Everest Calling: Bring Your Smart Underwear

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

As the once-gentlemanly pursuit of mountaineering transmogrifies into first and foremost a financial investment, climbers—whether tackling Mt. Everest or Mt. Washington—would be well advised to stock up on underwear with built-in sensors. They're going to need those clothes unless a solitary death is on their to-do list. And they make good sense anyway.

Two Climbers, Two Outcomes
Let's take a look at two horror stories of recent date, both from Everest. British engineer David Sharp appeared to have run out of oxygen about 1000 feet on his way down from the summit. He sat in a shallow snow cave and hallucinated while some 40 other climbers passed by. One paused a moment to give him a whiff from the tank he was wearing (perhaps significant was that this Samaritan was the first double leg amputee to successfully make the trek both ways). Sharp didn't survive. Sir Edmund Hillary deemed it "horrifying" that no one felt called upon to save him. Lisa Bradley, a New Zealander and the first woman to make the climb without an oxygen supply, had a different take on the situation: "If you're going to go to Everest . . . I think you have to accept responsibility that you may end up doing something that's not very nice . . . You have to realize that you're in a different world." Guess so!

And now we'll meet Lincoln Hall, an Australian climber who was abandoned for dead at 28,543 feet by his Sherpa guides. Incredibly, Hall not only survived but he roused and continued his descent, with the help of an American climber who summoned a rescue team. His prospects of full recovery are uncertain at present.

Situational Ethics
Mountaineering ethics once posited that only when a life was clearly lost or others were certain to be sacrificed in a rescue attempt would the effort be abandoned. But when that standard was established, there weren't hordes of inexperienced hikers who had paid Big Bucks to swarm up and down every tough mountain on Earth. Climbing has accordingly begun to cater to their ROI expectations. Base camps with cappuccino machines? Oh, yes.

Helmets . . .
Last weekend I watched as a family of five with three young kids out bicycling got stopped by a local policeman. None was wearing a safety helmet, and they're required for riders under 16. The cop dug into his car trunk, gave out free helmets, and away rode that family. Just one of those small-town non-events, but one that slickly leads to my next point: Have the good sense to protect yourself. Smart clothing might be your best friend, your last hope. And wearing it could be made enforceable.

. . . and Underwear
Mt. Washington, here in New Hampshire, is only 6288 feet in elevation but it's known for needing mood smoothers. Even in August the weather can be hot and dry at the base and suddenly cold and snowy halfway to the summit. (You're right—the highest wind recorded on the Earth's surface was recorded at the weather station up top, 231 mph on April 12, 1934.) The mountain lies in some strange weather zone and has taken a great many lives, mostly of those who set out in shorts, hit the real Washington, and wandered in the storms until they froze.

Climbers are expected to register what's tantamount to a flight plan, and when they don't return, the rescuers head out, those courageous souls. Many hikers now carry cell phones and call for directions when they get off trail. But if all they need is a bearing, that's all they should get. Many rescue team members have lost their lives trying to save those whose condition is unknown. Dismissiveness of human life hasn't yet hit New Hampshire but I fear that given time and the swelling crowds of ill-prepared climbers it could.

So I propose that those who are hell-bent on struggling up any mountain either sign a waiver or wear the sort of clothing that can send a signal (heart rate, respiration, body temperature, for example) to base camp or to potential rescuers who will save their bacon. Those signals will spare their saviors too.

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