Wednesday, May 30, 2012


By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

There's a running joke that mountain climbers tell each other:
The three best attributes of a mountain climber are... 1) threshold to pain, 2) a bad memory, and 3) I forget the third one.
The medical community has been studying the brains of mountain climbers for several decades. They are curious to see how the lack of oxygen poses long-term affects for many of the fittest men and women in the world.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand this simple fact: the higher you go, the less oxygen there is to go around. Even lugging around oxygen tanks while trying to summit Mount Everest won't reverse the damage caused by oxygen deprivation. Sure, every individual body and chemical make-up is different. Genetics plays a huge role, which is why Nepalese men were bred to be sherpas. They can handle the thinner air better than their Western counterparts.

According to the NY Times article Mountain Climbing is Bad for the Brain:
On scans, the climbers showed a reduction in both white and gray matter in various parts of the brain. Overall, the researchers found that the cognitive abilities that were most likely to be affected were the climbers’ executive function and memory.
Mountain climbing is an extreme sport. People climb mountains because of the risk-reward ratio is magnificent. You risk your life to conquer nature. It's the only thing you can do, physically speaking, to get closer to God by ascending atop the highest peaks in the world. At the same time, mountaineering is a quest-oriented adventure. You test your own personal limitations, not just trying to see how much pain you can endure, but also it's an exhibition to determine how tough you are mentally. That's why people who are crazy enough to climb a dangerous mountain like Everest are very successful in life. When you shrug off the perils of death while unable to feel your frost-bitten digits while barely being able to breathe on the North face, you realize the simplicity of tasks in non-mountain environments.

Ed Viesturs, one of the most renown American mountaineers who climbed Everest seven times, explained: "Everything that seems hard, really isn't hard."

To put it in more glib terms, mountain climbers are cocky in day-to-day life because they cheated death and acquired a life experience that money can't buy. Sure there are wealthy people who fund exorbitant expedition to Everest, but the bottom line is this... they still have to climb the mountain. And more often than not... the mountain wins.

Weather in the Himalayas is fickle and dangerous. The locals believe the Qomolangma (Tibetan translation: Holy Mother) is alive and will swallow up human sacrifices unless you pay proper homage to the omnipotent power of nature. If you don't die on the way up, you'll probably die on the way down after you expend all your energy to get to the top and you let your guard down by not being extra careful on the descent.

Climbing Mount Everest is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But a few people got hooked on the adrenaline rush. Once you climb the biggest mountain in the world, what do you do next? Without something bigger to defeat, you have no choice but to return to Everest and tackle a second, third, or fourth summit.

That's when climbers gamble with their long-term brain function. The short-term risk is usually not worth the long-term consequences. Sure, you'll put your life on the line for the first shot at achieving greatness. But, what's the real assessment of the risk when climbers make a secondary and tertiary attempt at the summit?

And these brain issues don't just happen to climbers in the Himalayas. It happens in Europe in the Alps and in South American with climbers in the Andes.

Ed Viesturs is a freak of nature. He climbed the world's top peaks without oxygen tanks and he also survived the summit of Everest seven times. Only two other non-sherpas have ever successfully climbed Everest more than Viesturs. Every time he returned from the summit, Viesturs' brain took more and more of a pounding.

Every time someone makes an attempt to climb Everest, you return with slight brain damage. The more often you venture into high altitudes, your memory and cognitive functions suffer dearly.

So when assessing the risk of multiple summits at Everest, the medical evidence supports that continuing to climb high-altitudes has devastating long-term impact. Once or twice is enough, anything more than that is utterly foolish.

Unless you have a death wish, what's the point in conquering a mountain you've already conquered once, or seven times in Ed Viesturs' case?