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, part 4

Posted: Dec 19, 2005 05:42 am EST

In the previous entries, we've covered various Everest oxygen systems all the way back from the 1930's till today. So what does the future hold?

One thing is certain. As the word spreads, men and women will continue to migrate to the mountaineer's holy hill in increasingly larger numbers - like believers who have seen the light. And when they arrive at the high altitude Jerusalem of Everest BC, the new followers will find all kinds of commerce at their service.

Here goes the Everest 2006 supplementary oxygen menu - take your pick.

Summit O, Indiana Poisk, Russian liquid rocket fuel: New and improved!

UK Summit Oxygen seems undeterred by their disastrous experience on Everest over the past 3 years. Like mad scientists putting untested drugs on the market and using customer complaints as "clinic trials", the company and its panhandlers plan to continue to sell the gear, without proper tests at altitude.

They are learning from their paying guinea pigs though. "In the future the only system we will offer to climbers will be our electronic system which has proven far more popular than the pneumatic system," they write in an email to a Spanish climber who wants his money back.

2006 plans are also fixed for the apparently explosive Russian liquid "rocket fuel oxygen" version that Valentin Bazhukov has developed from his work in the space industry. When not blowing up, the liquid oxygen is claimed 125% more effective and will be offered for refills in BC.

Scottish Henry Todd's Indian bootleg bottles are said to be found in almost every Kathmandu shop these days. The shop keepers and customers can't even tell the fake from real POISK anymore - until the bottles begin to malfunction and the truth unveils in the deathzone. The game of Russian Roulette will however save you (or your commercial expedition leader) around 50 dollars per refilled bottle. It's impossible to tell the true savings bottle vs. bottle, as at least one in four of Todd's bottles have been reported to fail.

The closed circuit systems have their followers too, and chemical oxygen concoctions are currently boiling and puffing away in secret altitude labs across America and UK.

Topout Oxygen, condoms and coke

UK Ted Atkins climbed Everest last year with a new O2 system that he developed. You might remember his 2004 Everest debrief: "With thanks to Mingma - The Sherpa who saved my life."

Well hold on, there's an explanation. Ted's system in fact is a mask that connects to POISK. And it was the lack thereof (or perhaps the bootleg version) that almost killed him: "I set off in good faith that everything was organized, expecting to get a message telling me where to pick up the 3rd cylinder which would give me the O2 to get back down. It never arrived, a mistake had been made, a serious error. I asked the expedition leader for an explanation when I got back down; he had none to offer!"

It's not clear what expedition leader that was, but we can guess.

"Sitting outside my tent with all of these bits in front of me the idea came"

Ted used his own oxygen recycling mask. He explains how he got the idea; "It was not until I had been high on the mountain from Base Camp that the final solution came to me in a EUREKA moment. I had taken with me a Tornado pilot's mask and some fitting with no sure idea of the end product. Sitting outside my tent with all of these bits in front of me the idea came."

"It was a condom opened and dropped inside a 500ml coke bottle and the lip folded over the bottle neck. Then a rubber hose sealed over this and led up to the mask. Now as the O2 flowed while I breathed out, the O2 was diverted into the condom reservoir; when I breathed in, I drew the O2 from here. It worked and the rest is history."

The result - an open circuit system that supplies O2 on demand. O2 is diverted into an encapsulated reservoir while breathing out, then the stored gas is consumed in bulk on breathing in.

Risk vs. gain

Topout Oxygeneering Ltd has since moved on from condoms and pop bottles, and Jagged Globe has used the system with good results. The outfitter confirms to ExWeb that one of their climbers borrowed the mask from Ted in 2004, and most their Everest summiteers used it in 2005. Climbers described the new mask as a 'major improvement' over the Poisk masks.

Dr Jeremy Windsor tested the mask on Cho Oyu - however the tests were conducted on acclimatised subjects at only 5700m. "In 2007 we intend to extend our pilot trial to a full series of experiments on Everest, and intend to conduct them at an altitude where they are used (ie above 7000m)," wrote the Doc in his report.

Although the mask seems promising, the major drawbacks are that there are no public documentations (Ted has a patent pending) and no specs on its actual performance. How much oxygen is saved, really? Summit Oxygen was a major undertaking - the gain would have been a significant 300-400% had it worked. Ted's mask seems to offer more modest advantages, somewhere around 15% in increased efficiency perhaps.

