NPR Story
1:00 pm
Fri March 16, 2012

Mount Everest Still Holds Mysteries For Scientists

Originally published on Fri March 16, 2012 1:03 pm

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

The world's tallest peak. It's so iconic. It's so classic. You'd think we'd have learned everything there is to know about it by now, but you'd be wrong. Scientists still can't even agree on the exact height of the mountain. And what's more, they're not even sure what kind of rocks the mountaintop is made of.

Well, my next guest is going to help answer these geological questions when he heads for the summit of Everest. And as he climbs, his heart and his lungs and his muscles are going to be monitored to see how they respond to the thinning air. Also, joining me now to talk about that is Conrad Anker. He is a mountaineer and National Geographic grantee, also a North Face climber and athlete team captain based in Bozeman, Montana. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CONRAD ANKER: Thank you.

FLATOW: When are you going up there on the mountain?

ANKER: We leave Sunday, so it's...

FLATOW: What time is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANKER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. And how do you prepare for a trip like this?

ANKER: A trip like this, there's a physical component, and then there's the logistics component. So I try to stay in shape - it's an ongoing process - exercising. And then the logistics is permits from the government of Nepal, and then the funding for it. So to bring both of those together with a strong team, and we're set to go.

FLATOW: And this is not your first time, right?

ANKER: This would be my third Everest expedition.

FLATOW: People refer to the zone at the top of the mountain as the death zone. That's pretty descriptive about - what's the danger up there?

ANKER: The death zone is above 8,000 meters, which is roughly 26,000 feet in change, and it's at that point the body really starts deteriorating very rapidly. We have about a third of the amount of oxygen that we would have here at close to sea level. And we just - oxygen is very essential for life. After four minutes without oxygen, we have irreparable brain damage. So going without oxygen at this time takes either a serious amount of training, a good physiological adaptation, or supplemental oxygen.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Conrad Anker. Yet there are so many people who want to just go up there. I mean, don't - aren't - isn't there sort of an eco-tour taking people up all the time, and they're not prepared and they get into trouble and stuff like that?

ANKER: The two most popular routes - one on the north side from Tibet, and the other one on the south side from Nepal - are - they're guided. There's people that go up there. And there's sort of people that have ambition. There's the hardcore climber that saves up, and then there's sort of the trophy hunter, someone that...

FLATOW: Right.

ANKER: ...has done well in business and has the money, has $70,000 to get a ride up Mount Everest, and they want the trophy on the wall.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. In 1999, you discovered the body of the long-lost British mountaineer George Mallory on Everest. How did you come across that?

ANKER: Our expedition was - set out specifically to look for this missing English climber, and he was discovered in 1975 by a Chinese climber. He shared that with a Japanese climber in 1980. So we knew in - by history that he was - he had disappeared, and our expedition set out to look for him. And it was just by chance. I was traversing at an elevation of about 8,300 meters, and I came across a frozen and well-preserved body of a climber that had perished 75 years before we were there.

FLATOW: Are there lots of bodies lying in a road there?

ANKER: There - people always - two things. Everyone thinks it's a rubbish heap up there and there's bodies everywhere, and on both counts it's not quite the case. People clean up the garbage, and then bodies are removed off the mountain. But you do have to make peace with death if you're going to go up there because we're living on a thread.

FLATOW: So as you go higher and higher, what happens? Does sort of time slow down for you? You have to move slower and your body function slower or what?

ANKER: Yes, exactly. We have less oxygen. Our body goes into - we're shunting blood away from our extremities to our core. And then from - the next step is we take it away from our central processing unit, which is our brain, and then we put it into our core. So unless you're physiologically able to adapt to that with good external circulation, distal circulation and with supplemental oxygen, the clock is ticking as you're going higher.

FLATOW: And on this trip, though, you're going to be monitored to see what's happening.

ANKER: That's correct. We have a team coming out from the Mayo Clinic, and we were - I was out there 10 days ago when they did a really in-depth test...

