View from the Summit: Blurry

Alpinists laud the convenience of laser vision correction, but is there a price to pay?

Jan 6, 2001
Outside Magazine

MYOPIC MOUNTAINEERS itching to ditch their contact lenses or prescription goggles for laser vision correction might want to wait before emptying their piggy banks. A study in the March edition of the journal Ophthalmology suggests prolonged exposure to lack of oxygen at high altitudes may cause temporary blurring of distance vision for LASIK patients who are "involved in high altitude activities for extended periods, such as mountain climbers [and] skiers." Researchers, who strapped airtight goggles onto 20 formerly nearsighted subjects and simulated sea level in one eye and drained the oxygen from the other, noted a gradual swelling in the hypoxic eyes that resulted in a mild distortion of distance vision.

Mark Nelson, one of the study's coauthors, ballparks the shift from 20/20 vision to 20/80 at its worst. Even so, Geoff Tabin, an ophthalmologist who completed the Seven Summits in 1990, believes the benefits of the popular procedure (see "The Fit List") still outweigh the risks of iced-up contacts or foggy goggles. Rich Emmett, a Louisville, Kentucky, attorney who went under the beam in April 2000, agrees. While summiting Denali last June, he experienced a visual near-whiteout, although his sight soon recovered. "Sure, it's a trade-off," says Emmett, "But to be able to see the vistas from the top of Denali—I wouldn't trade that for nothin'."  

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