Adventures in High-Altitude Physiology

  • John B. West
Conference paper
Part of the Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology book series (AEMB, volume 588)


I have probably had more fun doing high-altitude physiology than most people. Some 45 years ago I applied to be a member of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Silver Hut expedition and was accepted in spite of having no previous climbing experience. On this project a group of physiologists wintered at an altitude of 5800 m just south of Everest and carried out an extensive research program. Subsequently measurements were extended up to an altitude of 7440 m on Makalu. In fact the altitude of these field measurements of \( \dot VO_{2max} \) has never been exceeded. This led to a long interest in high-altitude medicine and physiology which culminated in the 1981 American Medical Research Expedition to Everest during which 5 people reached the summit and the first physiological measurements on the summit were made. Among the extraordinary findings were an extremely low alveolar PCO2 of 7–8 mmHg, an arterial pH (from the measured PCO2 and blood base excess) of over 7.7, and a \( \dot VO_{2max} \) of just over one liter/min. More recently a major interest has been the pathogenesis of high altitude pulmonary edema which we believe is caused by damage to pulmonary capillaries when the pressure inside some of them increases as a result of uneven hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction (“stress failure”). Another interest is improving the conditions of people who need to work at high altitude by oxygen enrichment of room air. This enhances well-being and productivity, and is now being used or planned for several high-altitude telescopes up to altitudes of 5600 m. Other recent high-altitude projects include establishing an international archive on high-altitude medicine and physiology at UCSD, several books in the area including the historical study High Life, and editing the journal High Altitude Medicine & Biology.

Key Words

Everest stress failure oxygen enrichment gas exchange history 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • John B. West
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of MedicineUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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