FLATOW: And so - preliminary studies to see what happens as you go up there higher, and that's what we're going to talk about in the next segment, bringing some of the members of the team up there. How experienced are they in going up...

ANKER: Our team is - everyone is an experienced climber. And of everyone on our team, I'm the only one that has summited Everest. So the other eight climbers - we're nine together, two on the west ridge and seven on the southeast ridge. I'm the only one that has summited, which is fair as a team leader. But that sense of newness and that approaching it as they've never seen it before is a great part of the story and a chance for them to engage in science.

FLATOW: Yeah. We're going to talk about that in about a minute. But just anecdotally, did you see any evidence of global warming?

ANKER: Oh, it is tremendous. How do mountains hear? It's with mountaineers. It's a silly little joke. But what we're seeing up there is scary and frightening. Routes that were climbed in the 1970s have melted away. The high-altitude cryosphere, which is the ice that holds these mountains together, is receding at an alarming rate, and we see it as climbers all over the place. And it's something that - it's our duty as climbers to come back and share this knowledge because it's happening for real. And if you play golf and you're in Kansas, it's in an artificial environment. But where we are, high-altitude and high-latitude areas are being affected by climate.

FLATOW: Well, you've just shared it with a lot of people. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more with Conrad Anker and the members of his team. And you can step up to the microphone if you want to know what it's like to climb Mount Everest. Maybe you want to go up there some time. So we'll talk to you later, right after this break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about climbing Mount Everest with Conrad Anker. He is a mountaineer and National Geographic grantee. He's also a North Face climber and athlete team captain based in Bozeman, Montana. And as Conrad climbs up, up and away, his bodily functions are going to be monitored to see how they react to those stresses by Bryan Taylor, a research fellow in the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Taylor.

DR. BRYAN TAYLOR: Thank you.

FLATOW: Looking forward to the climb?

TAYLOR: I am very excited. Very excited.

FLATOW: That's good. David Lageson is a professor of structural geology at Montana State University in Bozeman. And he is going up Everest with Conrad, all the way to the summit to collect some rocks at the top and to re-measure the height of the peak. He's also a National Geo grantee. He joins us from Bozeman. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DAVID LAGESON: Thank you, sir.

FLATOW: How do you collect rocks at the top when there's no air to breath and you have a hammer and have to hammer away at something? You ready for that?

LAGESON: Very slowly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAGESON: Yeah. It'll be interesting. It's not like doing field work here in Montana, where there's plenty of air to breath.

FLATOW: Yeah. Dr. Lageson, why don't we know what the top of the mountain is made out of? Why is this such a mystery?

LAGESON: Well, we - yeah, good question. We do in a general sense, for sure. It's been known for many years that there's limestone up there and that it's fairly old limestone. But the reality is just a few samples have really come back from the summit of Mount Everest over the years, and of course the reason for that is the incredible elevation, its extreme height.

FLATOW: Yeah. And so it's hard to work up there and collect this - collect the rocks, bring them back?

LAGESON: Yeah. That's exactly right, exactly right. There's a lot more known about the lower elevations around Mount Everest than the upper elevations, for sure.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, Bryan Taylor, you're going to Nepal to study how the high altitude affects Conrad and the other climbers. What - how are they going to be wired and measured and taking readings up?

TAYLOR: So we have several different measures that we're going to look at with Conrad and his team. The - on the climb on the way up, both towards base camp and then to the peak, they will wear remote monitors that will measure their energy expenditure, mostly through accelerometry. Once myself and our team from the Mayo Clinic get to base camp, we'll be doing studies that look at changes in the size of their lungs and how they're able to function their lungs, how well they transfer gas from the lungs to the blood to stay oxygenated, the development of fluid on their lung, which is very common at high-altitude, disruptions in their sleep, changes in how their brain stimulates the different kind of organs of the body, et cetera, as we're there at base camp.

FLATOW: Has this ever been done before?

