You have to be pretty bonkers to climb Mount Everest. Standing at over 29,000 ft, the summit of the world’s tallest peak is equivalent to the cruising height of a Boeing 747. Anything above 26,000 ft is known as the Death Zone. That bit doesn’t need much explaining – the amount of oxygen in the air is insufficient to sustain human life and it’s basically a race against time to get down to a lower altitude as soon as possible. As I said: bonkers.
But while most of us can’t think of much that’s worse than scaling a mountain that reduces your body to a weary husk, there are plenty of people each year who pay small fortunes for the chance to trek through treacherous snow and ice to climb the mountain, six decades since Edmund Hillary first reached its summit.
After the New Zealand mountaineer made history, adventure tourism to the world’s tallest point steadily increased until, in the mid-1990s, there were more than 50 expeditions setting out each year. That’s where we find ourselves in Hollywood’s new big-budget flick Everest, which sees another Kiwi climber – Rob Hall – lead a group to the summit in 1996.
Based on a true story, it’s no spoiler to say things go rather spectacularly wrong. The film stars Jason Clarke as Hall, alongside an A-list supporting cast that includes Keira Knightley, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Robin Wright and Emily Watson. But the real star of the show is the landscape. Sharp peaks, craggy precipices, swirling mist and vertiginous drops – the combined effect makes for something rather post-apocalyptic. Yet sat in the cinema – watching a team of adventure junkies tackle jaw-dropping heights – there was a tiny part of me that was intrigued by the scale of the challenge.
It didn’t last. Seven days later, I found myself on a treadmill in a hypoxic chamber at the Altitude Centre in London, entirely convinced that I was not made for mountains. The aim of the chamber is to simulate high altitude conditions for climbers about to head off on treks and challenges, both in the UK and around the world. Starting at 2,700m above sea level (higher than Britain’s biggest peak Ben Nevis but no taller than Courchevel’s highest ski lift), I did a 15-minute warm up at a pace I’d be ashamed to walk at.
I managed – perhaps even felt a bit cocky – but when the simulation was hiked (excuse the pun) up to 5,500m (18,000 ft) using a special mask, my resilience dropped rapidly. I’m no mountaineer but I’ve done my fair share of walking – I’ve even trekked up to Machu Picchu – yet the effort involved in putting one foot in front of the other left me wiped after just 90 seconds. According one of the centre’s (very patient) experts, the percentage of my blood saturated in oxygen dropped significantly, suggesting my body finds frequent changes in O2 levels difficult to adjust to.
That’s science talk for feeling rather faint.
I kept going, eventually lasting three minutes on the treadmill (it felt like three hours) before clambering off and gorging on some revitalising chocolate. I’d worked hard, after all – the simulated conditions I’d been walking in mirrored those of the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
But it certainly put the challenge of Everest into perspective. A grand total of 40 minutes on a treadmill in a warm temperature, carrying nothing on my back and I was exhausted. The brave (or bonkers) climbers who head off to Nepal to take on the peak are in the sort of physical shape I could only dream of.
At the highest point on earth, temperatures drop to -40oC and oxygen levels fall by 60% to create an environment up there with the most hostile on the planet (don’t believe me? Watch the film, you soon will.) Yet the chance to survey the rolling mountains of the Himalayas from their highest point will never cease to attract adventure seekers the world over. I don’t pretend to ‘get’ it but I certainly admire it.