TELLURIDE – While the phenomenon definitely needs more research, it turns out that Viagra-type medications may one day prove as useful in bagging peaks as they are in bagging babes.
At least that’s what the initial results of a tiny research study conducted on the flanks of Mt. Everest at Base Camp in Nepal last month by the San Juan Mountains’ resident high-altitude medicine expert Peter Hackett, M.D., may suggest.
To be clear: Hackett, who first went to Nepal as a doctor accompanying trekking expeditions in 1974, fell in love with the country, and ultimately stayed there for another six seasons as an integral part of the then-nascent Himalayan Rescue Association where his lifelong interest in the physiological effects of high altitude took root, did not himself suggest a connection between peak-bagging and babe-bagging.
But the part about how the popular pharmaceutical associated with the treatment of male erectile dysfunction (not to mention the scores of dubious emails that arrive daily in spam folders worldwide) could look promising as another kind of performance aid – that’s all Hackett’s, who is today the executive director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine at the Telluride Medical Center.
He explained that while all mountain climbers experience decreased capacity for physical performance at high altitude, about one-third of them are worse than others because the blood vessels that deliver blood to their lungs constrict excessively, thereby decreasing its flow.
But medicines like Viagra can help by opening those blood vessels to restore blood flow to the lungs. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the active ingredients in Viagra and other medications used to treat erectile dysfunction for the treatment of a disorder that causes high blood pressure in the lungs known as pulmonary hypertension.
In the small study Hackett gave a sustained-release version of the Viagra-like drug called Cialis to four climbers attempting the popular southeast ridge route up the world’s highest mountain.
“Four out of four got dramatic results,” he said, adding that one climber more than halved his ascent time between Camp II at 21,300 feet to Camp III at 24,500, from nine hours to less than four after taking the medication. All four made the summit and believed they could not have done so without the medication.
“That was very cutting edge,” he said of the experiment.
In a different study Hackett experimented with the use of an asthma inhaler to treat the debilitating, even rib-breaking, hacking cough frequently contracted by climbers in extreme altitude. Named “Khumbu cough” for Mt. Everest’s Khumbu Valley, it can also develop in other high altitude locales.
“That’s probably the major health problem up there,” he said.
Half of the 40 study participants received a placebo inhaler while the other half received the medicated version.
“We haven’t analyzed all the results yet but we saw improvement,” Hackett said. “The medicine seemed to help a lot.”
During his initial time in Nepal, Hackett practiced wilderness medicine at the HRA’s Pheriche Aid Post, a yak herder’s hut in a small village located at 14,000 feet and a seven-day walk from the nearest road and a two-day walk from the Everest Base Camp.
During that time he also researched high altitude medicine and climbed other mountains before becoming the 111th person to successfully ascend Mt. Everest (solo for the last 3,000 feet) in 1981, collecting physiological data along the way.
Between 1981 and 2000 Hackett frequently returned to Nepal to assist the HRA operations to reduce casualties in Nepal Himalaya, particularly those associated with trekking and climbing, but his recent trip to volunteer at the seasonal Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic (Everest ER) for a month-long tour was his first time back in a decade.
“It was great to connect with my old troop of friends and climbing guide buddies, but things have changed a lot,” he said, noting that when he climbed Mt. Everest just under three decades ago only 25 people were on the mountain compared to more than 900 this season.
According to statistics from the Nepal Mountaineering Association, some 513 people successfully ascended Mt. Everest this season, with slightly more than half of them being repeat summiteers.
“There’s a much different kind of person now climbing,” Hackett said.
Among them an 18-year-old Indian girl who had never seen snow before her attempt to scale the highest point on the planet, he recalled.
“Some of them had never used crampons.”
In all Everest ER saw some 450 patients during the two-month climbing season, according to Hackett. While most presented with minor conditions, there were a few serious illnesses including cerebral and pulmonary edema brought on by the high altitude.
Hackett described many of the people who climb Mt. Everest today as those who have set out to climb the Seven Summits – the highest point on each of the world’s seven continents – with pricey commercial operators, not the intrepid mountaineers of years past.
“The real climbers are not doing Everest anymore,” he said, describing today’s clientele as largely, “The cocktail party circuit and people who just want to check it off their list.”
“Everest is a different proposition than it used to be,” he continued.
“It’s almost like a personal valet service with all the Sherpa support,” he continued. “But still, no one can carry you up Everest.”
Unlike today when fixed ropes lead all the way to the summit, there were no fixed ropes in place when Hackett made his ascent.
“That means that the clients clip in their ropes and follow it up and down,” he explained.
“It makes it much safer, but also creates huge log jams,” like waits of an hour or more at the famous 40-foot spur of snow and ice known as the Hillary Step.
Because of the long wait times, and the fact that today’s climbers are not as well acclimated to the altitude, perhaps leaving them more dependant on supplemental oxygen than their predecessors used to be, “I saw a fair amount of frostbite or people running out of oxygen and just losing their minds and making bad decisions,” he said.
That said, the increased commercialization of Mt. Everest has not been exclusively negative. In some ways it has made climbing the mountain safer than it was in the past because there are so many more support systems and people in place to oversee the process.
“It’s dangerous to go by yourself, and it’s also dangerous to go with 100 people,” Hackett explained.
It has also resulted in dramatic standard of living increases for the local Sherpa people who have traditionally supported the expeditions.
“There’s been a definite improvement in education,” he said.
“It’s probably the most prosperous region in Nepal.”