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Everest oxygen week, Part I of III
11:53 a.m. EST Jan 27, 2004
Ben Franklin once said something to the effect that in life nothing is certain but death and taxes – we think it would be safe to say however, that if there wasn’t a supplemental oxygen system, it’s certain that Everest would not have been summited in 1953, nor would there be as many people summiting as in past years. To date there’s been over 1900 summits of Mount Everest, only about a 110 of those summits have been without oxygen. And the first oxygen less summit didn’t come until 1978. Base Camp would be a whole different scene if we never figured out how to cram several hours worth of O2 in a little bottle.

The lifeline of an Everest climber

Supplemental oxygen systems are the lifeline of a great majority of Everest climbers. You would think that a device so important to a climber’s success and life for that matter would have been specially designed for its intended purpose, and properly regulated. It’s actually far from it. The system most common on Everest, Poisk, which is fairly reliable and lightweight, is not regulated, nor was it even meant for climbers – instead it was designed for fighter pilots.

And now something completely different

Just last year an entirely new system, meant specifically for climbers was tested out on the North Side of Everest by a successful UK Navy/Marines team – this year the system is now available to the general public. ExplorersWeb met with Neil Greenwood, one of the company’s founders, in England, to check out the system. We also interviewed some climbers from last year’s UK Navy/Marines team to get more impressions of the new and radical system. This week and next we’ll be publishing the interviews.

Constant flow

Summit Oxygen’s setup is a step away from the traditional. The normal Poisk system delivers oxygen to a climber via a facemask on a constant basis. The oxygen cylinder is opened up to a set flow, much like you would turn on a faucet, and then piped to the mask.

On demand

The Summit Oxygen system is radically different. Oxygen is delivered not through a facemask, but rather through a nose pipe that sticks right into your nostrils. Also, what’s even more different is that the oxygen is not delivered on a constant basis, but on demand. Much like a SCUBA system, the O2’s are delivered directly to the nose, only when there’s an inhalation – this results in a much more efficient delivery means.

Lower Cost and lower weight

Higher efficiency means that you’ll need less oxygen cylinders on your expedition, which means less weight overall and less Sherpa support to carry the bottles up – this equates to a significant cost savings. Also, by using a nasal cannula to deliver the oxygen, there is no bulky mask that fogs your goggles and hinders downward visibility. In addition, this system has built in safeguards and has embedded microchips, allowing for tracking. There is a higher level of reliability and overall safety as you know exactly where your O2’s came from and the age of the bottle.

ExplorersWeb interviewed the system’s chief designer, Neil Greenwood, to find out more about the system, its creation, and its advantages. Below is Part I of III:

ExWeb: Neil, how did all this come about - developing an entirely new O2 system for Everest?

Neil: A friend of mine organized an expedition to Everest a couple of years ago and I helped to source the oxygen for him. It was during this period that it became apparent there was only one real option, which was expensive and badly managed on the ground. It also appeared to be wasteful in oxygen by delivering it on a constant basis. Why wasn’t a demand system available? I started looking in to it from here really.

ExWeb: How long has this been in development?

Neil: Almost 3 years now.

ExWeb: Has your system been used on Everest and was it successful?

Neil: Yes. The Royal Navy Royal Marines Everest North Ridge Expedition 2003 was the first team to use it after an extensive trials program. Dave Pearce and his Sherpa used our system on their successful summit day - during which Rich Cantrill and his Sherpa were also using our system, unfortunately Rich and his Sherpa turned back when Rich developed frostbite at 8500m. In addition to this, 2 other team members and 2 other Sherpas used the system during the expedition for load carries up the mountain.

ExWeb: Were there any failures last spring?

Neil: No. Everything worked very well. The system is easy to use and the Sherpas, although initially skeptical, were very impressed.

ExWeb: The delivery mode through the nose is quite different, what was the decision to go ahead with this vs. the mask - is there a backup in case the nasal cannula (nose pipe) fails or clogs while on the mountain?

