Dr. John West Takes a Daring First Medical Expedition Up Everest to Study Human Breathing

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The upper slopes of Mount Everest were as inhospitable as ever: The wind howled at 80 mph; the temperature dropped to-20° Fahrenheit; chunks of ice the size of trailer trucks rolled down from the summit. But the climbers on this expedition were less prepared than most for the ordeal. Fourteen of the 21-man team were physicians and scientists by profession, and their assault on Everest was the first ever purely for medical research. Once at the top, in the thinnest atmosphere on earth, the climbers experimented doing exercises without an oxygen supply. "Our primary goal," says the team's leader, Dr. John B. West, a pulmonary specialist at the University of California Medical School in San Diego, "was to investigate the response of the human heart and lungs to continued exposure to very low levels of oxygen in the blood."

In that they succeeded, although their research methods were decidedly hazardous. Dr. West, 53, was forced to quit the climb at 20,700 feet, feeling generally miserable from the altitude. At 26,400 feet his colleague, Dr. Steven Boyer, a 36-year-old emergency room physician in Portland, Oreg., was stopped by a pulmonary edema. Only two physicians made it to the top, and both came within a hairbreadth of disaster. The first, Dr. Christopher Pizzo, 33, a neighbor of West's in La Jolla, Calif., started his final ascent carrying only a tent pole. "I think Chris' mind was muddled due to the lack of oxygen," says West. "There is no way he could have chopped his way to the top safely with a tent pole." Pizzo's life was saved by an ax he found on the way up, one that had been left behind by a previous expedition. The other physician to make the 29,028-foot summit, Dr. Peter Hackett, 35, of Anchorage, was nearly killed when he fell off a point called Hillary Step. "Usually that leads to a drop of 8,000 feet, straight down," West relates. "But somehow after just 10 or 15 feet, Hackett's foot hooked a rock and he came to rest dangling head down. And, would you believe it, right alongside him was a rope left over from some previous expedition, which he grabbed and used to haul himself to safety."

What made the danger worthwhile for West and his fellow scientists was the information tapes and bottled specimens of breathed air they brought back. All of the climbers were connected to scientific instruments that monitored body functions during the expedition.

West expects the data, when fully analyzed, will be of great practical value. "Many heart and lung diseases cause a level of oxygen as low as it is on Everest," says West. "By studying our climbers at that altitude, we are learning a great deal about how the human body tolerates reduced oxygen levels."

The Australian-born West is an avid climber who once accompanied Everest's first conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary, up 27,824-foot Mount Makalu in the Himalayas. He spent five years planning the Everest medical expedition. The $500,000 cost was borne by the university, the National Geographic Society and private contributors. All the West team came back from Everest the worse for wear. "Some of the bigger climbers lost 30 pounds," the doctor reports. "I lost 18. Everyone seems to lose weight no matter how much he eats. We think the gut at high altitude may lose its ability to absorb food."

Educated in Australia and Great Britain, West came to the U.S. in 1961, did research at the University of Buffalo and joined the new medical school in San Diego in 1969. In 1977 he shared the $125,000 Ernst Jung Prize, awarded by the Jung Foundation in Hamburg, for his work in fighting respiratory disorders. He is now a U.S. citizen, as are Penelope, his English-born wife, and their children, Robert, 13, and Joanna, 10.

West estimates it will take a year before any firm conclusions can be reached from the Everest information. But meantime he's making plans to take his research into an even more rarefied atmosphere. "We are devising a black box now," he reports, "into which an astronaut will be breathing on a space shuttle mission in 1985. It's going to give us data on the heart and lungs at zero gravity."

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