Busy season for the doctors of Everest ER

The spring climbing season in the Himalaya is well underway, with dozens of teams climbing on a variety of mountains across the region. The busiest of those peaks is Mt. Everest of course, where in a few weeks time, a couple of hundred mountaineers will be hoping to stand on top of the highest summit on the planet. Many of them wouldn’t have a chance of doing so however, if it weren’t for the hard work of a dedicated team of doctors who staff the Everest ER.

More formally known as the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic, the Everest ER first appeared on the South Side of that mountain back in 2003. It is a joint effort between the Himalayan Rescue Association of Nepal and the U.S., two organizations that work closely with one another to ensure that the climbers have a reliable place to have their health needs addressed. Over the course of the past eight years, the ER tent has become a staple on the mountain, dealing with everything from minor sprains and bruises to life-threatening high-altitude sicknesses.

2011 has been a particularly busy season for the staff of the Everest ER. Last week they noted that they had already seen 276 patients and were on pace to shatter all previous records for the number of visitors to come through the doors of their tent. Since setting up shop in April, they’ve had to evacuate three of those patients due to the severity of their altitude sickness, but each of them recovered nicely once they were taken to lower altitudes. Another patient, a Sherpa no less, made the ill advised move of taking off one of his gloves while high on the mountain. The 100 mph winds there quickly delivered a severe case of frost bite that the docs had to treat as well. The vast majority of the other ailments that the ER team has had to deal with have been simple stomach issues, severe colds, and a case or two of the Khumbu Cough, an upper respiratory condition that is common to visitors of the region.
The record number of patience that the Everest ER doctors have seen this year is not indicative of careless climbers or overcrowding on the mountain. In fact, by most accounts, Everest is quieter this year than it has been in some time. But over the past eight years, the ER staff has built an excellent reputation of having the skills and supplies necessary to treat any health related problem that the climbers have, and that has earned them a healthy dose of respect around Base Camp. In years past, some of the larger commercial expeditions would bring their own team doctor with them, but now many of them are saving money by leaving their doc behind and relying on the Everest ER squad instead. This means that mountain is probably safer then ever to climb, as a well trained, and well prepared, medical staff is on duty at all hours of the day and night.

Of course, everything that they’ve treated thus far this season is just a warm-up for what is to come. Later this week the Sherpa guides will complete the process of fixing the ropes all the way to the top of the 29,029-foot peak. Once that work is complete, the other climbers can begin their summit bids at well, and sometime around the middle of the month, they’ll do just that. The real dangers of the climb will reveal themselves when the mountaineers head up to the top en masse, where they’ll be left exposed, possibly for hours, in extreme cold and thin air.

They can rest assured however, that the Everest ER docs are there for them should they need them.

[Photo credit: Pavel Novak via WikiMedia]