The oxygen of mountaineering

The failure of oxygen cylinders this season on Mt Everest has forced expeditions to cancel their climbs
EXPLOSIVE BREATHING: The author was injured five years ago when this oxygen cylinder exploded before a climb. Many climbers this year faced malfunctioing oxygen systems and were forced to turn back from Mt Everest. Photos: Ted Atkins

I have just returned from setting up a new oxygen factory in Khumjung in the Khumbu region to see my last column in this space (‘For a few dollars more’, #909), in print. It is also good to get feedback, and see impact. In another column two years ago, I had suggested that Thamel be pedestrianised.

Thamel is now pedestrianised, and it is a much better place.

It feels good to be right, but not always. Last week I warned that the unregulated oxygen industry was unsafe, with unmarked, uncertified old Russian cylinders still in circulation. I was prompted to write this because while filling such a cylinder, I found it to be leaking from the bottom, meaning the weld which holds it together was fractured. At best this cylinder will lose its oxygen by the time the user needs it. At worst it could explode.

We are used to leaking valves, and those can be fixed, but cylinders cannot be fixed. The unscrupulous will still sell such cylinders, not caring about the damage done to ordinary working people who support this industry and for the mountaineers who lose their dreams.

Then this happened. Yesterday I woke to the news that there have been 25 regulator explosions at 8,500m on Mt Everest this week. Teams have retreated from the mountain and their summit hopes have been dashed.  Luckily no lives were lost, but it is too late this season to make another attempt. Five years ago while checking regulators I had one explode while fitting it (picture, above).

The old regulator blew apart because the cylinder had been over-pressurised. I understand what these climbers have been through, except while I nearly lost my life I did not lose my dream.

Some of the climbers have sold their homes to get a chance to climb the highest mountain in the world, they are not all stupid rich people. I definitely am not, and I fulfilled my Everest ambition. It changed my life and made me appreciate all the more what I have. For these climbers who had to turn back, there may not be another chance.

Read Also: Shooting ourselves in the foot,  Ted Atkins

Adrian Ballenger, the leader of the Everest north face climbing team affected by these oxygen failures, told me on Wednesday he is pulling out.

He said: “We need to educate clients and the mainstream on basic standards of safety and ethics, and then shame those that refuse to meet that standard. We also need to lobby China and Nepal to set, require and enforce standards.”

We know that earthquakes happen, these are natural disasters. We have to be prepared for them, but accept it when it happens. What we should not accept are potentially deadly things that you, we, the government, the industry have control over, and still allow to happen.

Someone must be accountable for the oxygen failure that dashed hopes of climbers this season. Not for blame, but at least to ensure that it does not happen again and again.

Who is that someone? Revenue is being lost for the government which has no oversight or control over black market oxygen products being sold by unregistered companies, being filled who knows where. This may suit some people because when it goes wrong there is no one to blame: where did the cylinder come from, who filled it, with what?

It is easy to say what has happened here, the above are the facts to date. What has happened is never an engineer’s concern, but why did it happen and what can we do to be sure that it does not happen again? For this we, the Nepali climbing guides, and everyone else whose lives and livelihoods depend upon this amazing industry need government regulation and accountability.

The above relates to equipment that has been identified, and is now out of use. The rest of the equipment is fine, and many climbers are making successful climbs.

I echo here the brave words of Upendra Devkota, the neurosurgeon who is battling terminal cancer, in this paper last week: “Death is not so important. What is important is what the dead person leaves behind”.

Wise words that make me wish I knew the doctor. What do we leave behind, did we make anything better, what will our children say about us? Think about the future, their future.

Ted Atkins is former RAF Chief Engineering Officer and works on mountaineering oxygen systems.

Read Also: New records, oxygen failure on Everest 

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