TAYLOR: Studies of this type are common. You know, to be fair, that - this type of research has been ongoing for about 50 years or so. Our lab itself has a history over the last 15 to 20 years of doing such research. What we do is we're providing a small increment in terms of what we already know, perhaps a new question. Our primary interest is how disruption in sleep pattern - altitude can help us explain some of the common occurrences, the common negative occurrences with altitude, as I said, specifically the build-up of fluid in the lung and muscle wasting or a loss of body mass at altitude.

FLATOW: Conrad, what effects do you notice on your body? Give us an idea. Do you get hallucinations, thirsty? What does it feel like?

ANKER: Being thirsty is one of the primary downfalls of it. So you have to hyper-hydrate. You're urinating more frequently. People have wild dreams that's reported at altitude. But I enjoy going to altitude, and I acclimatize well. So I'm just - I get supercharged, and it's like a - it's my vacation. So I'm happy up there.

FLATOW: You know, I read the book "Into Thin Air." It didn't sound like much of a vacation in that book, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANKER: Yeah. But suffering for me is fun. So this is like the E-ticket ride on Disneyland.

FLATOW: It is. You know, when athletes do a marathon, the closest I can compare it to, the night or two before they bulk up with a lot of carbs and things. Do you have to do that kind of storage of those kinds of things that you're body needs?

ANKER: Yes, exactly, and it's not just a night. So from Thanksgiving on, it's been open season on calories. So when I was at the Mayo Clinic, I was tested, and my body fat came in around 18, 19 percent. So I've been eating walnuts, almonds and olive oil, healthy fats, and I've put on my insurance roll right around my waist and...

FLATOW: Yeah. You look so fat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANKER: It's there.

FLATOW: Yeah, I'm sure, right? If you have a question, just step up to the microphone and ask a question. Yes, ma'am.

UNDENTIFIED WOMAN: You were starting to get to my question. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro a lot of years ago, and most of us were in our 20s. We're real healthy and fit but not athletes. And at least half the group couldn't make it. And I wonder if there's a way to predict who can go up to the low, you know, no - if there's no oxygen, you can't breathe.

LAGESON: Yeah. And part of it is genetic and part of this is what Bryan Taylor and the team at the Mayo Clinic are studying, is what are the markers that differentiate some people from doing well and other people not doing well. The indigenous people to Nepal, the Sherpa, do very well at altitude. And what is different from them and from other people?

And a lot of these same markers are similar to cardiovascular disease. So there's - we're not just going up there to study it because it's fun and it's an exotic place to go do it. But what we learned from being at altitude, being on Everest can help people with cardiovascular disease. And especially with the monitoring devices, if they're robust enough to take to the summit of Everest and record one week's - or a month's worth of information at one time and then bring it back. These same devices, we can then use them with citizens around the nation on a day-to-day basis.

FLATOW: Bryan Taylor, what is different about Sherpa blood or why they're so - look - they make it look so effortless?

TAYLOR: That's a very good question. Perhaps not as well understood as what we'd like and certainly from different high-altitude areas around the world, different Sherpas or porters from that area seemed to be slightly different. But certainly some of the main differences would be higher hematocrit or red blood cell level, which helps carry or maintain the oxygen levels on the blood, which is obviously very key.

One of the other things that we see is fairly common is the surface area of the lungs or the ability to, as I said earlier, move gas that we breathe in from the lungs to the blood to, again, maintain adequate oxygenation is improved in this people. So as Conrad said, it's very much multifaceted. There's definitely a genetic component. I know if we could figure out, then that'd be great.

FLATOW: Yeah. David Lageson, we're mentioning before about the kinds of rocks that are at the tippy-top of Mount Everest. A lot of people don't realize that Mount Everest was once the bottom of the ocean. Is that correct?

LAGESON: That's right. That's absolutely right.

