Thursday, March 10, 2016

A scientist's view from Earth's highest mountains

"As difficult and dangerous as mountain climbing can be, it's also an absolutely wonderful experience. You have to live it to understand it," says Stefan Lutz, chair of chemistry at Emory, shown during a Denali expedition.

By Carol Clark

In December of 2012, Stefan Lutz summited the 22,841-foot peak of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western hemisphere, located in western Argentina. “The view from the top was amazing. When you look to the horizon and see the curvature of the Earth, you realize that you’re in a pretty special place,” says Lutz, professor and chair of chemistry at Emory. He is also a dedicated mountaineer who will attempt to climb Mount Everest this spring.

After a few minutes spent admiring the view from atop Aconcagua, it was time to descend. Lutz and a guide maneuvered down a particularly steep section and sat down to wait for the rest of their group.

“It was a beautiful day. I remember drinking and eating a bit of food, just trying to re-energize myself,” Lutz says. “Then I noticed a man, a climber I didn’t know, standing alone, maybe 20 feet away. He just kept standing, still as a statue. It’s exhausting at that altitude and I wondered, ‘Why doesn’t he sit down?’”

Lutz mentioned it to the guide who then approached the man. “As soon as the guide put his hand on the guy’s shoulder, he collapsed,” Lutz recalls.

They gave him some water and asked, “Do you know where you are?”

“Yes,” the man replied, “I’m on Mount Fuji.”

It was clear that the confused mountaineer, a Japanese man climbing solo, was suffering acute mountain sickness. “He was in serious trouble,” Lutz says. “Luckily, some Argentine park rangers came along. They gave him bottled oxygen which helped him recover enough that he could be helped back down the mountain.”

Without the assistance of the rangers, the climber’s condition might have progressed to high altitude cerebral edema – a severe and, if untreated, fatal form of altitude sickness when capillary fluid leaks into the blood-brain barrier due to the effects of inadequate oxygen.

“That’s the highest I’ve climbed – 22,841 feet,” Lutz says. “It’s very humbling. Even a fit person moves like a turtle at that altitude.”

Bright sunshine at 3 a.m. during a Denali expedition in Alaska.

The experience was another stark reminder to Lutz, who is 46, that his passion for climbing comes with great risks along with the rewards. “It’s not about being a thrill seeker,” Lutz says, trying to explain why he climbs. “As difficult and dangerous as mountain climbing can be, it's also an absolutely wonderful experience. You have to live it to understand it. You get a high from it that stays with you.”

A native of Switzerland, Lutz grew up hiking and being in the mountains. Five years ago, he became more serious about his hobby and started a quest to climb the Seven Summits – the highest peak on each of the continents. He leaves March 26 for Nepal and a two-month expedition to climb Mount Everest. If his Everest bid is successful, it will mark the sixth of the Seven Summits for Lutz. You can follow his team’s progress on the web site of the expedition leader, International Mountain Guides.

As part of his physical conditioning, Lutz never takes the elevator as he roams around the Emory Chemistry Center. Instead, he climbs the stairs with his large, red, expedition backpack – loaded with 60 pounds of sand – strapped to his six-foot-four frame.

Lutz is a biomolecular chemist who uses protein engineering to develop catalysts for therapeutic and industrial applications. He also enjoys teaching, and takes examples from his climbing experiences into the classroom to convey some of the complex concepts in biochemistry. “Using my mountaineering experiences brings these concepts to life and gets students more engaged,” Lutz says. “Most of them have experienced at least a hint of what I talk about, like the feeling you get at higher altitudes when hiking or skiing, so they relate to it.”

Lutz’ scientific training deepens his understanding of extreme landscapes and the physical and mental processes a climber may experience. Following is a bit of Lutz’ perspective on mountaineering, in his words and photos.

Landing in Antarctica for an expedition up Mount Vinson, the most remote, and the least climbed, of the Seven Summits.

The environment of the southern polar region 

At 16,050 feet, Mount Vinson is the highest peak in Antarctica. To get there, you start with a five-hour flight on a jet plane from Punta Arenas on the southern tip of South America to an icy airfield in the center of Antarctica. Next, you get in a DC3 fitted with skis for a 45-minute flight that sets you down nearer Mount Vinson. From there, you take an even smaller propeller plan to reach the base camp.

Antarctica stores about 65 percent of all the fresh water in the world in the form of ice. You fly over an area of incredible beauty and realize that it looks the same as it did tens of thousands of years ago. No human being has touched it and many places have had no precipitation for more than 100,000 years – just snow drifts. Antarctica is the driest continent and is actually one of the marvelous, great deserts of Earth. Humidity is in the single digits and it feels like you are in an evaporator, turning into dried fruit. The temperature routinely drops to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. You look to the horizon and all you see is snow, and more snow, and a few rocks. It’s beautiful in its simplicity.

We were there in December, which is mid-summer in the southern hemisphere. Since we were only about 700 miles from the South Pole, bright sunshine streamed into our tents even at 2 a.m. The snow is like a mirror. You have to wear glacier sunglasses all the time or you can go snow blind within 15 minutes. Every speck of exposed skin has to be covered with a thick layer of sunblock to avoid massive sunburn. We had one team member who forgot to put sunblock on the bottom of his nose and ended up with a really painful burn of his nostrils.

Above the clouds: Lutz makes his way up the West Buttress Ridge of Denali, with Mount Foraker in the background.

The physiology of extreme cold 

Denali in Alaska is North America’s highest peak at 20,310 feet. It’s at about 63 degrees northern latitude. To reach base camp, you fly in a single-prop plane between snow-covered peaks and land on a glacier. The plane takes off and you and your teammates are now about 70 miles away from any human habitation and, basically, living in a freezer for three weeks. The average temperature is around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything that you need to climb and to survive for the next 20 days is loaded into a 60-pound pack that you carry on your back and on a sled that you pull behind you, which holds another 50 pounds.

