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In 1963, James "Big Jim" Whittaker planted an American flag at the summit of Mount Everest, marking the first American ascent. Nearly 50 years later, National Geographic explorer Conrad Anker set out to retrace Whittaker’s historic route--and worked to solve some scientific mysteries along the way.
On May 25, 2012, six members of Anker's nine-person team set foot on the summit, in spite of the dry, windy weather and icy, crowded paths they encountered on the way. Anker’s attempt to navigate Whitaker's West Ridge route failed due to the amount of ice on the path, forcing him to choose another route. This change of plans, and other expedition details, were liveblogged through National Geographic and North Face.
Anker has now returned to his home in Montana, where Science Friday caught up with him by phone.
So you’ve just come back from your third trip to Mount Everest. Last time you spoke with Science Friday, there was talk about how scientists still aren’t sure how tall Everest is or what sorts of rocks are even up there. Now that you’re back, are you able to answer those questions? Let’s begin with...how tall is Everest?
It’s 29,035 feet or 8,848 meters. There are two different measurements, 8,848 and 8,850 meters. It’s not accepted which one is the highest, but 8,848 meters is more widely accepted.
Last you spoke with us, you said you were taking GPS devices with you. What did you do with them?
We were able to do a geologic profile measure, which is to take sample rocks, measure with the GPS where you took them and take a snapshot. Of particular interest was the contact zone, where there’s two faults up there.
What sort of rocks are at summit?
The upper part of the summit is limestone that’s 270 million years old. It contains very small fossils that are visible with a microscope. Then there’s a yellow band of sedimentary rocks. Then beneath is the shale and below that is the granite. There’s four different rock layers one climbs through. We’re able to understand the uplift rate and pressure of the faults they create and how that changes the rock on a molecular level. It’s way above what I’m able to understand in geology, but it’s wonderful to participate and make this possible for scientists.
What happens to the rocks your team collected?
We brought the rocks back and it’s going to be a while before we look into them with David Lageson, the structural geologist from Montana State (Lageson did not summit and left the expedition early for health reasons). We begin by thin-slicing the rocks and they’ll analyze them in a number of ways.
Last time you spoke with us, you mentioned that the Mayo Clinic would be taking your vital signs as you were climbing. How did they do that?
They took four types of measurements--we had heart rate monitors, activity monitors on the left arm, urine samples, nighttime sleeping monitors for our O2 saturation. The heart monitor is really interesting because it would take 240 measurements per second. So there’s a lot more that goes on with a heartbeat than just a beat.
What was it like to climb without supplemental oxygen?
You’re breathing as deep as you can, since you have to maximize the amount of oxygen you’re getting into your system. I was dehydrated. I probably drank a liter of water on the way up to the summit. I had one of those squeeze energy gel packet things. You have no appetite when you’re climbing because you’re just not hungry up there.
How do you motivate yourself to keep climbing?
When you initially start, you’re full of energy and you feel great, but midway through it starts tapering off. People who do well have a tremendous amount of energy. The challenge is to not give up and remain on task.
How did you feel when you got to the top?
I was tired. But I felt fortunate because there was really good weather. There were only four days of decent weather. On the 26th, I climbed alone without oxygen. I was going slower and didn’t want to get caught up with a bunch of people on the path. It took me nine and a half hours. I was up on the summit for a half hour.
What impact did the high altitude have on your body?
My heart rate was elevated for a period of five days when I came down from the summit. It was really hard to get my heart rate to be below 100 beats per minute while resting. I lost 18 pounds on this trip and it’s mostly muscle that I lost, so my legs are skinnier. That’s one of the things they’re studying at the Mayo Clinic, that when you do hard things to your body, it’s actually good for you because restricted calorie intake and hard exercise tend to clean out the system. I feel lighter and tend to have less fat on me after a long, demanding expedition. When I went to the clinic after the trip, they said my heart and lungs are okay.
Do you think you’ll make a fourth trip to Mount Everest?
I love going back to the region, but I don’t think I’ll climb Everest again. I’m about 50 now and I don’t need to be doing that stuff.
Listen to Anker's appearance on Science Friday this March: