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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Surviving the Extremes

A Doctor's Journey to the Limits of Human Endurance

Kenneth Kamler, M.D.

St. Martin's Press




IF THE CHANTING STOPPED, my patient would die. I was sure of it, as sure as anyone can be in a freezing tent on the highest mountain in the world, breathing only half the air there is at sea level. Pasang should have died hours ago. He was lying in a sleeping bag on a makeshift stone table--a pile of rocks arranged as evenly as possible to form an elevated platform. The cracks between the rocks were mortared with frozen urine, Pasang having become incontinent before I could get a catheter into his bladder. The propane lantern illuminating the tent cast a sickly yellow glow across his bloated face, pocked with blue ecchymotic patches where blood had accumulated and then dried under his skin. His eyes were swollen shut. I had seen healthier-looking patients die faster in intensive care units.

Gathered around the rock platform were Sherpas, mountain men like Pasang, who had come to pray. Though they were facing toward him, eyes wide open, they didn't seem to see him. Their lips were moving in response to a monotonous chant arising from deep within them, as if conforming to the sound being produced rather than creating it. More chanting came from outside--a disembodied chorus from tents around the camp where other Sherpas were keeping vigil. In the stillness of the night the effect was powerful, primal, and unnerving: a quadraphonic rumble emanating from within the mountain itself.

While crossing an aluminum ladder placed horizontally to bridge a crevasse in the ice, Pasang had slipped and fallen 80 feet, wedging himself headfirst between the narrowing walls of ice at the bottom. Working quickly, a combined team of Spanish and Nepalese climbers managed to get a rope around his waist and hoist him back up to the surface. But by then he had been refrigerated upside down for nearly half an hour. The climbers radioed me at base camp to explain what had happened and ask for advice, but diagnosis and treatment over a two-way radio isn't easy. Preliminary reports were being transmitted to me in clipped phrases by excited climbers with strong accents and weak radios. I didn't have much to go on and wasn't too sure what to prepare for.

Radio in hand, I stepped outside my tent into the subzero temperature. Looking halfway up the massive 2,000-foot frozen cascade of ice and snow that marks the majestic and awesome entrance to Mount Everest, I saw a cluster of black dots moving against the frozen white surface. Despite the static, I could make out that Pasang was bleeding from his nose, but conscious and even able to walk. They were bringing him to me at base camp. The dots started to move, slowly conforming to the outline of each gigantic ice feature they crossed as they worked their way down the slope. Then they stopped. The radio crackled on again. Pasang had started to stumble badly. He collapsed, and was now unconscious. They were trying to secure him to a ladder, similar to the one from which he had fallen, to use as a litter. Now they would have to lower him slowly and laboriously, relying on a combination of clever rope work and brute strength. In the hours it would take for my patient to arrive, I had only a few facts with which to make a diagnosis, but plenty of time to think about his treatment.

A head-on collision of this magnitude, followed by loss of consciousness, would likely be fatal even if it occurred inside the kind of well-equipped emergency room in which I often worked in New York City. But I was at base camp on Mount Everest, 17,559 feet above sea level, separated from the nearest hospital by some of the most remote and rugged terrain to be found anywhere in the world. Evacuation by air would be entirely dependent on the weather (usually lousy), the condition of the helicopter (often grounded for lack of parts), and the availability of the pilot (frequently away). If Pasang made it down to base camp alive, I would do everything I could to keep him that way until we could get him out. I wasn't sure, though, whether my efforts would make any difference at all. High-impact head injuries were the accidents I feared most; they were the ones for which I could do the least.

The brain is delicate and unforgiving. To protect this most vital organ, the body shields it inside a rigid case. The skull is very effective in protecting the brain against incidental trauma, and may even stand up to the swipe of a bear paw, but it is not strong enough to withstand an 80-foot headfirst dive into a crevasse. Pasang had most likely fractured his skull; the nosebleed was probably blood flowing downstream from the broken bone. In these cases, however, it is not the fractured skull itself that causes the most injury; as long as fragments aren't propelled inward, the breaking bone absorbs the shock and the brain survives. Many fatal head traumas don't even break the skull. Pasang might have a fracture, but he was showing signs of an injury even more insidious and deadly.

