High Altitude Mountaineering

The history of high altitude mountaineering is quite a recent development, knowledge of great mountains came from travellers stories and brief explorations by victorian adventurers. The survey of India in the 1890's finally confirmed the existence of the worlds highest mountain, Everest (29,028 feet), named after the head of the British survey team. Until that time Nanda Devi (25,645 feet) had been the highest peak in the empire.
Finding these giants was one thing, climbing them was quite another.
T. G. Longstaff climbed Trisul (23,360 feet) in 1907, dispelling the belief that men could not breath above 23,000 feet. Other ascents of high peaks continued allowing the techniques required to be developed and refined. Everest as always beckoned, denied until the Tibetan government allowed access from their country in 1921. Still Everest was to resist all attempts, 28,000 feet had been achieved but the summit was unreached. The only high peaks to be conquered before the outbreak of world war II were Kamet and Nanda Devi.

After the end of the war the dawn of the 'golden age' of mountaineering started. Technology had brought better equipment and lightweight oxygen equipment to the mountains, clothing improved to extend survival at altitude and the optimism that the summits of the worlds highest mountains were now within reach. Tirich Mir (25,263 feet) and Annapurna (26,545 feet) were both successfully climbed in 1950, easing of Nepalese policy allowing Annapurna to be reached. International focus now turned to Everest and K2, the highest and the hardest. The ascent of Everest in 1953 opened the most intensive period of high altitude mountaineering, Nanga Parbat (26,660 feet) was climbed later that year. K2 (28,250 feet) and Cho Oyu (26,906 feet) were climbed in 1954, Kangchenjunga (28,169 feet) and Makalu (27,766 feet) were ascended in 1955.

Political changes and a growing realisation of the value of the great mountains has had an effect on governments, access problems and expensive peak fee's making some of the high peaks difficult to reach. The style of mountaineering has changed also, alpine style climbs of many of the 14 giants has astonished the climbing world, expeditions are smaller and are expected to take into account the conservation demands previously ignored. In spite of our wealth of experience of climbing the great peaks there are still problems to be addressed.

Existing at altitude is the key to successful high altitude mountaineering, acclimatisation is essential, any attempt to climb without sufficient acclimatisation will fail. Medical research is being refined to answer as many questions as possible about staying alive at altitude but there are still areas where no amount of knowledge will minimise the risks. The human body  at high altitude offers medicine some conundrums, young and fit climbers can be more at risk to altitude sickness than older people, at odds with most comparisons. Without oxygen at severe altitude the human body goes into decline, the only cure is to descend, mobile hyperbaric chambers have helped to relieve this problem. Acting as a pressure chamber a sufferer can be lowered several thousand feet by pumping up the chamber, oxygen also helps but can cause problems itself, for often the victim will need a constant supply to remain stable; again descent is the only solution.

A full understanding of these and the other problems associated with the high peaks makes the modern mountaineer a highly skilled individual, not the risk taking madman of the popular press, they deserve the respect and acknowledgement of all who admire courage.