Thursday, June 3, 2010

Climbing Mount Everest

...no, I haven't and don't plan on doing so, before you start wondering. ;)

On a recent trip to Gangtok, Sikkim with my parents and sister, I got to interact with two people who had climbed Mt. Everest in 2008. In the Himalayan regions, people who reach the top and survive are called heroes. Before I met these two men, I must admit that I didn’t think that climbing the tallest peak in the world was a very big deal. Sure, it was a very VERY difficult feat, yet to call those people heroes and club them with people who save others’ lives and whatnot sounded a bit ridiculous.

Yet, I realized later that they are, indeed, heroes. It occurred to me that the term “hero” doesn’t focus on an achievement, but on the type of person the achiever is. Only someone with a strong resolve, a keen sense of survival, and passion for nature could climb the tallest peak in the world. These people are inspirational.

One of the mountaineers had picked up a rock from the peak. It looked like any normal gray rock (yes, I WAS a tad bit disappointed :P). I felt like I was holding the world when I held it. Isn’t that cheesy? But it’s true. It was precious.

Apart from the obviously extensive physical training required to climb Everest, one must prepare oneself for a number of dangers. Some of the more obvious dangers are death by heart attack, avalanche or a nasty fall, HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), hypothermia, freezing and frostbite, and impaired judgment from lack of oxygen. What is fascinating is how mountaineering equipment has been designed to tackle some of these dangers.

Let’s look at freezing to death. Tents, though thin, are insulated and are sturdy enough to withstand the high, snowy winds that frolic about the face of the mountain. We were lucky enough to see the equipment, and the hotel people even managed to put up a tent. Believe me, I laughed when I saw it. It was unbelievably thin! But it works. Something else that completely stunned me was a jacket that could be folded up into a small pouch. It was incredibly light, but it was made for extremely low negative temperatures. I tried it on, skeptical, and began to sweat almost right away! The boots were completely insulated, and covered the shin so that no snow could slip inside and cause frostbite.

In order to tackle the lack of oxygen problem, camping at a middle point for a few weeks is a MUST so that the body can acclimatize itself and generate more red blood cells to carry oxygen. Yet, that doesn’t prevent senses from being dulled as one climbss higher and higher. Can you imagine falling off of a mountain just because you were too slow to react to a slip? Oxygen tanks are a must, too, though people HAVE climbed without them. I had the privilege of holding one of the oxygen tanks that one of the mountaineers used to reach the peak!

Large intakes of food are required because at least 6,000 calories are burned every day. However, due to lack of oxygen, and sunburn on the nostrils and the roof of the mouth, people lose their appetites. The gas burner, lighter, and pans are all made sturdily and yet are very light to carry. The lighter has a mechanism to keep alight even when winds are blowing!

Once you climb above a certain point, you’re absolutely alone. Helicopters cannot travel to great heights, and rescue operations on foot aren’t normally arranged because they put 20 or so more people at risk just to carry one out to save a single person. The bodies of people that die on Everest remain preserved because of the ice. The two mountaineers showed us a picture of a person they passed on the way - they’d passed at least 6 dead bodies. The frozen body was of a man with a mustache, his eyes open wide with shock. The fact that his expression had remained intact as if he had been instantaneously frozen, made me shiver. What nature-driven obstacles the climbers of Everest have to face!

Heroes, indeed!