Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ken Kamler: Medical Miracle on Everest

Ken Kamler: Medical miracle on Everest

-Ken Kamler

Rating: ***

Mount Everest is the most widely known peak in the entire world, though a challenge few chose to undertake. Towering in at 29, 035 feet it requires five climbing intervals to reach its’ incredible summit: base camp, camp 1, camp 2, camp 3, and camp 4. Near the summit, winds can travel at alarming speed, somewhere between 20 and 40 miles per hour. In addition to these harsh winds, the temperature can be -40o C on any given day. A small error of any sort made on a mountain with such conditions can easily escalate to a serious disaster in a matter of minutes. The TED Talk I chose was presented by Ken Kamler, an Everest veteran who tells the heart-wrenching story of a man by the name of Beck Weathers, a true Everest example of the power of the human mind in survival situations.

The events that Dr.Kamler recounted represent the worst disaster in the history of Mount Everest. His story takes place during his forth, out of a total of six trips to the summit, where he was the sole doctor on a National Geographic expedition. According to Kamler, the trip did not begin well, as comet passed over the mountain at the beginning of their journey, an omen of misfortune indicated by their Sherpa. However, the group encountered few issues as they scaled the mountain, reaching camp 3 with ease. It was there that the trouble began. Another team, with whom Kamler’s team was constantly keeping in contact with, had reached camp 4 and was prepping for the last leg of their journey: the summit. On Everest, the amount of dispensable oxygen is a mere one third of what we have access to at sea level; that being said, once you have reached camp 4, you have no more than 24 hours to decide whether or not you are going to attempt the summit due to oxygen limitations.

Regardless of the unreliable conditions that were threatening to emerge, the neighbouring team decided to attempt the peek. As they ventured further up the mountain a fierce storm rolled in, accompanied by terrible winds. At this point, everyone was climbing individually, as the idea of being roped together at such extreme altitudes is absurd. In the hours that followed, many climbers fell prey to exhaustion and severe confusion. The strongest continued on, well the weaker and critically injured started down the mountain to camp 3 at 21 000 feet, where Kamler awaited them for treatment. However, some men and women were not fortunate enough to make it back down the mountain and consequently lost their lives that fretful day. Among the deceased was Rob Paul, an adequate climber who refused to leave his partner, Doug, in order to save himself. Just before his death, Rob requested that he be connected to his wife, via radio, for a final goodbye. During this brief conversation they chose the name for their future child, who was seven months on the way.

For those blessed enough to survive the climb down to camp 3, not much awaited them. Kamler had nothing but two plastic bags of steroids and pain killers to work with in order to treat frostbite, exhaustion, etc. The doctor gave any incoherent person an injection of steroids, in desperate attempt to revive those in critical condition. Eventually, a few days later, backup medical supplies arrived at camp 3. However, this was not the only arrival that took place longer than ideal; Beck Weathers, who had been assumed dead, entered the tent days after the incident. This was astounding to everyone involved as Weathers had been deemed lost in the fierce cold for more than two days, yet had somehow managed to climb back down to where he knew the others would be waiting. Perhaps the most incredible part was that at the time of his arrival, he was completely lucid and coherent, a medical miracle.

The question remains, how did he manage to harness enough energy to travel back to the group? Weathers attributes his survival to an overwhelming desire to live for his wife and children. He explains that he had been stuck in the snow for more than two days, incapable of summoning the will to move, as if in a trance. It wasn’t until he realized that he did not want to die that he simply got up, consequently reversing and irreversible hypothermia. Kamler speculates that had Weathers been suspect to a SPEC scan during those critical two days, we would have been able to track the though process responsible for his survival. He states that Weathers’ brain would have showed him concentrating on survival, powering down, focusing on family, regaining energy, activating “will power”, begin to think, transmit energy and then finally become motivated enough to move. All of this to say that the power of the human mind is capable of so much more than we imagined, especially when faced with two choices: survival or death.

Although Weathers’ story ends in a rather up-beat manner, many of his teammates did not benefit from such luck. Emergency helicopters were called in to remove Weathers and the critically ill. Once the two teams, Kamler’s and Weathers’, had been safely brought down the deadly mountain, they held a traditional ceremony for the five climbers who had lost their lives during the expedition, complete with Tibetan prayer flags and juniper branches, which are both holy symbols to the native people.

I found this TED Talk fascinating! Although the speaker, Ken Kamler, wasn’t completely fluid in speech, the message he was trying to communicate was evident: the human mind is capable of amazing things! Beck Weathers’ story much resembles the story of the British mountaineer from the movie Touching the Void, as both feature the human mind’s incredible will to survive. The TED Talk is worth watching as the pictures included help the audience get a better idea of what life on Everest is like, and what it takes to survive the journey to its’ legendary summit.

Ken Kamler: Medical miracle on Everest. Talks: TED Partner Series. October 2009. Web. January 2, 2012.

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