American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

"Oxygenless" Climbs and Barometric Pressure

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

“Oxygenless” Climbs and Barometric Pressure

John B. West, M.D., Ph.D.*

“OXYGENLESS” CLIMBS of 8000-meter peaks are very much in vogue. Small, fast expeditions with alpine-like tactics look down their noses at the heavy, paraphernalia of supplementary oxygen and many regard this artificial aid as detracting from the true spirit of mountaineering. Of course this is nothing new. Back in the 1930s, Shipton and Tilman championed small expeditions living largely off the land and there were plenty of bitter opponents to the introduction of oxygen in the 1920s. More recently ascents without supplementary oxygen received a tremendous fillip when Messner and Habeler made their historic climb of Everest in 1978. Since then Everest has been climbed at least nine times without supplementary oxygen, and some climbers would agree with Tilman speaking about Everest in 1938 that “there is a cogent reason for not climbing it at all rather than climb it with the help of oxygen”.

Climbing an 8000-meter peak without supplementary oxygen means that we are relying on the atmosphere around us to provide oxygen at the necessary pressure. Much has been learned recently1 about the way in which barometric pressure affects performance at extreme altitudes and the aim of this brief article is to show how this new knowledge affects climbers.

How much work can be done at a given altitude?

As we ascend, barometic pressure falls. In fact, we often use the measurement of barometric pressure as an indicator of altitude (more on this later). Figure 1 shows how the amount of work a climber can do decreases as the barometric pressure falls. Note that when barometric pressure has fallen to 50% of its sea level value, which occurs at an altitude of around 5800 meters (19,000 feet) in the Himalaya, maximal work rate is reduced by about one half. On the summit of Mount Everest, a climber can only do between 10 and 20% of the amount of work that he can do at sea level.

Work rate here refers to physical work or force times distance per unit time. For example, a climber who raises his own body weight (say 70 kg or 154 lb) by moving up a slope of 10 meters (33 feet) vertical height in one minute is working at the rate of 0.15 horsepower or 114 watts. The work capacity shown in Figure 1 refers to sustained work over a period of 3 to 5 minutes.

The work capacity on the summit of Mount Everest is very small, being about 0.07 horsepower or 50 watts. This means that a climber of average body weight (including clothing and minimal equipment) would take about 2 minutes to climb up a slope of 10 meters vertical height. This low maximum work rate is a direct consequence of the fact that the barometric pressure is so low and therefore the pressure of oxygen in the air is greatly reduced below the sea level value. The body just cannot transfer oxygen rapidly enough into the exercising muscles.

The graph shown in Figure 1 emphasizes that the summit of Mount Everest is very near the limit of human tolerance. If the mountain were only a few hundred feet higher, it is extremely unlikely that it could be climbed without supplementary oxygen. The history of climbing Everest supports this statement. Norton, in 1924, got to within 300 meters (1,000 feet) of the summit without taking oxygen but the first oxygenless ascent was not until 54 years later. Why the highest point on earth should be just attainable without artificial oxygen seems to be cosmic coincidence for which there is no evolutionary explanation.

Barometric pressures in the Himalaya are unusually high

Figure 1 shows that the amount of work that can be done at extreme altitudes is extremely sensitive to barometric pressure. It is therefore very fortunate that barometric pressures on 8000-meter peaks in the Himalaya tend to be higher than for the same altitudes nearer the polar latitudes2. The reason for this is that there is a very large mass of very cold air in the stratosphere above the equator which tends to increase barometric pressure there at altitudes in the range of 4 to 16 kilometers. Paradoxically, the coldest air in the atmosphere of the earth is above the equator. This comes about because of complex radiation and convection phenomena.

Figure 2 shows the barometric pressure at the altitude of Mount Everest (8848 meters) plotted against latitude in the northern hemisphere for the months of May and October, the preferred climbing months for the pre- and post-monsoon periods. Note that barometric pressure falls by approximately 30 mm of mercury as we move from equatorial latitudes to nearer the poles. As a consequence of this, the barometric pressure that Chris Pizzo measured on the summit of Mount Everest during the American Medical Research Expedition to Everest in October 1981 was 253 mm mercury, that is 17 mm higher than predicted by the “Standard Atmosphere” which is an average taken over the whole surface of the earth, and the standard used for calibrating altimeters. It seems certain that if Everest were located at the latitude of Mount McKinley, for example, it would be impossible to climb it without supplementary oxygen because the barometric pressure would be so low.

