American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Everest: The Testing Place

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  • Publication Year: 1986

Everest: The Testing Place. John B. West. McGraw Hill, New York, 1985. 187 pages, illustrated. $18.95.

You might think that some 200 books and countless articles would have exhausted all there was to say about Everest, but not so. There is a special mystique and interest in its image and reality, and this slim book is a welcome addition. The surge of interest in mountaineering has stimulated dozens of expeditions to high mountains, the most recent and ambitious of which was the American Research Expedition to Mount Everest in 1981. This personal story of AMREE, written in non-technical language with sensitivity and humor, is a good companion piece to the scientific publications of the expedition which were collected two years ago in HIGH ALTITUDE AND MAN by West and Lahiri.

First comes a brief history of altitude research in laboratories and on high mountains followed by chapters describing the trials of planning (and fundraising!), the wonder-filled walk from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp at 18,000 feet, and the difficult and dangerous task of finding a passably safe route through the great icefall in the Western Cwm. Particularly interesting are transcripts of tape-recorded conversations during and after the summit climbs. Eighteen color illustrations will delight those unfamiliar with the beauty of the Himalayas, though the prints are not up to the quality of the best mountain books.

The important studies done at 17,700 and 20,700 feet are summarized in terms the layman can grasp, and there is a more technical chapter for the scientifically sophisticated. Samples of air from deep in the lung (alveolar air) were collected from one individual during a brief stay on the summit (29,028 feet), and extrapolations from analyses of venous blood drawn later and at lower altitude were used to estimate arterial blood gases on the summit. The ability to work to maximal capacity was measured at 20,700 feet while breathing ambient air, and while breathing a low-oxygen mixture simulating conditions on the summit. Most of the studies repeat and confirm work done by others, though some of those done at highest altitude are new. Of particular interest to climbers was their measurement of the atmospheric pressure on the summit using a specially made barometer. This turns out to be 253 torr, or 17 torr higher than expected from standard pressure-altitude tables. In effect this makes Everest about 27,500 feet high in physiological terms.

The book is comfortably written and gives a vivid and impressive picture of the joys and sorrows of climbing, not to mention the difficulty of research on a great mountain where many stresses add to the impact of hypoxia. There are four helpful appendices and a bibliography of papers published by members of the expedition. This is a good introduction to altitude research for the uninitiated.

Charles S. Houston M.D.

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