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ExWeb Special: Oxygen on Everest - The highest death lab in the world

Posted: Dec 12, 2005 03:04 pm EST

Imagine you were to dive into the deepest ocean on Earth: Would have your scuba tanks filled and managed by a convicted drug dealer? Well, something similar to this situation has been and is still happening on Mount Everest. And although ExplorersWeb has posted a number of stories on the problem since we ran the series about Henry Todd in 2003, other players have emerged and more climbers have died.

New systems are continuously introduced without proper tests at altitude. "Independent" News websites promote them and fly by night commercial outfitters peddle the gear. It's an airtight business - there are no regulations on the mountain, mainstream media generally doesn't understand the subject, Climbing magazines stay away and the customers are mostly new kids on the block. A sneaky part is also that oxygen failure closely resembles general altitude problems and dead climbers' oxygen gear is rarely retrieved.

The "sudden deaths" of Everest

To climb Everest on supplementary oxygen takes practice. You need to know what it feels like to climb on oxygen and without it. Only then will you know, that if all of a sudden you feel uneasy and your steps are heavy the fault may not well lie either with the altitude or your weakness - but rather with your oxygen acting up in spite of the ever present and comforting hissing sound. Climbing with the support of supplementary oxygen takes practice. A failing system high up on a mountain can easily kill a climber not acclimatized to go O2-less. The brain clouds up within minutes. In bad cases, the climber either sits down in the snow to die, or when trying to descend - falls to his death.

A climber on a faulty system this past spring described the experience: Since 9 pm when we set off I had been fighting for breath! Night was perfect and moon lit...but I was still having breathing problems

This climber was experienced enough to understand that his system was failing and he was in fact climbing Everest without the aid of supplementary oxygen. He turned around - in time. But if you don't know the situation, you might believe that it's just you being weak; you'll try to "will it out" - until it's too late to turn back. In fact no other 8000ers show as many "sudden deaths" as Everest does. The fatalities are frequently not caused by falls, avalanches or rock fall - but described as "exposure" - death by altitude.

Some of the possible cases

Because oxygen failure resembles general altitude problems and the "evidence" disappears on the mountain, it can only be estimated how many of the deaths on Everest are related to faulty oxygen. But every time a climber on supplementary oxygen suddenly collapses on the mountain, the question must be raised.

Whilst altitude is tough on climbers and gear alike, oxygen problems on Everest sported a sudden, sharp spike in the late 90's. In 1999, expedition after expedition reported failing oxygen bottles bought from Henry Todd. "I tried six bottles before I found one that worked," reported one client. "One in three failed, reported another climber that same year but in another expedition. Two climbers did not have any oxygen because their systems malfunctioned in Camp IV.

A third expedition filed a report of oxygen fraud to the Ministry, followed by another one. And then someone died - a kid - 20 years old. Initially one of the strongest he suddenly slowed, and then fell off the mountain. Our oxygen didn't work, said the fellow clients.

A year later, in 2000, Todd again supplied oxygen to a team that was forced to give up their summit attempt due to a faulty rig that failed at Camp IV. In 2002, after he was banned from Nepal, Todd decided to leave his climbers on their own to climb the South side and to guide them from the North side via walkie-talkie. One of his clients died on the expedition from a fall below Camp III.

In 2004, another climber died on Everest South side shortly after a successful summit - "collapsing" below the South summit. The expedition was low budget and suspected to carry oxygen supplied by Henry Todd. This year, in 2005, Henry Todd had another client dying in the death zone this time a heart attack was cited as the cause of death. There have been a number of sudden deaths also on the mountains North side.

The gear

Oxygen is expensive to manufacture. There are many problems with oxygen gear that is not properly tested. High humidity content in supplementary oxygen freezes up not only the gas but also the masks. Screw threads from the bottle to the regulator usually get stripped when refilling. The fittings won't match if the gear is second grade. The bottles must thus go through rigorous testing for their structural integrity, fittings, and the oxygen itself. The procedure takes three weeks for every single bottle.