Neil: The reason we chose the nasal cannula is to avoid the problems associated with wearing a facemask: condensation; impaired vision and the inability to eat, drink and communicate whilst wearing a mask. A facemask will restrict a climber’s inspirations causing a feeling of claustrophobia. The nasal cannula delivers the oxygen direct to the lungs without any of it being lost in the dead spaces of the mouth; this results in a higher blood oxygen saturation level with less oxygen being used.

If climbers get mucus whilst wearing the cannula they can simply pull it out and clear their nose as normal. If the cannula becomes completely blocked, a problem we have never encountered, we recommend climbers carry a spare one to replace it. The wearing of a protective neoprene facemask will prevent any mucus from freezing in the cannula and the ambient pressure of the oxygen will act to keep it clear in normal circumstances.

ExWeb: What happens if someone’s nose clogs up and they can’t breathe through their nose at all?

Neil: If someone’s nose is completely blocked and they can’t inhale through it, we have a facemask as an alternative. When using the facemask the flow rate will have to be increased slightly to achieve the correct oxygenation of the body, this will reduce the endurance of the system slightly but not significantly. Climbers will receive full training on the equipment prior to deploying it on the mountain. It is the responsibility of the individual or company to arrange this training through us. It will not cost them anything and can be conducted in either the UK or Nepal.

ExWeb: How big is the back-up mask.

Neil: The internal dimensions are similar to that of the Poisk mask without the bladder attachment.

ExWeb: Worst case scenario, if things fail what are the system’s back ups?

Neil: If the electronics fail then the system can be used on constant flow. If the regulator fails then it would be prudent to place spare regulators at strategic points on the mountain to take account for this. Unfortunately we cannot guarantee anything totally due to the harsh environment, but we can reduce the risk of failure to an acceptable minimum. All the equipment does meet CE/US standards, and everything is all guaranteed to –45C except for the Pulse Dose Meter (the heart of the demand system – the Pulse Dose Meter senses the inhalation and lets out a dose of O2 through the cannula).

ExWeb: The system involves electronics? That could be a source of worry for some, is there redundancy or backup so that electrical system can’t fail; what type of conditions will it be able to withstand?

Neil: The electronics have been tested down to -30ºC for 2 days without failure, although, as with all batteries, cold temperatures will affect the battery life. The system is supplied with 2 sets of batteries, which are suitable for use down to -67ºC, each set will last approximately 200 hours. The electronic components are designed to fit snugly under the climber’s down suit thus preventing them from getting too cold. Whilst not in use the Pulse Dose Meter should be protected from the cold by storing it in a pocket or sleeping bag. The case for the electronics is extremely rugged and has been designed to withstand considerable force. If the electronics fail the system will automatically open to a preset constant flow rate of 2-litre/minute. The nasal cannula or facemask can also be attached directly to the regulator to by-pass the electronics allowing the flow rate to be controlled in a similar fashion to that of the Poisk system.

Tomorrow in Part II of III, Neil and ExplorersWeb discuss valves, leakage, and weight

Read Part II of III: here..

Poisk – Summit Oxygen quick comparison:

3L bottle – 615 USD, 3345g, 22.6 hrs of use on 2L of flow (20 breaths per minute)
Regulator & Dosage Regulator – 1680 USD (210g + 200g) = 410g
Total weight: 3755g
Total cost for 1 setup: 2295 USD
Refill from Summit 100 USD

3L bottle: 310 USD, 2600g, 6 hrs of use on 2L of flow
Regulator: 300 USD, 350g
Total weight: 2950g + mask
Total cost for 1 setup: 660 USD
Refill from Poisk: 120 USD

Summit: 22.6 hrs of O2 = cost of 2295 USD and weight of 3.8kg
Poisk: 24 hrs of O2 = 1540 USD and weight of 10.8kg (1 regulator and 4 bottles)

All information in comparison from respective company’s websites.

Image of a Summit Oxygen system courtesy of SummitOxygen.com.

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