Summit Science
Measuring the world's biggest mountain

Streaming Video
Brad Washburn I
(video: Greg Prosl)
modem speed
(28k) (56k) (T1)
modem speed
(28k) (56k) (T1)
Brad Washburn (Part I)
The Problem of Science at 29,028'
Bradford Washburn is a noted cartographer, explorer, and photographer whose maps, including that of Mount Everest, have been considered definitive. Though no longer in the field himself, Washburn continues to promote and inspire the search for ever more precise knowledge of mountains by sponsoring (through the Boston Museum of Science) and collaborating with climbers.

What we're trying to do is very simple, except when you're doing it on top of Mount Everest, it becomes difficult. In fact, if we were doing what we're going to do on top of Mount Washington, it would be no problem at all. But where you're doing it... Well, let's be specific: here the barometric pressure on a nice day, like today, is about 30 inches. Up on top of Everest, on a really nice day, it's nine inches which means that you are on oxygen most of the time. In fact, if you were to land there with a helicopter without oxygen, you would probably be dead within 10 or 15 minutes.

When people climb Everest slowly on the way up — you can't hurry anyway — you acclimatize, which means that you build up more and more and more red cells as you go up the mountain, and the red cells are the things that accept what oxygen you're getting. The hitch is that if the oxygen is delivered to you at sea level pressure, your blood accepts a lot more of it than it does at that pressure up there.

To use a good analogy, I think, is that if you begin to mix ice tea — if you are making yourself a glass of ice tea — and you get the tea in it, and you want some sugar. If you put sugar into the tea and stir it in cold water, there is a limit to the amount that will dissolve into the water. The warmer the water, the more the sugar will dissolve. It's a little bit of the same kind of a situation. So you can be on Everest with an awful lot of oxygen, and your body is not accepting all of the oxygen that you are breathing in and then breathing out again.

Brad Washburn, Boston Museum of Science Geographer