Skulls have disadvantages. While a blow to the head may not break the bone, it can tear the blood vessels that wrap around the brain. The blood, leaking out but encased in an unyielding skull, has no place to go but inward, collecting into what is called a hematoma. Held in by the tough lining of the skull--the dura--the blood compresses the much softer brain tissue, forming a subdural hematoma. The classic symptom is a temporary recovery right after the initial shock, as Pasang had shown when he had, at first, been able to walk on his own. Meanwhile, the bleeding continues to fill the confined space until the pressure causes a loss of coordination and unconsciousness, like Pasang had next experienced. Further brain compression, though often due to a relatively small amount of blood loss, eventually shuts down vital functions and the patient dies. Like Pasang?

Pasang did make it down alive, though just barely, and now I was watching him die. The relentless pressure was starting to affect the electrical circuits deep down, the ones that send the pacing signals for breathing and heartbeat. Respiration and pulse were slowing. Less oxygen was getting to his brain, causing the suffering tissues to swell and take up more space, further accelerating the pressure. Pasang's body was about to shut down, inexorably following the rules of physiology gone bad.

Pasang was slipping away but, strangely, I was calmed and pacified by the hypnotic chanting that was engulfing us both. I felt as a drowning man must feel when, at the very last, the cold water makes his body seem warm and numb. Mechanically, yet dreamily, I administered oxygen through a face mask and fluid through an intravenous line; I was even unaware that I had changed the IV bag until I saw that a fresh one was hanging there.

My efforts didn't seem to be having much effect. Holding his wrist with my fingertips, I felt a weak, thready pulse, out of sync with the chanting. I was sure the monotonous sound was reaching my patient's ears and wondered what effect it could be having on his brain. Might it be possible that over the centuries, through a combination of natural selection, experimentation, and lucky coincidence, the Sherpas had developed a method for matching the pitch of their chanting with the natural frequency created by the vibration of their brain waves? Doing so would set up a harmonic, a sound whose preciseness of pitch causes an object to resonate, multiplying the energy input and creating an effect far more potent than the stimulus. Applied to the brain, this effect might even be powerful enough to reverse a shutdown.

I have learned not to dismiss this kind of possibility. No course in medical school taught me the proper mixture of oxygen, IV fluids, and Tibetan chants to treat a subdural hematoma in below-zero temperatures on a 3-mile-high glacier. Nor do I see the problem very often as a surgeon in New York, specializing in microsurgery of the hand. I learned it from my own experiences, and from those of others, in a vast array of circumstances--treating patients in the jungle, in the desert, on the ocean, under the sea, atop the mountains, and into outer space--all the places where the human body confronts an extreme and unforgiving environment.

Millennia ago the earliest explorers, at sea in wooden boats or on foot in deserts and jungles, carried with them the same ancient mysterious device that scuba divers and high-altitude mountaineers use today. It was by far the most complicated yet most reliable piece of equipment aboard Apollo 11 when it landed on the moon. In the entire universe, no system more complex has ever been discovered than the human body.

It comes in two standard models, which have spread out over the earth in billions of copies. Though some parts have been modified to work effectively in varying climates and terrain, the basic design has remained relatively unchanged for several eons. Nevertheless, no one would claim to understand how it works, least of all doctors like me who have seen it function in harmony and in chaos.

Human beings are both tough and fragile. They have populated the earth by adapting to its various environments, but thrive only on the land, in temperatures between freezing and 100F, and mostly at heights below a mile or so. The body's own physiological constraints confine it to less than one-fifth of the earth's surface; beyond that, the environment is too extreme for an organism that needs food and water daily, oxygen by the minute, and heat constantly. The few million humans who live in borderline environments don't thrive, but they do survive at the edge of their own physiology. Like Pasang, they live on the periphery of habitable land in regions such as the Himalayas, the Amazon, the Arctic, or the Sahara--regions that can sustain life, though only barely. The borders of these realms are defined by connecting the points at which their inhabitants' body defenses can no longer match the insults of the environment.