Poisk is currently the leading brand of oxygen on Everest. Manufactured initially for Russian fighter pilots, now the oxygen is made with a license of quality for climbing. In late 90's, Todd was collecting empty Poisk bottles and instead refilled the bottles for a very low cost in India. Forget the tests, forget the licenses - it was Indian oxygen sold in Russian brand packages. The oxygen was sold on Everest as Poisk by Todd, but in the Poisk book, there were no sales from Poisk to Todd.

Since ExWeb ran the story of the fake brand oxygen, Henry is said to be pretty low key about his marketing he just lets it be known that he can do refills with a Russian agent in Kathmandu, a climber told ExWeb. His bottles are still around though, sold to budget Everest outfitters or established expeditions even - who use them for lower camps. The stuff is - after all - cheap.

The Russian agent

Russian expedition leader Alex Abramov reported in a blog: Valentine Bozhukov visited us today he came to talk us into using his invention liquid oxygen. It is poured into bottles, evaporated thus creating the pressure of 300 atmospheres. But I consider this to be dangerous and dont trust it. RussianClimb has the scoop on "Svesdia Russian Oxygen LTD, Nepal":

CIS climbing community has for many years known that famous climber, Master of Sports in mountaineering, Snow Leopard Valentin Bazhukov is the author of the really new oxygen system for climbers and an owner of the patent of the refilling oxygen bottles technology. He's recently registered a company named Russian Oxygen, LTD in Nepal, whose going refilling oxygen bottles in Kathmandu and Everest base camp using a unique technology created by the company."

"Most high-altitude climbers use the "Poisk" oxygen system, manufactured in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The system is known as the most reliable, and is still in use with small modifications since the first Russian Himalaya expedition to Everest South-West Face in 1982."

"Valentin Bazhukov (72), an active high-altitude climber who has reached 8300 meters without partners several times knows well how important light, reliable and high capacity oxygen equipment is in the "death zone". Last year, Valentin finished the tests of a new system created by him for refilling oxygen bottles in Himalaya base camps. The system is capable of putting more oxygen (125 %) in a standard bottle than other systems. In 2006 "Russian Oxygen" will begin to refill oxygen bottles in Kathmandu and at Everest base camp at a price lower than standard.

Everestnews, Todd, Dijmarescu, Mazur

RussianClimb also states "Valentin Bazhukov is going to take part in the American Everest Fantasy Ridge 2006 expedition as oxygen sponsor. Led by highly controversial climber George Dijmarescu, accused of beating his wife and her sister in Everest BC and threatening an ExWeb reporter, the Everest Fantasy climb has been much publicized by the website Everestnews - who carries "exclusive" reports from the climber as well as from Henry Todd and Dan Mazur.

Both low budget outfitters, Mazur and Todd climbed together as the last teams on the mountain on Everest this past Spring when Todd's client died. Mazur in turn lost three clients, two in a fall at Pumori and one from a fall in Everest ice fall. The outfitter sells and advertises "unguided" expeditions.

Everestnews advertised Summit Oxygen heavily last year and clammed up when problems arose this year. It remains to be seen if the website intends to advertise the "Fantasy Ridge system" in 2006.

Poisk about the "new system"

In part, the new system sounded as if it were endorsed by POISK. So ExWeb checked and got the following statement from the company:

"We wish to state that Mr. Bazhukov does not belong to any representatives of POISK Company; has no permission whatsoever to refill Poisk bottles and carries on illegal business."

"Background: Just a while back, Moscow Company Zvezda has indeed opened the refilling center for their cylinders ("Russian Service Center") in Nepal and at first, got Mr. Bazhukov to take part in the enterprise as an experienced climber. However, the latter failed to fulfill the given task and what's more, used those allocated funds for his own account. At the same time he set up his personal refilling business under the brand name of RSC. His newly established commercial activity was built on fraud, theft and false documents."

"As Mr. Bazhukov refused to heed the multiple warnings addressed to him, the company management of Zvezda was forced to undertake court actions in Nepal and was about to start prosecution in Russia as well, in the case he would not stop refilling their bottles. In 2003, posing as the Director of RSC and Educational Consultant of Zvezda, Bazhukov, while using self-made equipment, granted a number of certificates on behalf of the Russian Service Center. Needless to say, that in Russia it is absolutely inadmissible to use such equipment in the high pressure oxygen systems. When he came to POISK office in S.Petersburg 3 years ago, he asked for a photograph with its Director and then used it in KTM and in Everest Base Camp as actual proof of being our official representative. He also claimed that POISK had granted him the permission to refill its cylinders; according to RSC in March, 2004, while refilling one of the cylinders with expired working life."

