An educational adventure

HOUGHTON – When Dr. John West and his team scaled Mount Everest in 1981, they weren’t just going for the view. West was the principal investigator on the American Medical Research Expedition to Mount Everest and conducted the first measurements of human physiology on the summit. West shared some of the difficulties facing his team and the results they were able to obtain with a group of Michigan Technological University students during an open seminar Wednesday afternoon sponsored by the American Physiological Society and the Michigan Tech Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology.

The expedition ran from August to November. West’s team underwent many challenges, including weather problems, lost supplies and physical difficulties. At the beginning of their journey, West asked a native Sherpa what the most important thing a team needed to successfully reach the summit and was a bit surprised by the answer.

“I was expecting some deep spiritual reply, but he said the most important thing was luck,” West said. “My team had a lot of luck.”

The purpose of West’s expedition was to measure the effect of hypoxia, or reduced oxygen content, on climbers on the summit of Mount Everest for the first time. Their lab was made of an aluminum frame covered with fiberglass blankets and was heated by a kerosene stove.

“It was quite a sophisticated lab despite its relatively small size and extremely remote location,” West said.

The summit coincides with the limit of human tolerance to hypoxia. Due to weather concerns, West’s team was uncertain whether they would be able to even reach the summit, but in late October some of the climbers managed the dangerous trip. The first climber and Sherpa team to reach the summit did not have the proper equipment to gather results – a recent storm had scattered and buried the supplies at the closest base camp but the climber did not want to waste one of the first days of good weather going back down for supplies. However, eventually members of the team reached the summit and were able to gather information both at the peak and back at camp.

“The central nervous system is very intolerant to an oxygen lack,” he said. “So it wasn’t surprising when we went to these great altitudes that we could see differences in psychometric measurements. For example, short-term memory was impaired and we also have a test of finger tapping which measures the ability of the central nervous system. What was surprising, though, was when we came back from the expedition and made the same measurements at sea level there was residual impairment. It turned out that short term memory came back within a year but the finger tapping test remained abnormal in over a year and we’re not sure when it came back.”

Among the information gathered during the expedition was that climbers on the summit of Mount Everest come very close to the limit of survival because of hypoxia.

“The carry home message is you can’t go to altitudes like this and have the central nervous system come out completely unscathed, and we were perhaps the first to show that and it’s been shown many times since,” West said.