FLATOW: I mean, how the heck did he get all the way up there - the bottom of the ocean?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAGESON: Yeah. I think that's one of the amazing things about some of the world's great peaks and Mount Everest in particular is you're looking at a magnificent monument to the power of plate tectonics. To think that the sea floor of the Tethys Ocean, 470 million years ago, could have been carried northward and eventually caught up in this collisional zone with India and Eurasia, and then eventually uplifted to form Mount Everest, I just think is an amazing story about how dynamic this planet is and how alive these mountains really are.

FLATOW: So you have these two plates that smashed into each other right at the border of India there, and push up the mountain - higher and higher?

LAGESON: That's it. Yes, classic example of a plate boundary collision zone between two continental land masses.

FLATOW: All right. Could you find fossils that showed when it was at the bottom of the ocean - on the top there?

LAGESON: Yeah. Those limestones at the summit, there are fossils reported from those carbonate rocks, and they're mostly little tiny marine invertebrate animals, little sea shells, essentially. And using high-powered microscopes in thin sections of the rock, we can identify what those animals are.

FLATOW: And I know that, Conrad, this is - we're fascinated by this, and that's one part of your mission is an educational part, to let everybody else know about it.

ANKER: That's correct. We're working with National Science Foundation and EPSCoR and Montana State University to create a curriculum for fifth graders. And so there's eight weeks of class study that will be open to every student across the planet, through the Web. You can track our journey along as we climb the mountain. It's over a period of 10 weeks. And specifically, there is eight classroom curriculum that are designed to get students excited about science, to increase their science literacy and to eventually get more scientists and get more people excited about science and more people listening to your show. So we want this.

FLATOW: Well, we'd like to get more people listening, but we're just as happy to have kids, you know, a lot of kids listening. And how do they participate? Is there a website?

ANKER: There's a website, montana.edu, and check in there. And there is - there's curriculum that's available. And then there's 20 classrooms in the state of Montana that we selected, and they have a teacher's kit. And so they have rock hammers, a sampling of rock from limestone to granite. They have a miniature time-lapse camera, a pulse oximeter. So a lot of things that we're looking at, both from earth sciences and the Mayo Clinic health performance side, are going to be there. And these 10-year-olds, which is about the age of a fifth grader, they're maybe engaged in science.

FLATOW: All right. One of these days, there's going to be a Wi-Fi section on top of Mount Everest so people can see what's going on.

ANKER: It's pretty close to that. And that's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANKER: ...back in the day, it used to be you would go on an exhibition, you'd come back and you would talk about it. And then there was slideshows. And then there was movies. And now we have the Internet. And it's Everest season. So people tune in to the website. They follow the expeditions, and we'll be reporting through a variety of channels about the geology, the human performance, what it's like to be there, follow the adventure along. And it's a great way to - for people to understanding climbing, because it's not something that shows up like "Monday Night Football." It's kind of this - it's a story that goes over a period of time.

FLATOW: That's great. Yes, question in the audience?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Hi. There's a number of physiologic changes that were mentioned earlier, that a human body experiences as it goes to altitude. I'm originally from Colorado. I know when I go home, even just 8,000 feet, it takes me a couple days to acclimate. I was wondering if you can remark on how long those physiologic changes actually endure for and if any of them endure for long term.

ANKER: We - I think we get back. We still have a higher blood cell - red blood cell account for two weeks before it diminishes there, so...

FLATOW: Two weeks?

ANKER: Yeah. Dr. Taylor, you have any input on that?

TAYLOR: Yeah, that's about right. Again, it's variable within a certain individual or subject. But a red blood cell can't remain elevated for about two weeks.

FLATOW: Do you become Superman for two weeks or...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Can you notice the difference back on the ground - on down there, sea level?

TAYLOR: Well, from a sport's performance point of view, it's actually relatively well-done that most athletes will actually go into high-altitude training camp before a major competition, say, the Olympics. The idea being that it come back and perform a time when their ability to carry and utilize oxygen in their blood has actually increased. Again, you know, there's a lot of discrepancy. They're not literature, but it's certainly anecdotally found. In terms of other kind of aspects, we hope to monitor the climbers and their selves as we come back for that per - that first two to three weeks to see if there are any other physiological changes that persist, specifically perhaps the potential changes in lung fluid, et cetera.

