Tech Advances Help Mountain Climbers

ByDorian Benkoil

May 28, 2003 -- Put on a heavy wool sweater, a down-filled coat, plain leather boots and a cap. Strap a 20-pound oxygen tank to your back. Grab a heavy ice pick. Then traverse life-threatening crevasses and vast sheets of ice to climb five miles above the Earth's surface.

That may be simplifying things, but it gives a small sense of what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay went through to reach the summit of Mount Everest for the first time ever in 1953.

Thanks to technological advances, climbing the peak today is, if not easier, at least less cumbersome.

"I know a lot of people wouldn't be able to climb the mountain in the 1953 equipment, with all this lightweight equipment that we have around," says Norgay's son, Jamling. "They had the very best of their time. Today we have the very best of our times."

Everest doesn't take a great deal of technical expertise to climb, experts say, and modern gear gives the less-experienced a shot at making it to the top while giving more skilled adventurers the chance to scale once-insurmountable peaks.

Speed = Safety

Everything from clothes, to food to communication gear, ropes and ice axes have vastly improved, letting people pack more in lighter, smaller packs, getting farther, faster, with less exertion.

"In the mountains, speed adds to safety," says Joe Lentini, director of the New Hampshire-based EMS Climbing School, which teaches both novice and professional climbers. "It's not safe, but it's safer."

Advances, most in the past 20 years, include:

Clothing: Step into any mountaineering store, and you'll see pants, jackets, socks and gloves made from porous, lightweight materials like Gore-Tex that are also waterproof and can protect against cold and wind. Polypropylene underwear — today's sophisticated long-johns — stretch and breathe while keeping climbers warm.

Tents: These are lighter and less susceptible to conditions because of new synthetics in the cloth, and metal alloys in the poles.

Ropes: These, too, are lighter and stronger, thanks to synthetics.

Boots: Climbers universally point to improvements in boots. Norgay and Hillary had sophisticated double leather boots, but today's climbing boots, mixed with synthetics, are lighter, stronger and better-fitting, and with good socks will keep toes warm even in zero-degree Fahrenheit conditions.

Crampons: The metal points that help climbers scale ice now clamp more securely onto the boots, and points protrude from the front and bottom, instead of just the bottom, giving a more secure toehold on slippery slopes.

Oxygen: Hillary and Norgay carried 20-pound tanks for their climb up Everest. Today, more oxygen than they had can be compressed into a six-pound tank. Plus, the tanks are more sophisticated "open systems" that mix with the surrounding air, making the air supply last longer.

Ladders: Lightweight aluminum ladders are now strung together and maintained by local Sherpas, making walks across crevasses easier — albeit still terrifying — than when Hillary and Norgay carried only one ladder, and their Sherpa porters carried tree trunks to help get across the divides.

Forecasts: Weather forecasting has improved tremendously thanks to satellites, supercomputers and other advances. Information can be quickly transmitted to climbers who can then prepare and decide what to do.

Communication: Virtually every climbing expedition these days has hand-held and often solar-charged radios to communicate with base camp as much as 12,000 feet below. A new Internet café even lets climbers send email and surf the Web at 17,000 feet.

Food and Cooking: Packaged foods like military MREs and health bars let climbers take all the calories they need in their packs, notes Peter Athans, who has scaled some of the world's most challenging faces by himself. Others talk of how new camping stoves mean they can cook inside their tents, melting ice to drink or cooking soup while warming the tent inside.

Medical Improvements: Expeditions can carry devices to take blood and measure how much oxygen someone is getting, as well as portable hyperbaric chambers — essentially large bags which when blown up allow someone suffering altitude sickness to be put inside and simulate a higher-pressure, lower-altitude environment.

Is That All There Is?

The techniques of climbing have improved, too, spurred by a climbing industry that has burgeoned since the early 1980s.

More, for example, is known about belaying — or boosting — a comrade over a tricky spot. Climbers have improved training and diet regimens, and can better prepare for their treks.

Research has helped improve methods of clamping pulleys fastened into ice and rock. Climbers have also developed better safety techniques, for example, using improved axes to break their falls while tumbling down ice faces.

Perhaps the biggest change, argues Hillary's son, Peter, is mental — knowing what can, and can't, be done — or what noted adventurer Eric Simonson calls "collective intelligence:"

"How long do you really need to spend up high to acclimatize, how many forays do you really need to make before you go on a summit bid? What is the ratio spent up high working hard versus down low resting?"

Still, he notes, there are limits to what technique and technology can do.

"I caution against somehow having the impression there's something magical about what's available now," says Simonson, who led the expedition that in 1999 found the bodies of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, lost to Everest during their bold 1924 attempt. "You still have to climb the frickin' mountain."

David Breashears, who co-directed the acclaimed Imax film on the mountain during the deadly 1996 season, concurs.

"You know what Ed [Hillary] had going for him? Not his ice ax or his crampons. He had drive and ability and his eyes set on the world's highest peak," he says. "You can give all this gear to a total novice, and there's no guarantee that they're going to climb 100 feet higher."

That drive, that ability, and that confidence is something even the best equipped climber of today, or tomorrow, will need to succeed on any of the world's highest peaks.

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