Everest: Dr. Peter Hackett

May 20, 2010
Outside Magazine

Dr. Peter Hackett is back. After a ten-year absence from the Khumbu Valley, a place he’s either lived or visited consistently between 1974 and 2000, Hackett returned to Nepal this spring to work at Everest ER. In his ten-year absence, the Telluride-based doc who wrote the Bible on high-altitude illness, Mountain Sickness: Prevention, Recognition, and Treatment, has worked as the tour doctor for the Rolling Stones, is writing a book about his 40 years of living and climbing in the Khumbu, and is finally publishing a second edition of his 30-year-old classic tome. Exact pub date is to be determined, but look for it in stores within the next year. Here’s Hackett’s take on...

Altitude sickness: "My big thing now is, look, nobody should be dying of altitude sickness. It’s all about education: the right way to use Diamox, the right rate of ascent, and how to monitor your body. We need a lot more education out there for the lay person."

Medical advances in treating altitude sickness: "There are definitely some new advances, especially with pulmonary edema, but the best way to prevent pulmonary edema is still descent and oxygen. There will never be a drug as good as descent and oxygen."

What he’s most interested in studying now: "What’s most interesting to me is the effect of high-altitude for people with common health conditions like pregnancy, diabetes, and heart disease. I take it case by case, but going to high altitude with these conditions is much more manageable than people realize. I’m much more liberal because I’m much more knowledgeable."

How climbing Everest has changed since he was the 111th person to summit in 1981: "The problem with Everest is that it’s not about climbing anymore. It’s about punching your ticket. There’s part of me that thinks it’s an inevitable evolution, but where does it stop? You know what would put an end to this? A huge, massive landslide so the height would drop below that of K2."

What it feels like to almost literally cough up a lung upon descending from his solo summit of Everest: "That night it was 13 hours round trip. I had had nothing to eat or drink because my water bottle was in my pack and it froze. We started hydrating and when my lungs started to get a little moisture I thought I had pulmonary edema, but actually it was all the pus that started getting loose and copious because my airways had been entirely dry, so I started coughing and coughing and choking and choking. I finally coughed up this huge thing and it was a perfect bronchial cast. I almost died on a piece of my lung."

Why he decided to return to the Khumbu after a ten-year absence: "I had to get back here just for my own soul."

--Stephanie Pearson

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