No animal in its right mind ever intentionally puts itself in danger by going somewhere it doesn't belong. Human beings, on the other hand, are controlled by brains whose emotional and spiritual imperatives can override the survival instinct. Humans have always had an insatiable drive to explore. Now, with the accumulated wisdom of countless generations, we have developed the technology to cross barriers that had previously contained us for hundreds of thousands of years. The combination of wanderlust and technology has given us the temerity to believe we can take on the most extreme environments on earth and not just survive but adapt to them. Human bodies, however, are far more fragile than we'd like to admit. If our protection breaks down, we die easily.

I am a doctor on many scientific expeditions to the most remote regions of the world. My patients are the people who live on the edge of survival and beyond. I practice medicine in environments and in situations incompatible with life, often treating conditions I have never seen before, and sometimes never even imagined. The operation of the human body is mysterious enough under normal conditions; when subjected to the full power of an inhospitable environment, it can become completely incomprehensible. It's not easy to fix something when you don't even understand how it works, yet on these expeditions it has been my responsibility to try to counter the effects of environmental insults on human physiology. When things go wrong in extreme locations--when a mountaineer develops pulmonary edema, when a diver gets decompression sickness, when a body part is severed in a remote corner of the jungle, and when a man tumbles headfirst into a crevasse--all eyes turn to me. There is no adequate repair manual to consult; my only tools are those I have brought with me. There is often no reasonably safe place to work, or even to think, and the problem has to be fixed immediately. So I have learned to make up some rules as I go along, often aware that I am not just waiting for help to arrive--help isn't coming. At least not from outside. Sometimes help does appear, arising from within--from a patient's deep-seated will to survive.

I practice medicine in places where I don't belong, often where no one belongs, because I never lost the childhood instinct to explore. When I was eight, I spotted a book in my house called Annapurna. An odd title, I thought. I couldn't imagine what it was about, so I climbed up my father's bookshelf and pulled it down. It turned out to be the classic tale of the ascent of what was, at that time, the highest mountain ever climbed. The book opened up to me a world I never knew existed, impossibly far away from my apartment house in the Bronx. The idea of exploring hidden worlds took hold of me and never let go.

Growing up in New York, it's not easy to climb mountains, but I discovered that with a microscope, I could explore vast mysterious worlds without ever leaving my room. That started me on the path to explore the ultimate unknown--the human body. I became a doctor, taking a residency in orthopedic surgery and eventually a fellowship in microsurgery, moving along the prescribed route toward becoming a member of the medical establishment. But I always held on to the dreams of adventure that Annapurna had given me. I learned to hike, canoe, sail, and scuba dive so I could reach exotic places on my own terms. Finally, one day I called a climbing school in New Hampshire and signed up for lessons. My instructor was an itinerant ex-Green Beret from North Dakota. I assumed he and I would have nothing in common. He turned out to be an intelligent, sensitive soul who shared my enthusiasm for adventure--though his path in life had given him far more of it than mine had. We hit it off immediately.

Six months later he asked me if I wanted to join his team to climb mountains in Peru. He enjoyed my company, he said, and liked the idea of having a doctor along. I was immediately tempted by this opportunity to combine my medical training with my passion for adventure. I was curious about the challenges that the human body in general--and my body in particular--could meet. For a single guy with no steady job, like my Green Beret friend, pulling up stakes and going to Peru for a month was easy. I, on the other hand, was a surgeon attached to a wife and a hospital. Knowing my lifelong desire to climb, my wife supported me enthusiastically while admitting she would have preferred it if I hadn't wanted to go. Taking a month off meant rearranging my schedule to ensure that there would be adequate coverage for my patients. As chief resident, I could make all the arrangements, though I didn't know how my colleagues would react to my disappearance. But I was determined to go climbing, even if it meant the risk of getting fired when I returned. Being a surgeon, I told myself, is what I do, not who I am. I didn't want to become a prisoner of my profession.

