#92 – Peter Hackett – World Authority on Altitude Sickness & the Doctor of the Death Zone

Do you think you have what it takes to climb Mount Everest? Did you ever think about what it might be like,  and if you did it, would you kill a bunch of brain cells and come home…..different? Or, maybe not at all….?

  Fact is, today’s guest feels that a person of moderate physical capacity could take on The Big E given the right conditions, with the use of bottled oxygen….

 He also says to climb Everest it really helps to have been born with what he calls The Stupid Gene…the quality of being able to suffer for long periods of time, even willingly, in order to achieve a goal.

Today’s guest on The Happiness Quotient is Dr. Peter Hackett….he LITERALLY wrote the book on altitude sickness….it’s called Mountain Sickness: Prevention, Recognition and Treatment (American Alpine Club Climber’s Guide).

Peter is no ordinary doctor…he’s a mountaineer. He climbed Everest in 1981 as a member and doctor on the American Medical Expedition…when he summited he was the 111th person ever to summit….it was well before the first guided expedition changed the game on the Mother Goddess of Mountains. It was also before more than one team was allowed on the same route….

I first met Peter in 2000, we were working on a documentary for PBS Nova called Deadly Ascent, a film endeavoring  to solve the mystery of high-altitude deaths on one of the most dangerous mountains on Earth: Denali.   I was the high altitude cinematographer and Peter was the doctor, the main character. We were there to chronicle the season, ready to capture on film daring mountain rescues and emergency medical evacuations….

In 2007 Peter found the Institute for Altitude Medicine in conjunction with the Telluride Medical Center and the University of Colorado to provide clinical care and consultation, conduct research and develop educational programs to optimize health as well treat medical issues affecting people who either live at, or travel to, high altitudes. 

Fast forward to 2019….I was on Mount Everest, filming Lost on Everest for National Geographic and Disney….while at 21,000 feet, the evening before leaving for our tam’s final summit bid….I began to show some signs of an altitude induced TIA….a trans ischemic attack, or a minor stroke. The symptoms were minor, numbing of the face…. More than 7,000 miles away Dr. Peter Hackett was summoned via Mark Synnott’s text messages. 

Peter was at a medical conference at the time…and he consulted with other physicians about my condition…many texts went back and forth. Basically he said this: 50-percent chance it’s really nothing, a migraine thing that will disappear and have no impact on me at altitude. The flip side is that if it IS a TIA and it re-appears on my summit bid….I die. He and the doctors suggested I remove myself from the summit team. 

That afternoon I was in Base Camp. Maybe I don’t have as much of that Stupid Gene as I used to….

So, do you have what it takes to climb Everest? What happens up there when someone climbs into the DEath Zone?  

A few facts:

Let’s take the 2019 season, the season I was there on the Chinese side, as an example 

There were 11 deaths….eight of those deaths are basically unexplained, the cause of death listed as either altitude sickness (3 of the climbers) or exhaustion during descent,…listed for six of them….and of those 11 deaths, six of those were climbers in their 50’s or 60’s, where the possibility of dying at altitude increases. What is going on at altitude and how is the body responding to the extremes of the death zone?

Here’s my conversation with Peter Hackett, Doctor of the Death Zone… We spoke in May of 2021.

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