In 1997 physicist Francis Slakey set out to climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean – he dubbed it the first “global surf-and-turf.” In his recently published memoir, To the Last Breath: A Journey of Going to Extremes, he describes the geophysics of waves, the body’s physiological breakdown at high-altitude, and the technology of climbing, as well as the people he encounters and the challenges he endures on his 12-year journey.
The section excerpted in last month’s Scientific American describes the effects of a low-oxygen environment on the human body. There is some telling, but mostly, it shows. It is harrowing:
As I made my way down the southeast ridge of Everest, with Ang Nima and Jim Williams now a few hundred feet above me, I saw a climber from our team, Bob Clemey, on his knees, gloves at his side, with his bare hands delicately gliding over the surface of the snow.
Depleted and needing warmth, Clemey saw with absolute clarity that a rock protruding from the snow was glowing red hot. He realized that lava from the very core of the earth was lifted up to the surface of Everest and was heating that rock. So he stripped off his gloves and began warming his hands over the rock like it was a campfire.
In reality, there was no glowing red rock, no lava. There was just a climber with bare hands frozen as solid as clubs, fingers gripping snow in a twenty-below-zero blizzard.
Clemey’s oxygen tanks were drained. There was no way of knowing how long he had been there or when he had run out of oxygen.
Our second crisis had begun.
The first crisis is described earlier in the section.
I have to get this book.