The bigger the mountain, the more planning required to climb it. The mountains our team would attempt in Peru were nearly 20,000 feet high. Preparations were divided among the team members according to their interests and skills; the responsibility for all the "doctor stuff'' fell to me. To the other team members, this obviously meant preparing a list of all the medical supplies we might need. Less obvious to them, but striking to me, it meant I'd have to know how to use these supplies, some for conditions I'd never treated or even seen. Motivated by the fear of being found wanting as a teammate lay dying, I was determined to start at the beginning and not miss a detail. I noted down every problem that might befall a high-altitude climber from head to toe--fractured skull to athlete's foot, and everything in between. I read about every condition and carefully listed each medicine or supply I would need to treat it. If I didn't bring it myself, I wouldn't have it and there would be no way of obtaining it. I even wrote out treatments on small squares of paper that I would keep in my pocket in case my mind went blank in an emergency. In short, I went to Peru thoroughly prepared and somewhat confident but nevertheless hoping for a trauma-free adventure. I didn't want to be put to the test.

With that thought in the back of my mind, I sat on climbing gear in the back of an open truck and watched the Peruvian countryside roll by. We were riding up a high mountain pass on our way to Taqurahu, the 19,000-foot peak that we intended to climb. Another open truck, even more rickety than ours, was coming from the other direction filled with Indian villagers on their way to market. As we watched in disbelief, the truck teetered on the edge of the road and then toppled over, tossing out people and animals as it tumbled down the slope.

My first test was going to be at a full-blown disaster. It was like a bad dream. I forced myself to keep cool on the outside, because if the doctor looked nervous, everyone would get nervous. The two minutes it took for our truck to reach the accident scene was enough time for me to calm down on the inside by focusing on the likely injuries. I ran through the treatment steps in my head. I remembered the notes in my front pocket.

People, livestock, and baggage were strewn all over the hillside, which sloped down to a ravine where the truck was lying on its side. I paused at the top to let the first frightening impression pass by, then took an analytical look, noting who was groaning, who was only moaning, and who was bleeding. No one seemed to be dying. I reduced the chaotic scene to a series of problems I would handle one by one. Gradually it became clear that although I was high up in the Andes, I was facing injuries not unlike those I would find in any hospital's emergency room. I injected a little girl with an anesthetic, then set her fractured forearm. My Green Beret climbing teacher was a resourceful assistant; he splinted the arm with a wooden slat he broke off from the overturned truck. I started an intravenous line on a farmer who looked ready to faint. There was one concussion, one blunt abdominal trauma, and several other more minor injuries. Once I realized there was no patient I would not be able to treat, my confidence, which at first had required some effort to project, started flowing naturally. Though they spoke only Quechua, my patients and I communicated easily in the universal language of patient and doctor. I didn't once think about the little treatment notes in my pocket, though having them there may have helped me subconsciously. As I finished cleaning and sewing the last laceration, one of my patients came back with a goat, still stunned and bleeding from the neck. Buoyed up by how well things had gone, I sewed up the goat.

According to our map, a clinica was a day's ride away, so we unloaded our truck and laid in all the villagers for the long trip. One of my teammates came with me; the others just set up camp where we were and waited for us to return. We fully expected to drop off our patients and make a quick U-turn to the mountain. The clinica, however, turned out to be a cinder-block room with no medical supplies, run by a doctor who seemed capable only of handing out birth-control pills. Although the patients were stabilized, he begged me not to leave until medical transportation arrived from Lima. With the still vivid memory of the fear that can be provoked in a doctor faced with a medical challenge, I had empathy for my colleague and stayed the night.

The rescue was publicized in Peruvian newspapers and on the radio, making me something of a local hero. We eventually did get back to climb Taqurahu, but reaching the top wasn't nearly as exhilarating to me as treating the accident victims had been. I had risen to both challenges, and yet, in my heart, taking care of the villagers had pleased me more. I was interested in the earth's extremes, but succeeding at extreme medicine had been the higher summit.