Climbing Everest is a risky business, as Ted himself learned the hard way. Until we know how efficient the mask is exactly, and the system is clearly tested and described, the mask should only be used by climbers in monitored trials. Jeremy will however have a full paper for publication on breathing systems next year and it will be full and conclusive, according to Ted.

Carbon dioxide filters

Micropore is another project. Originally a filter company for diving, Scottish Micropore - founded in 1998 - and its staff of 15 are now developing a filter to remove carbon dioxide from self-contained rebreathing systems in the space shuttle. Cold tests of the filter are made also for mountaineering purposes, overseen by American Eric Simonson, IMG commercial expedition outfitter.

This system is similar to the closed circuit systems used in the old days (check part 3 of this series), except back then soda lime was used for the filtering. Eric hopes the new filter will work better in cold than the old stuff did. Plans are made for a field test on a high-altitude expedition this spring.

Aesthetics aside (a truly efficient close circuit system will allow any high altitude mountain to be scaled without acclimatization, transforming Everest into a mediocre 3000 meter climb) - the system is highly dangerous. If it fails, the unacclimatized climber could die as soon as within 20 minutes.

The Sherpas' choice

So, there you have it - the future - at the slopes of Everest. If we manage to tell the true from the fake, avoid to blow up, get the new gear to work above 8000 meters, and attach a mask sprung from condoms to it - we might well save ourselves a few bucks in the deathzone when all the glitches are worked out. Or we can opt for closed circuit and force the summit down altogether.

But, wait - didn't we forget someone? While all kinds of inventors try to kick them off the hill - this company will continue to improve and quietly provide the gear responsible for 95% of all successful summits on Mount Everest. Their Kevlar bottles are smaller, lighter and safer than ever. At their website, you'll find clear specs, documentations and prices. No secrets, no games - and an uncommon track record in the deathzone. To the Sherpas at least; the year of 2006 will be, as always, the year of Poisk.

Next, Part 5 final: Conclusions

In part 3 of the series, American Everest expert Tom Holzel described closed circuit oxygen to ExplorersWeb: "The theoretical reasons for using a closed-circuit system seem obvious: instead of reducing the effective altitude by a few thousand feet, closed-circuit oxygen puts you back to sea level. However, purists have agitated against its use often on ideological grounds. Their claim is that open-circuit systems are cheating enough; closed-circuit would be beyond the pale. Some physiologists (e.g., Dr. West) feel that actual performance gains with closed-circuit oxygen would not be realized because of the effect of acclimatization--but none have actually tested that hypothesis."

Topout Oxygen Ltd Director Ted Atkins is a RAF Aerosystems Engineering Officer, currently the Chief Engineer on Search and Rescue Helicopters - and mountaineer. Ted Atkins first attempted Everest via the West Ridge in 1988, a route he called a logistical nightmare. Ted got as far as within 800 yards of the summit, where he'd earlier placed a cache with a sleeping bag and camp stuff, but now the bag was gone. Ted tried getting some sleep in his rucksack, but by morning, his feet were nearly frozen and he gave up the attempt.

In 2001, Ted returned, leading the large, successful RAF expedition up the North side. Two members of the team summited, however his bid ended at 8300m in deteriorating weather. In 2004 Ted returned to the mountain alone, bought in on a permit and bagged the summit at last.


Image of Brice's guide Bill Crouse on Ted's mask (click to enlarge). "In essence this is a more efficient system that delivers more O2 without any waste. All of the O2 from the cylinder must pass through the lungs and it fails safe. This will allow for faster, safer ascents that can be enjoyed rather than endured," writes the inventor.
"People have turned back from the South Summit because they did not have the oxygen to ensure a safe descent. I however had summit fever; this is a serious condition that kills people every year, a condition where by you push on regardless. It had now become clear to me that there was no more support, something had gone wrong and I would see no third cylinder supplied - it was up to me. Defying all logic I pushed down into the gap and on to the Hillary Step." Excerpt from Ted Atkins 2004 Evere..
In 2004, Ted test piloted a new personal oxygen mask (pictured in part) that he said would be more efficient (waste less oxygen) than the commercially available system he was provided. Using an aviator's mask, some pieces of medical oxygen systems, a couple of condoms (!) and a plastic coke bottle, Ted used this system on his summit attempt last year. All images courtesy of Ted Atkins.
To get 'on Top' of the situation, "Please contact me if you have doubts or would like advice," Ted urged users last year, "meanwhile please take the extra precautions we advised: fit cylinder to reg with the gauge down, wear goggles, wear gloves." In image Ted and Nima, the Sherpa who saved his life on Everest in 2004.