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Nov 12th 2019

Adventure Technology Could Make Extreme Climbing (a Little) Easier

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A record number of climbers are venturing up the world’s tallest summits each year to test their limits. These adventurers often train for years to prepare themselves for the harsh terrains they will try to conquer. But as ecological conditions worsen, even one false step could put the most seasoned hiker in peril.

One man who knows the risks and rewards of mountaineering is Northrop Grumman engineering manager Jim Diani, who has successfully climbed all Seven Summits (the seven continents’ highest mountains). Having recently summited the world’s tallest peak, Mt. Everest, Diani shares his first-hand experience of what it’s like trekking through unpredictable situations and how technology could help save lives.

The Sherpa Way

“Sherpas are people of the land,” says Diani. They’re native to the mountainous Himalayan regions and have adapted to the high altitude, low oxygen environments that foreigners are unaccustomed to. Their job is to support expedition teams along their trek by preparing the hiking route, setting up camp, carrying gear and food, and guiding them to safety.

Everest Thirsty Train

Lines of yaks transport heavy equipment and hay up to the forward basecamp. (Photo Credit: Jim Diani)

The Sherpa method for climbing Mt. Everest remains traditional. They use yaks to haul equipment to each basecamp, ropes and ladders are placed on the route to help people maneuver around tough peaks, and the protective clothing they use are low-tech regular mountaineering gear.

Their elite mountaineering skills and acclimatization abilities allow them to maintain a traditional lifestyle, unlike Western trekkers. “They’re tough people from a very early age,” describes Diani. “I’ll have $1,000 worth of gear on to keep me warm and there will be a mother bathing a child outside in near-freezing temperatures with cold water.”

Recent studies show that Sherpas are in fact more genetically acclimatized for harnessing oxygen and converting it into energy compared to the average person. Because of this, Westerners must use advanced technologies to better prepare for their climbs in order to keep up with their native guides.

An Adventure Industry Revolution

Over the past couple of decades, technology has made a significant impact on the adventure industry. Satellite communications give climbers better situational awareness and help direct them to their destination. There are hiking trail phone apps, like Guthook Guides, that work offline and use the phone’s internal GPS to give beginners the ability to hike long trails on their own. Weather at higher elevations is incredibly unpredictable and extreme. There’s only a short weather window on Mt. Everest that allows for safe climbing. Climbers used to base their ascent on long-range forecasts that were unreliable. Now, there are more accurate weather prediction systems that provide the most up-to-date information.

Helicopters make rescue missions more feasible but are still risky. In 2015, a 7.8 earthquake hit Mt. Everest, destroying the icefall route and causing avalanches that led to the deaths of multiple people. Diani and his crew were trapped above the icefall and were eventually rescued. “The helicopter barely touched down,” he recalls. “Loading had to take less than 30 seconds, so one-by-one people would run and jump into the helicopter. The pilot then tilted forward, making the helicopter descend down the icefall and land on a makeshift landing pad, which was just rocks.” As high altitude rescue remains difficult, there is great potential for autonomous recovery vehicles that could offer a safer solution.

Defeating Altitude Sickness

Extended times in a high altitude environment is the greatest challenge to climbing the tallest peaks in the world. The amount of oxygen in the bloodstream decreases significantly at higher elevations, causing a variety of negative symptoms. “The altitude affects you physiologically and psychologically,” Diani explains. “You don’t have the same oxygen for your body, so it’s more difficult to digest food, there’s a loss of appetite, you become dehydrated quicker with the lower pressure, you are rapid breathing for days, and there’s some loss of cognitive ability.”

In some cases, climbs need to be a rapid ascent due to environmental factors that come to play on the summit. There’s not much time for individuals to acclimatize during their climb, so it’s imperative to prepare beforehand. Hypoxic training, also known as altitude training, is the only proven way for people to pre- acclimatize to high levels of elevation.

Modern fitness companies are creating home altitude systems and sports accessories, like oxygen deprivation masks, that help improve altitude performance. Diani slept in a hypoxic tent months before his expedition for his oxygen saturation levels to adjust easier on the mountain.

Everest Bad Ropes

Diani examines which rope is safest to clip onto for safety. Rope exposure from previous years are hazardous, as only one rope is safe and climbers must choose at high altitude in extreme weather. (Photo Credit: Jim Diani)

The Future of Hiking

High-quality mountaineering gear is fundamental to a successful trek. Advances in these materials could improve climbers’ survivability through harsh, erratic environments. Clothing that can absorb and retain heat, while still maintaining breathability, will add a protective layer against below freezing temperatures. Climbers also need stronger, lighter gear that can withstand high winds and snowfall. The less weight to carry will always be beneficial.

Developments in performance training will also better prepare explorers for their expeditions. Telemetric clothing uses artificial intelligence to monitor body metrics and track how well the athlete performs. The data is displayed on a mobile platform for the person to understand their body physiology and see how they can adjust.

Diani believes there is a great opportunity in virtual reality to simulate what you will experience in a life-or-death situation. These realistic simulations can help people strategize how to get out of dangerous circumstances they will most likely encounter on their journey.

Each second matters when climbing at high altitudes. As conditions on Everest change over time, it’s extremely beneficial to develop products that will help explorers accomplish their goals safely.

Nothing can replace the hardiness and expertise of the Sherpa, but cutting-edge technologies will continue to make summits of these great mountains more accessible to people craving adventure.

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