When I returned to New York, I was relieved to find that my hospital supervisors, though they couldn't admit it officially, seemed to admire what I had done. Only a token punishment was imposed for my absence. Even had the consequences been more severe, however, I knew beyond question that I had made the right decision. I was determined to open even wider the door to that other world.

My exploits in Peru came to the attention of The Explorers Club in New York, and not long after my return I was invited to join that venerable group of seasoned world explorers. For my first meeting I was asked to come with one good idea. Knowing that its membership must possess a unique and wide-ranging collection of medical experiences, I suggested that someone first collect and then synthesize the information, to create a fund of knowledge on medicine in extreme environments. The idea met with approval and, as often happens to someone with an idea at a meeting, I was unanimously assigned the task of bringing it about.

At first it seemed presumptuous that a specialist in microsurgery such as myself should aspire to become an expert on extreme medicine. I felt like an outsider looking in. As I delved into medical journals, however, I found that there were few articles to read; fewer still were worth clipping and underlining. What little information existed was often vague, impractical, or contradictory. No doctor, I realized, could truly master such a disparate and random collection of far-flung maladies, but, within the Club, I was very quickly perceived as the repository and the source for information.

My Explorers Club comrades were eager to share their experiences with me, and I soon had a collection of practical advice on treating medical problems in places and settings I never could have imagined. Perhaps I really did have a unique position from which to practice extreme medicine. Explorers heading for every part of the globe routinely began coming to me for advice, often coupled with invitations to join their expeditions. For someone who a year earlier didn't even personally know a "real'' explorer, every offer seemed too good to refuse but by this time I had left the hospital and was in solo private practice. No doctor I knew of crossed routinely between the worlds of exploration and medicine, and there are good reasons why. Setting up a practice involves risk and investment. I was proposing to be away for long periods of time. That would mean a loss of continuity for my referring doctors, not to mention a loss of income. The effect on my practice would be unpredictable, but taking risks and facing the unknown are what explorers are supposed to do. The experiences would be worth far more than any acquisitions.

So I became a medical explorer, stepping out into the most extreme environments in the world eager to confront unexpected challenges. I paddled through the Amazon in a dugout canoe. Crossing the Arctic tundra, I tried to remember exactly how I was to record the migration route of a polar bear that was just then banging its lethal paw against the steel-reinforced window of my buggy. I had to stop taking notes for a fish survey while scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands when a shoal of hammerhead sharks passing above me obscured my light. On the Antarctic plateau, in a whiteout so severe I couldn't see my feet, I made my way back to my snowmobile only by managing to follow voice cues from the driver.

Wherever I was and whatever the circumstances, I was always the doctor, expected to treat whatever injury, or insult, a hostile environment might inflict on a fellow traveler--from frostbite to snake bite. If I didn't know what to do, I would rely on local lore or improvise. I took my expedition work very seriously and after a few years, wasn't quite sure anymore which of my worlds was the "other'' one. Dr. Kamler's adventure stories always circulated quickly around the medical community, often embroidered with more detail and infused with more drama than my original accounts. Increasingly I felt like an outsider in the traditional, medical world from which I had come. Sometimes my New York practice seemed the more alien environment. However, something very interesting happened. Doctors pinned down by heavy mortgage payments and high overheads sought me out for vicarious relief. They understood why I did what I did. They shared my curiosity about what happens to the human body at the limits of medicine and felt the same longing for adventure in places far from their waiting rooms.

The earth's harshest and least explored environments--above sea level, at any rate--tend to contain mountains. Many of the expeditions I have found most intriguing involved rugged mountaineering, making climbing proficiency a required skill for a doctor practicing extreme medicine. I climbed in the Alps, the Andes, and Antarctica, joining the tight community of high-altitude climbers. No matter what hemisphere I was in, I would run into the same people.

