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What are the limits of human endurance? – I like science

What are the limits of human endurance?  - I like science

What are the limits of the human body? What is the highest temperature and what is the lowest temperature? What pressure? And what is the pressure when it turns out that we are alone in all of this? You will learn all this from today’s material.

Mountaineering Equipment Then and Today

The opportunity to tackle this topic was the questions I was asked on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube in my last video where I talked about how to measure the height of mountain peaks. How do you reach these peaks? How does it work in the highlands where there is nothing to breathe, where the wind can tear people from the wall, and the cold makes even the best jackets and sleeping bags inadequate?

When you look at the photos of members of the British expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1924, you can really get scared. They came in tweed jackets, flannel shirts, wool underwear, and leather shoes!

The heroes of the golden age of mountaineering in the Polish Himalayas several decades later were already better equipped, but their clothing and accessories were often the result of their own projects, great imagination and creativity. Shoes on cork, woolen pants, welding goggles, heavy cordless phones borrowed from GOPR or nylon jackets.

Contemporary mountaineers have much better equipment – from modern robes filled with special gooseneck and covered in durable fabrics with special properties, such as eVent or Pertex Pro, to shoe warmers, work, elastic ropes, sturdy straps and ice axes or navigation and communication devices, such as white-collar microphones and satellite phones.

What threatens man in the heights?

Simply put, high mountains are not the best places to live, and the higher you climb, the more daring the challenge becomes. The biggest enemy at high altitudes is the lack of oxygen. With increasing altitude, pressure decreases. Air molecules are weakened more and more, so it is difficult for us to use them and properly supply the body with oxygen.

One breath on top of the Himalayas provides us with a third of the oxygen that would reach our lungs if we breathed below sea level. This is why mountaineers often use devices and oxygen cylinders. With this support, more than 95% of the ascent of Mount Everest is performed.

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Interestingly, the use of an external source of oxygen is not a new invention – oxygen cylinders, for example, Edmund Hillary had with her when he successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1953 (by the way, he reached the summit on the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II).

Unfortunately, oxygen is not enough. In high mountains, there is a problem of low temperatures in cooling the body. Strong winds make the situation worse. In addition, mountaineers have to deal with ultraviolet radiation, which mainly harms eyesight, because the higher it is, the less the atmosphere is protected from radiation.

What may seem paradoxical, in the high mountains, access to water is also a problem. Sure, there is a lot of snow there, but it is not easy to melt it in water in minus 20 degrees Celsius and strong winds.

Altitude sickness – what are the limits of human endurance?

These harsh conditions have a significant impact on human health and life. In addition to frostbite and snow blindness, climbers are at risk for a whole host of altitude sicknesses.. One of them is acute altitude sickness whose first signs may appear as early as 2500/3000 meters above sea level and symptoms include headache, nausea, lethargy, sleep disturbances…and this is only the beginning.

Diseases of cascading altitudes occur less frequently, and their first symptoms appear at higher altitudes. Swelling of the brain may appear at high altitudes, manifested by incoherent movements, severe headaches, hallucinations, and problems with rational thinking.. There may also be high-altitude pulmonary edema leading to respiratory failure. If left untreated, in addition to frostbite and snow blindness, it leads to the death of the climber.

How do we prevent altitude sickness?

Can these diseases be prevented somehow? To some extent, yes. First, acclimatization. It does not eliminate the risk of altitude sickness, but it reduces it. Gradually, slowly climbing up the heights, then descending and resting at a lower altitude, allows the body to get used to the low amount of oxygen, first of all.

Acclimatization is possible up to about 5500 meters above sea level, above which our body is not able to adapt to conditions in the long run.. Above, from an altitude of about 7,500 meters above sea level, there is a death zone. That is why climbers try to perform work in the mountains according to the principle of “rise up and sleep low”.

See also: Wide Peak – In search of the way to the top

Due to the entire logistics of the flight and the need for slow acclimatization, the journey to the eight thousand people, assuming favorable weather conditions, would take a few weeks. In the case of symptoms of altitude sickness, the way to survive is to descend as quickly as possible, hydrate the body, take medications to reduce swelling of the brain and lungs, and use the so-called hypertensive bag, which, by increasing the pressure around the patient, additionally allows him to “go down with him” artificially at a faster pace.

Too low temperature, too low pressure, lack of oxygen, loneliness, physical exertion, enormous danger, and the idea or possibility that all help is either unavailable or too difficult… which is what makes it to the top.

All this brings the human body to its limits, sometimes beyond the mental and physical endurance. Not many come back from abroad, although of course some have managed to do so. I recorded a conversation with one of them and you can listen to it on the science podcast. Love her. The occasion of our conversation was “Broad Peak”, which is available on Netflix.

The material was created in collaboration with Netflix Polska.

Selected sources:, Edmund-Hillary-Dokonalismy-tym-weszlismy-na-Mount-Everest Rocznica-zdobycia-everestu-edmund-hillary-dolozylismy-draniowi.html,1,,1,


Thomas Ruschick

I am a physicist by education and a science journalist by profession. I’ve been creating the Nauka brand for years. I like that, in addition, I run the research department of the weekly Gość Niedzielny and collaborate with several media and editorial offices. I am a happy father to twins: Zozia and Janek and Anya’s husband.

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