This latitude-dependence of barometric pressure for a given altitude also means that altimeters based on barometric pressure will give different readings depending on where the mountain is located. For this reason the aneroid barometers that are used as pocket altimeters cannot be relied upon for accurate measurements.

Weather and barometric pressure at extreme altitudes

The work capacity of a climber at extreme altitudes is so sensitive to small variations in barometric pressures that even day-by-day variations of barometric pressure caused by changes in weather can alter his capacity to climb. For example, at some times of the year, variations of up to 10 millimeters of mercury in barometric pressure can occur as a warm or cold front moves through the region. This magnitude of variation will certainly affect the amount of work a climber can do. Thus, ideally, a climber should choose a day with a relatively high barometric pressure for an “oxygenless” summit bid, though naturally he rarely has the option in practice. Fortunately a fine, relatively warm day which normally would be selected for a summit attempt tends to be associated with a relatively high barometric pressure.

Can Everest be climbed without oxygen in winter?

Figure 3 shows the way in which barometric pressure varies throughout the course of the year at an altitude of 8848 meters (29,028 feet) at the latitude of Everest. These data were actually taken from weather balloons released from New Delhi but available evidence suggests that the barometric pressures on Everest will be similar. Note the striking variation in barometric pressure of about 11 mm of mercury, enough to make a substantial change in the amount of work a climber can do at this altitude. Thus the considerably lower pressure in mid-winter indicates that it would be very much more difficult to make an oxygenless ascent at that time quite apart from the other obvious problems of cold and wind. It would be a brave man who said that the mountain could never be climbed in winter without supplementary oxygen but a reasonable attitude would be that of the captain of H.M.S. Pinafore—“What never? Well hardly ever”! Certainly I have a bottle of champagne on ice for the first winter “oxygenless” summiter.

How can a climber improve his work capacity at extreme altitude?

Unfortunately there is little that can be done to improve the ability of the body to take up oxygen from the oxygen-deprived atmosphere of extreme altitude. (It is assumed that the climber has ascended slowly enough from sea level to take advantage of the normal process of acclimatization.) Much of the problem lies in the lung itself. The oxygen moves from the lung air into the blood by a process of passive diffusion, and the speed of this process depends on the oxygen pressure available. When the pressure of oxygen in the lung is reduced to about one third of normal, as on the summit of Mount Everest, the oxygen moves too slowly to load the blood even to this reduced pressure. The blood just does not spend long enough in the lung. Physiologists say that the oxygen transfer is “diffusion-limited”.

One possible way of improving oxygen transfer in the lung under these conditions has recently come to light. It turns out that the blood of climbers at extreme altitudes is very alkaline (high pH) and this apparently accelerates loading of oxygen by the blood in the lung. The alkalinity is caused by the tremendous increase in breathing (hyperventilation) which blows off a large amount of acidic carbon dioxide. Normally the kidneys compensate for this and thus reduce the alkalinity, but the compensation process is slow at high altitudes.

The climber can take advantage of this by moving rapidly to extreme altitude from Base Camp or Advanced Base Camp. Ideally, the summit ascent should not take more than 3 or 4 days from Advanced Base Camp. In this way the climber exploits the alkalinity and thus helps the lung to transfer oxygen. However if he remains at extreme altitude (for example, 8000 m or above) for several days, he will lose some of the advantage because of the action of the kidneys. Indeed this may be one reason for the well-known “deterioration” which occurs in climbers who are forced to spend several days at very high camps. If the climbers need an extended period of time to put in the high camps they should then return to lower altitudes for several days to recover and readjust to the more moderate altitude.

Thus one strategy for an “oxygenless” ascent which makes physiological sense would be first to put in the high camps, and then return to Base or Advanced Base Camp for several days. This period at medium altitude would allow the body to adjust again to this more moderate oxygen deprivation. The final summit assault would then be as rapid as possible. In fact this was the pattern adopted by Messner and Habeler in the first “oxygenless” ascent of Mount Everest in 1978.