Several years ago, by word of mouth, I heard of an expedition being put together, sponsored in part by National Geographic, to study the tectonics of Mount Everest and measure its exact height using a laser telescope. The climbing would be difficult, but the research would be valuable, and the challenge of providing medical care would be as enormous as the mountain itself. My phone call to the expedition leader struck him, he later told me, as divine intervention. Though he had a clear scientific objective, adequate funding, and supremely qualified climbers, he had not yet solved the problem of medical supervision. I would be the only team member he hadn't already climbed with and my climbing resume was a little thin by
dn0 his standards, but he was still eager to have me. He had been to Everest before and told me how quickly bad things can happen on big mountains, even to experienced people. He was right. Only one day after we arrived in base camp, with most of my supplies still in boxes, Pasang fell into a crevasse. I was yet again treating someone in a hostile, unforgiving environment and discovering--yet again--the body's enormous capacity for survival.

That discovery forms the core of this book. We are going on a journey into the most remote and dangerous regions of the world, and then continuing on into the bodies and minds of the people who are there, people for whom that environment is very real and very life-threatening. Some of the stories are journeys I have made myself, some are based upon the experiences of others: climbers, divers, sailors, explorers, astronauts, as well as ordinary people who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Woven throughout are observations and reflections on the evolutionary biology, physiology, and psychology that combine to give humans the means to prevail, whether it is in an acute response to an attack from a force of nature, or a long-term adaptation to a chronic stress in the environment. We will cross the human threshold to see how the body works under normal load-conditions, how it moves into overdrive when subjected to environmental insults, and, finally, what happens when the body breaks down--overwhelmed by extreme environmental forces it was never designed to withstand.

The tried-and-true method for dealing with extreme environments is to avoid them. Apart from the occasional hapless wanderer, this approach has worked well for the human species over a few hundred thousand years. People who live on the edges of these no-man's-lands have adapted to their particular environmental stresses through natural selection, but it made no sense to venture any farther inside to a place offering no food or shelter. And there was no good way to get there, in any case. Ocean depths, remote deserts, high seas, dense jungles, tall mountains, and outer space were all safely inaccessible, so the challenge to adapt to more extreme conditions simply did not exist. With gradual exposure over enough generations, humans demonstrate enormous adaptability. Without that exposure, such remote regions are deadly.

With no one willing or able to go there, forbidding environments long remained empty spots on the map. Advancing technology, however, has suddenly made these places accessible. Moreover, the peculiarities of modern civilization have made them alluring to explorers, f0 scientists, and adventurers. In an evolutionary instant the rules have changed, though the game--survival--remains the same. For example, the body "understands'' tiger bites; it doesn't ``understand'' nitrogen bubbles. It knows the rules for tigers because it has been dealing with them for thousands of years. Through trial and error, natural selection has equipped humans with a complex and precise sequence of physiological responses, refined over countless generations, whose aims are to counteract a tiger's predation. First, the mind recognizes that the fast-approaching creature is dangerous; then it sends a signal to the body, instructing it to flee. Should the escape mechanism not work, the body prepares to defend itself. And if it gets injured, there is a preset sequence of healing cells and chemicals that can assess the damage and initiate repairs. The effort may prove unsuccessful, but the body understands the threat and has developed the tools that enable it to fight.

What happens to the same meticulously developed defenses when nitrogen bubbles attack the body? Deep-sea diving has only been around for a few generations, and exposure, when it occurs, is anything but gradual. In the body of a diver, the bends, the onslaught of nitrogen bubbles in the bloodstream, is like an alien invader. Having never seen it before, and with no time to adapt, the body's response will be as chaotic and misdirected as planet Earth's reaction would be to an attack from Mars. The body undertakes equally chaotic responses to other unfamiliar enemies: the low air pressure on a Himalayan mountain or the high water pressure under the ocean; the constant daylight of a polar summer or the constant darkness and extreme cold of a polar winter; the relentless heat in an African desert; the weightlessness of outer space. Yet, as we will see, people who live on or near extreme environments--from jungle Indians to Sherpas, from Eskimos to Bedouins to South Sea pearl divers--have each developed specific adaptations to the environmental insults they confront every day. Evolution has molded humans to fit along the various frontiers of survival, but even their special protection breaks down quickly if they push themselves beyond their borders.

