen for peaks under 27,000 feet is foolish, and may lead to a good deal of difficulty. I would anticipate that a party which relied on oxygen rather than acclimatization might well lose personnel if trouble developed in the equipment or with the weather. I would strongly oppose the use of oxygen at any such altitude.


Charles S. Houston, M.D.*

For those concerned with the physiological aspects of high-altitude mountaineering we can recommend: Tufts College Institute of Applied Experimental Psychology, Handbook of Human Engineering Data, Second Edition (Revised), for the Special Devices Center, Office of Naval Research, Human Engineering Division, 1 November, 1952, Part VII.

The American Alpine Club Research Committee has been the fortunate recipient during the past few years of 45 most valuable and informative publications by or received from the following authors: Arthur Beiser, Cosmic Ray Group, New York University; the late Dr. Kirk Bryan, Geomorphologist, Harvard University; Dr. Donald B. Devoe, Tufts College for Applied Psychology, North Hall, Tufts College, Medford, Mass.; Joel E. Fisher, Director of the Cold Ice Tunnel Project on the Silbersattel, Monte Rosa, Switzerland; Joseph Kaplan, Chairman, United States National Committee, International Geophysical Year, author, Dr. Serge A. Korff, donor; Donald B. Lawrence, Associate Professor of Botany, University of Minnesota; Maynard M. Miller, Cambridge University; Dr. Robert L. Nichols, geologist, Tufts College, Mass.; Dr. Lawrence E. Nielsen, Monsanto Chemical Company, Springfield, Mass.; Captain Harry Sartoris, U. S. N. (donor), South Weymouth Naval Air Station, South Weymouth, Mass.; Dr. Robert P. Sharp, geomorphologist, California Institute of Technology; Dr. Phrixos J. Theodorides, Research Professor, Institute for Fluid Dynamics and Applied Mathematics, University of Maryland, to each of whom we wish to acknowledge our deep debt of gratitude and warm appreciation for their kind thoughts, well wishes, and generous cooperation.

William O. Field

William R. Latady

Christine L. Orcutt, Chairman

*Fulton, John F. Aviation Medicine in its Preventive Aspects (Oxford Univ. Press, 1948. Univ. of London, Health Clark Lectures, 1947). Chapter I. Altitude Sickness and Acclimatization: History of Oxygen.

Houston, Charles S. “29,000 Feet.” A.A.J. VI, 181.