Articles from the 1981 American Medical Research Expedition to Everest

The following articles have appeared since the last issue of the American Alpine Journal.

Lahiri, S., K. Maret, and M.G. Sherpa.

Dependence of high altitude sleep apnea on ventilatory sensitivity to hypoxia. Respirat. Physiol. 52: 281-301, 1983.

Milledge, J.S., D.M. Catley, F.D. Blume, and J.B. West.

Renin, angiotensin converting enzyme and aldosterone in man on Mount Everest, J. Appl. Physiol.: Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol. 55: 1109-1112,1983.

Mordes, J.P., F.D. Blume, S. Boyer, M-R Zheng, and L.E. Braverman.

High altitude pituitary-thyroid dysfunction on Mt. Everest. New Eng. J Med. 308: 1135-1138, 1983.

Sarnquist, F.H.

Physicians on Mount Everest, West. J. Med. 139: 480-485, 1983.

Schoene, R.B.

Science on high: the 1981 American Medical Research Expedition to Everest. Respirat. Care 27: 1519-1524, 1982.

West, J.B.

Pulmonary gas transfer. Respiration and Circulation (Japan) 53: 511-518, 1983.

West, J.B.

Climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen: an analysis of maximal exercise during extreme hypoxia. Respirat. Physiol. 52:265-279, 1983.

West, J.B., P.H. Hackett, K.H. Maret, J.S. Milledge, R.M. Peters, Jr., C.J. Pizzo, and R.M. Winslow.

Human physiology on the summit of Mount Everest. Trans. Assn. Amer. Phys. 95: 63-70, 1982.

West, J.B., P.H. Hackett, K.H. Maret, R.M. Peters, Jr., C.J. Pizzo, and R.M. Winslow.

Pulmonary gas exchange on the summit of Mt. Everest. J. Appl. Physiol.: Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol. 55: 6780687, 1983.

West, J.B., P.H. Hackett, K.H. Maret, R.M. Peters, Jr., C.J. Pizzo, and R.M. Winslow.

Hypoxia at extreme altitude. Bull, europ. Physiopath. resp. 18 (Suppl. 4): 21-28, 1982.

West, J.B., P.H. Hackett, K.H. Maret, R.M. Peters, Jr., and C.J. Pizzo.

Barometric pressures at extreme altitudes on Mt. Everest: physiological significance. J. Appl. Physiol.: Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol. 54: 1188-1194,1983.

West, J.B., S.J. Boyer, D.J. Graber, P.H. Hackett, K.H. Maret, J.S. Milledge, R.M. Peters, Jr., C.J. Pizzo, M. Samaja, F.H. Sarnquist, R.B. Schoene, and R.M. Winslow.

Maximal exercise at extreme altitudes on Mount Everest. J. Appl. Physiol.: Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol. 55: 688-698, 1983.

Winslow, R.M., M. Samaja, and J.B. West.

Red cell function at extreme altitude on Mount Everest. J. Appl. Physiol.: Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol. 56: 109-116, 1984.

Winslow, R.M. and M. Samaja.

Red cell function on Mount Everest. Bull, europ. Physiopath. resp. 18 (Suppl. 4): 35-38, 1982.

Several other articles are in the process of publication and an update will appear in the American Alpine Journal, 1985. Many of the scientific findings of the expedition will appear in a book to be published early in 1984. This is High Altitude and Man edited by J.B. West and S. Lahiri, American Physiological Society, Washington, 1984.

*Department of Medicine, M-023A, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093.

1Readers can find more about the relations between altitude, barometric pressure, and work capacity on Mount Everest from two articles published describing work done on the American Medical Research Expedition to Everest. They are: West et al. J. Appl. Physiol.: Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol. 54, 1188-1194, 1983, and West et al. J. Appl. Physiol.: Respirat. Environ. Exercise Physiol. 55, 688-698, 1983.

2Terris Moore drew attention to the variation of barometric pressure with latitude in an earlier article in the American Alpine Journal, 1968, pages 109-116.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.