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ExWeb ALERT: Summit Oxygen system - High failure rate above 7300 m
image story

May 24, 2005 16: 55 EST
As if the wind was not enough of a problem, several reports are now coming in about the failure of the Summit Oxygen system high up on Everest.

Keith Woodall reported from his summit push on Everest South Side:

“Since 9pm when we set off I had been fighting for breath! My Summit Oxygen equipment was playing up... night was perfect and moon lit...but I was still having breathing problems with the Summit mask and regulator. I had to swap the mask for the Canular, partly because of my coughing and partly because it wasn't responding for my demand for Oxygen. The unit pulsed small doses automatically - and on the top setting at least I got some Oxygen into me!"

From the North side on the same day:

"The Indian Air Force team had 2 members turn back at the second step – one with a broken crampon... And the other with failed Summit Oxygen system, problem with the o-ring??"

And today a mail from Everest North Side:

"Tshering Bhote has two Norwegian clients who have 16 (?!) bottles of Summit, he has just returned from a failed summit bid. They turned back because of high winds and also oxygen failure. One bottle they were using had leaks in two different places, between the cylinder and the first stage, and then also between the first stage and the pulse dose meter."

"In the end they fixed it by dripping water on the leak, which froze shut. They had problems with other bottles, including another leak between the cylinder and the first stage. The Indians have one reg that was out by one setting. By rough calculation more than half of the uses of the system have failed."

Summit Oxygen confirms problem

A failed O2 system is life threatening and ExWeb contacted the team at Summit Oxygen for more information. They immediately confirmed the problems:

“For the last week or so we have sadly received emails and telephone calls from various expeditions stating that there are certain failures with our system:

1. Pneumatic conservers self ‘pulsing’ over 8300m;
2. Regulator ‘O’ Ring freezing at 7300m;
3. Leaks from two points – Cylinder/integral regulator seal & integral regulator above gauge at different altitudes above 7200m.

I have been in contact with the majority of the users, however some I have not been able to reach."

For now – try switching to POISK…

At this time it is impossible for Summit Oxygen to detail the extent of the problem, but from reports coming in they are guessing that 50% of the bottles and 25% of the conservers (delivering the oxygen) are experiencing problems.

The systems are working well in BC and the problems first occur at extreme altitude and during extreme cold, thus preventing “sorting out” bad batches prior to going up to high elevations.

Due to the potentially high frequency of malfunctions, the safest decision for expeditions at this time would be to use only POISK on the summit bids. Summit Oxygen could maybe still be used up to the South Col (C3 North side), and during sleep.

If you still choose to go with Summit Oxygen

Many climbers will probably not have resources to find alternative oxygen and might still want to try it out with Summit Oxygen. There are no safe solutions here, but here are some suggestions.
Summit Oxygen: ”All parts of the system work 100% at BC as stated by the users. All users are fully conversant with the system as they were trained on it in KTM by Dave Pearce during their equipment handover. The only other solution would be to place the cylinders inside the tents before they are used (not practical up there I know).”

“I have sent the ‘O’ Rings used in the equipment off to a specialist manufacturer to try and fathom why they are failing at such temperatures. The ‘O’ Rings should be good to -60C, hence the reason for getting an independent test carried out yesterday (I am still waiting for a result and I will let you know the outcome).”

The mask and nasal cannula are made from silicone

“There are four ‘viton O Rings' that appear to be causing the problem and these are all housed inside the integral regulator. Like I have previously mentioned, keeping them warm may help, but Jamie McGuinness has told me that they are stored outside with their protective caps in place. If this is the case then they should have been OK especially as the temperature is only about -30C at the moment.”

“Yes the tube can be run inside the clothing; however this is not the problem. The mask and nasal cannula are made from silicone and this material stays pliable down to -67C and these items have been on Everest before.”

“Jamie McGuinness mentioned that one expedition put water over the leaking integral regulator, allowed it to freeze and this did the trick (again, not ideal by any stretch of the imagination).”

Safety first

Right now all focus is on the safety of the climbers, but this is of course a hard blow not only for the climbers, but also for Summit Oxygen, in it’s third year of operation in the Himalayas.

Climbers might however appreciate Summit Oxygen’s swift and honest response to the problem.

Image of the system, courtesy of Summit Oxygen.
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