FLATOW: Yeah. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow at Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic Society here in New York, talking about some geographic climbers that are going to go up on Mt. Everest. David Lageson, why you need re-measure the altitude? I mean, how do we not know how high Mt. Everest is?

LAGESON: Well, we essentially do. I mean, the first elevation was done back in 1856, and it's been resurveyed, you know, three or four times since then. So we have it pretty well-identified in terms of certainly in the ballpark. But why redo it? There's a couple of reasons. Number one, certainly, it's the world's tallest mountain. It's utterly iconic on this planet. People want to know what its elevation is, and I think it behooves us as we get new technology and better instruments to, sort of, keep after the task, do the best that we can to identify the height of the planet's largest mountain - I think just for that.

FLATOW: Yeah, and how long - do you put an instrument, a special instrument up there? Or how - is it a satellite measurement, or what is it?

LAGESON: Yeah, we'll be using GPS instruments. These are instruments provided by Trimble, and we'll have two receivers on the summit and then an instrument down at base camp for doing what's called differential corrections after we bring the instruments back down.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LAGESON: And so it's basically GPS-based.

FLATOW: Yeah. So...

LAGESON: Yeah.

FLATOW: You're going to be leaving them up there, or are you taking...

LAGESON: Well, no. Now, I don't think Trimble would like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAGESON: Well, they're pretty expensive. Yeah, we'll have to bring them back down, and at base camp, we download the data on the computers and do some post-processing. And I'll be bringing along a graduate...

FLATOW: I think we lost our connection. You're there? We lost our connection. He's going to bring a graduate student to carry it, I'll bet you...

ANKER: (Unintelligible). So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah.

ANKER: And Travis will be helping us out, and this will be good because it'll give us a chance to understand how fast Mt. Everest is growing. So...

FLATOW: It's really - it's still growing.

ANKER: It is. And imagine the speed the Indian subcontinent moving into Eurasian land mass is about as fast as your fingernails grow. And geologically speaking, that's really fast.

FLATOW: Lightning speed.

ANKER: Yeah, it's getting crushed up. But Everest itself is being pushed south, like out of a - squeezed out of a tube of toothpaste and then being compounded by erosional effects of glaciers. So it's really - it's great science. It's a great way to engage young people in the basic principles of science.

FLATOW: And you've gotten the whole bowl of wax here. You have the geology. You have the medical aspect of it. You have the rock climbing part of it. You have the physical health, all kinds of stuff.

ANKER: We're excited.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one last quick question in here, quickly, before we go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: As an amateur climber, I know how good I feel after just a couple of pitches. Can you just describe what it's like to stand at the top of the world?

ANKER: Standing on top of Everest is very humbling. You're there and you're - it's good weather. Hopefully, you're luckier there and you're feeling miserable. The joy is until you get back down and you're at base camp and you're with your friends and everything like that. But anything that you put effort into and that sense of reward for working hard, if that's something that is meaningful to you, climbing Everest is where it's at.

FLATOW: All right. I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us today. And when are you beginning - when do you leave for...

ANKER: We leave for Katmandu on the 18th, so we arrive Katmandu on the 20th, and we have three or four days getting our permits for our geology collection work and elevation, and then we head into the mountains. We should be at base camp around the 5th of May - or 5th of April. We acclimatize through the month of April, moving higher on the mountain, and anywhere from the first week of May to the 1st of June is our summit window.

FLATOW: OK. We'll be watching for you and watching on the website.

ANKER: And we'll be - if we can, we'll tune in to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FLATOW: Oh, give us a call.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Wouldn't that be something? Greetings from Antarctica. Thank you all for being wondrous today. Conrad Anker, mountaineer and National Geographic grantee, Bryan Taylor, a research fellow on the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases, Mayo Clinic, and David Lageson, a professor of structural geology at Montana State University, also a National Geo grantee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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