As you work your way up the mountain, your metabolism goes into overdrive to provide sufficient muscle energy and maintain body heat in the cold. That turns climbing into an all-you-can-eat contest. I switched from my normal 2000-calorie-per-day diet to about 12,000 calories per day. And I still lost 12 pounds during my three weeks climbing the mountain! Believe it or not, it’s not easy consuming this amount of calories. At higher elevations, your appetite diminishes. Food that tastes delicious at sea level suddenly becomes unappealing as your taste perception changes. Experience has taught me to leave behind my beloved salami when climbing and instead stuff my pockets with Snickers bars and chocolate-covered raisins. I ate about 25 pounds of candy during the Denali trip. 

Burning calories to generate energy and heat is an oxidation process, and the higher you go, the less oxygen in the atmosphere. To manage the extreme altitude of Mount Everest, which is 29,035 feet, most climbers use supplemental oxygen to stay warm. You can wear lots of insulating gear but if you are not getting enough oxygen to burn fuel, you still start shivering. And if shivering is not enough to warm you up, you can develop hypothermia. At the same time, you are at risk for frostbite – the result of your body saying, “I can live without my fingers and toes, arms and legs.” It pulls your blood into your core to make sure your critical organs have sufficient blood supply. That process can happen faster at higher altitude.

Roped together on Denali. "You form a unique bond with the people that you climb with, the people on the same rope as you," Lutz says.

The biochemistry of altitude sickness

The summit of Denali has 50 percent less oxygen than at sea level. Atop Everest that percentage drops to 30 percent. Even without exercising these low oxygen levels can make you feel like you’re suffocating. You start to breathe faster to take in more oxygen but with each breath, you also exhale carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is part of a buffer system in the bloodstream that prevents the pH level in cells to fluctuate. All the proteins in our cells rely on steady acidity. But if you pump out too much carbon dioxide from your body, the buffer system goes haywire and you can develop a condition called alkalosis.

Respiratory alkalosis, which is a result of blood pH rising beyond the normal range, starts off as a mild headache but can quickly progress to severe head pain and nausea. Worst of all, it has little to do with fitness. I’ve seen very strong athletes crumple up with these symptoms. If untreated, you start vomiting violently, leading to more dehydration. The condition can progress to where cellular fluid starts leading from your brain, known as cerebral edema, or your lungs, known as pulmonary edema. 

Medication such as Diamox can help the body more quickly adjust to higher altitude but the best approach is to slowly and gradually hike to higher elevations. That gives your body time to acclimatize to the thin air. It’s the reason that climbers spend nearly two months at the Everest base camp before attempting to reach the summit.

Navigating ice crevices of Denali. "Fear can become your ally by keeping you focused and alert," Lutz says.

The psychology of endurance and fear 

Mountaineering is an endurance sport but only part of that is physical endurance. A majority of it comes from your head. It can take sheer willpower to keep you going when you are cold and exhausted. Your mind has to convince your body to take the next step, hour after hour, as you work your way towards a summit. On the flip side, you can have a sunny day, blue sky and no wind and know that you are going to make it. Psychologically, it’s a breakthrough moment: A feeling that no money can buy.

The summit, however, is only the halfway point. A majority of mountaineering accidents happen during the descent. People are euphoric, but also exhausted physically and mentally. You can never let down your inner guard because you’re operating in an environment with little room for error. All it takes is one misstep.

Fear can become your ally by keeping you focused and alert. I remember traversing a narrow section on Denali called the Windy Corner. To one side of you is a rock wall. On the other side are ice crevices big enough to swallow a school bus. Rocks the size of fists fall from that rock wall and you have to dodge them almost like you are in a computer game. If a rock hits your lower body it can shatter a bone. If one hits you on the head, it can kill you. Getting through there only took a few minutes but it’s an experience that I won’t forget.

Fear can also give you strength. While climbing in the Denali range, we were roped together in groups of four as a safety precaution due to all of the crevices. One moment we were moving through a snowy glacier landscape. The next moment, one of our team members in the group just ahead of mine simply disappeared. There was no sound, just the sight of the rope running. His body had broken through a bridge of thin snow and was plummeting into a dark abyss in the ice. The team members he was roped to immediately dropped to the ground and anchored their axes into the ice to stop the fall. They then used the rope and their gear to quickly build a pulley system and extract our comrade from the crevice. After about 20 minutes of hard work by the team he was back on the glacier surface, shaken but unhurt. You would think they would be too fatigued from climbing to respond so quickly and energetically, but in a situation like that your heart rate spikes and your adrenaline level goes through the roof.

Lutz, in yellow parka, enjoys a brief celebration with teammates after they reached the summit of Denali. "These are the kinds of friendships that last forever," he says.

The sociology of bonding during intense experiences 

You forge a unique bond with the people that you climb with, the people on the same rope as you. You’re putting your lives in one another’s hands.

On Aconcagua, two of my teammates and I were crammed into our small tent one night when a ferocious blizzard hit, with winds up to 80 miles-per-hour. Nobody wants to be out in that kind of weather. Yet, every hour or so, one of us had to crawl out and dig out the tent so we would not get buried in snow. We took turns shoveling. Meanwhile, the two inside the tent made sure they had a hot drink ready when the other one finished a round.

Pulling together as a team to overcome tremendous challenges, in spite of everyone being mentally and physically exhausted, builds deep camaraderie. These are the kinds of friendships that last forever.

How a hike in the woods led to a math 'Aha!'
The math of rock climbing
Proving math is good for endurance sports

All photos by Stefan Lutz or courtesy of Stefan Lutz.

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