Hamline News

The Altitude Experience

AltExp Article

At 1:39 p.m. on May 22, 2009, Hamline biology professor Mike Farris completed the grueling final push up Mount Everest and stood alone atop the highest point on earth— 29,029 feet above sea level. Farris paused for only a moment in the fierce winds and deadly thin air before descending 100 feet to an area known as the South Summit. There he pulled out a video camera and pointed it back toward the peak—a rounded hump of snow that pierced the cerulean sky.
Stowing the camera, he continued on his way to high camp, 3,000 feet below the summit. “I started descending from the summit and everything was fine,” Farris recalls, sitting in his small, book-lined office. “I was a quarter or a third of the way back from the summit to the high camp when something went wrong.”
Nearly 15 hours later, Farris arrived at high camp, frozen, exhausted, and with little memory of what had happened during the long, cold night. Over the coming weeks, other climbers who had come to his aid helped fill in the gaps of what happened. A faulty regulator on the oxygen mask he used to summit caused Farris to lose oxygen. He became confused and disoriented, eventually losing consciousness. Hypothermia set in during the night as well as frostbite, which claimed portions of seven fingers and most of his toes.
Farris’s experience was surprising, given his track record as a cautious climber. In six attempts to climb one of the 14 peaks in the world that rise above 8,000 meters (approximately 26,000 feet) since 2002, Farris has made two summits. “I’ve always been one that’s quite willing, if it looks bad, to turn around,” he says. He knows he cannot control two critical factors of any summit attempt: weather and luck. “This Everest trip was the first time I didn’t follow my normal maxim and I got burned.”
Farris began rock climbing in 1975 as an undergraduate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Within a few years, he was climbing on ice and in the mountains. In a way, he was living out a boyhood fantasy. While in high school in Edison, Ohio, Farris read Annapurna, Frenchman Maurice Herzog’s account of his successful 1950 assault on the world’s third highest mountain—the first 8,000-meter peak ever climbed. It introduced Farris to a rich body of mountaineering literature, which he devoured.
After completing a PhD at the University of Colorado– Boulder, Farris came to Hamline to teach in the late 1980s. He soon joined a group of Twin Cities climbers who introduced him to the area’s small but technically demanding cliffs about which he later wrote Rock Climbing Minnesota and Wisconsin, an area climbing guide. Regular trips out West to the Tetons and the Rocky Mountains helped him prepare for bigger expeditions abroad.
After the 2002 Kanchenjunga expedition and a solo attempt on Alaska’s Denali in 2003, Farris tried twice, in 2004 and 2005, to summit Broad Peak in Pakistan, one of the big 14. His first summit above 8,000 meters was in 2006 on Gasherbrum II, located on the Pakistan/China border.
As Farris began to scale higher peaks, he developed an interest in how altitude affects the human body. During his first trip to Broad Peak in 2004, he got dehydrated on the summit push and “flamed-out,” failing to reach the peak. As a scientist, he wanted to know why his body wouldn’t let him make the final push. Finding few comprehensive references on human physiology at high altitudes, Farris decided to research the subject on his own. Five years later, he completed his research, collected in his recent book, The Altitude Experience: Successful Trekking and Climbing above 8,000 Feet.
The Altitude Experience offers scientific explanations as to what happens to the human body and mind at high altitudes, as well as useful, how-to advice for traveling at such heights. Farris found that the effects of altitude, from nausea to general irritability, can set in at even extremely low heights—heights one might encounter on a family vacation. “It’s geared toward anybody who is traveling in altitude,” says Farris, “whether you’re working in the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii at 14,000 feet, or taking your kids camping in Colorado.”
Farris also put together a report on what happened to him that night on Everest. His recounting of the trip (posted on his website, thealtitudeexperience.com) is as harrowing as The Altitude Experience is informative. He uses both to teach an undergraduate course about his research to Hamline students.
On his office computer, Farris replays the video he took of Everest. The camera pans over a string of yellow, blue, and red Tibetan prayer flags pinned to the snow. Prayer flags also hang from his office window—a souvenir of his 2002 expedition to Mount Kanchenjunga in Nepal. Like the flags, Farris’s research provides climbers with one more hope for a safe return.