"Mr. Bazhukov had an accident. Presently, he is carrying on refilling business under the name of Russian Oxygen Ltd. In our opinion, it is not possible for anybody to be engaged in an enterprise of this kind without sufficient qualification and special equipment. Deliberate disregard of which can bring about grave consequences. Best regards, Andrey Maximov, Poisk."

Accident? An American climber enlightened ExWeb: A guy filling bottles in base camp reportedly claims 125% capacity of Poisk. He swears by a liquid O2 setup. The volatility of this system is best shown by his half blown off mouth of a previous unit that malfunctioned on him.

Back to ol' Henry

"Imagine you were to dive in the deepest ocean on Earth: Would have your scuba tanks filled and managed by a convicted drug dealer?" That's how this story began. So how does it all relate to drug dealing? Incidentally, Henry Todd has a history of selling sub-quality products that dates as far back as the 70s. Even back in his drug dealing days of the 70s, Todd was responsible for peddling second-rate acid brewed in a London basement. A UK organization called the, Independent Drug Monitoring Group, donned the LSD operation that Henry Todd was a part of, the biggest acid lab in the world. The operation made so much acid that when it was shut down the price of a hit nearly doubled because the supply was so violently cut. Henry Todd, one of the ringleaders, was thought to have helped make 15 million doses of LSD, and banking the profit into Swiss accounts. Todd and his friend, "the chemist," got sentenced to the stiffest sentences in, "Operation Julie," - one of the UKs largest drug busts ever: 13 years.

2 million USD yearly

Already in the sixties, Henry Todd was imprisoned for theft and fraud. Then came the drug business in the seventies. By the mid-eighties, Todd was out of prison looking for new ideas of commerce. He set his sights on Mount Everest.

In the past years, Everest has hosted around 500 climbers yearly, including high altitude sherpas - those climbers and sherpas need oxygen. On average, around 3-6 bottles each: One for C3, another two for C4 and 3-4 for summit day, including spare emergency bottles. One oxygen bottle is around 300 USD. The Everest oxygen business including the surrounding other eight thousand meter peaks generate close to 2 million USD yearly. Yet Henry is not the only one looking for a fast buck. Enter UK Summit Oxygen.


ExWeb Special: Oxygen on Everest - The highest death lab in the world, part 2

ExWeb Special: Oxygen on Everest - The highest death lab in the world, part 3

ExWeb Special: Oxygen on Everest - The highest death lab in the world, part 4

ExWeb Special: Oxygen on Everest - The highest death lab in the world, final

Henry Todd in British court accused of unlawful killing

Everest 2006: Henry Todd and the highest death lab in the world - the story continues

Todd/Tinker Everest manslaughter charges dropped

2008 HumanEdgeTech Everest Special, final: Tech that saves lives

#Mountaineering #classic

"Most high-altitude climbers use the "Poisk" oxygen system, manufactured in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The system is known as the most reliable," reported Alex Abramov. Sherpas will also demand Poisk O2. In the image, Dawa Gelje on the summit of Everest this spring - courtesy of Project-Himalaya (click to enlarge).
Image of Henry Todd, ExWeb files.
Valenting Bazhukov announced he will be refilling O2 bottles in Everest's BC in 2006. According to Poisk, "he has no permission whatsoever to refill Poisk bottles and carries on illegal business." File image of Valentin Bazhukov, courtesy of Russian Climb (click to enlarge).
Xavi Arias, member of Catalan team Esplugues al Everest 2005, attempted Everest this Spring via the North side. SummitOxygen user, he had serious problems with the O2 system from 8000m - turned around at 8500 and suffered a fall on the way down. Luckily, he only twisted an ankle. Image of Xavi being helped down by sherpas courtesy of the team (click to enlarge).