Pasang should not have survived, but he did. Over the course of the night, his thready pulse strengthened, the swelling in his face receded, and he opened his eyes. With the morning light, the chanting stopped and the spell was broken. Though I felt I had been watching the scene from afar, I was certain I had witnessed a healing force that was beyond medicine. The chanting had released an energy within Pasang, a will to live, and this had reversed his 0decline. A spiritual force had created a tangible effect, what a religious person would call a miracle. My medical training should have led me to explain his recovery in terms of nerve impulses and chemical reactions, but confronted with such incontrovertible testimony high on a Himalayan mountain, even a faithless man believes. There was no medical reason for Pasang to be alive. I realized then, that practicing extreme medicine would sometimes mean witnessing, and working alongside, phenomena I might never understand.

A rescue helicopter was on its way and we had to get the patient ready to go. I busied myself with the details of an evacuation that, last night, I was sure wouldn't be necessary. Conscious now, though still only dimly aware of his surroundings, Pasang began protesting when his arms were tied to the stretcher. It was a good sign--although the words, I was told, were a Tibetan curse.

Every time I returned to Everest, I recalled the power of that event. The research with which I was involved expanded to include global positioning satellite beacons as well as lasers, and took five seasons to complete. With every new expedition, I became more familiar with Everest but never lost my respect for it. Though scientific instruments were placed on the summit, none of us ever felt as if the mountain had been conquered, or that it could be conquered. There were too many reminders of how dangerous a place it is, and how frail in comparison are those who dare to climb it.

In 1995, as I was ascending a steep, overhanging pitch, a Sherpa team member slipped on the slick ice directly above. I watched in horror as he fell past me, plummeting 3,000 feet--more than half a mile--to his death. The following year I was again trying for the summit when a vicious two-day storm took the lives of eight of my climbing friends. I was the only doctor on the mountain and did what I could to help the survivors, but my team was powerless to save those who were lost and freezing in the snow. They were as much beyond help as if they had been lost in space--an analogy that stimulated NASA to try to apply some of their space-age technology to the problem of saving people lost in the wilderness.

In the year following that storm, I got a call from a NASA Commercial Space Center that was funding a program to field-test medical monitoring equipment under the most extreme conditions possible. If their equipment could be made to work on Everest, it would work anywhere on earth--or beyond. They had been looking around for an experienced doctor to serve as their ``chief high-altitude physician,'' and my name kept coming up. Here again was an offer I could not refuse. Climbing Mount Everest is the ultimate test for a mountain climber, and bringing the world's most sophisticated medical care to the world's most remote environment would be the ultimate test for an extreme medicine doctor. I accepted the challenge for myself and for the friends I've lost in the mountains.

I returned to Everest, not despite the tragedy of 1996 and the others I've experienced, but because of them. I worked with scientists and engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, and the Defense Department to develop computer models and treatment protocols that we tested on Mount Everest. The same wireless body sensors NASA is developing for astronauts on a space station or on Mars were adapted to be worn by mountain climbers, or any other wilderness travelers. Sensors continuously transmitted heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and other vital signs, as well as exact location, to us at base camp. We knew at all times whether and where someone needed rescue.

Once a sick or injured climber was brought to our medical tent, we supplemented the data with heart sounds, breath sounds, EKGs, sonograms, microscope slides, and video images of the patient. The digitized information was sent via satellite through a live-TV hookup to Yale and Walter Reed Hospitals so medical experts there could radio back real-time treatment advice.
We had foreign climbers come to us at base camp asking to be treated for chronic conditions, the level of care we provided on the mountain was so much higher than anything they could receive at home. Had such a telemedicine system been in place during that fateful storm in 1996, we might have been able to save some of the people high up on the mountain who are still lying there.

I'm mindful of how far I've come since the days when I kept those little treatment papers in my front pocket. I've been to some of the most remote regions on earth, and I've had the rare privilege to practice the only form of medicine that mixes modern drugs with herbal cures, satellite signals with ancient chants, and science with spirituality.

Copyright 2004 by Kenneth Kamler, M.D.