Sherpa hospitality as a cure for frostbite

“The healing properties of alcohol was the last thing we thought of as we submitted to the feasting and hospitality of the Khumbu and Solu Sherpa villages on the way down from Cho Oyu.”
Herbert Tichy, Himalaya

In a previous blog post I asked the question would you sacrifice a digit for a summit? Mountaineering history is full of stories of heroic ascents which have come at a cost: loss of fingers and toes (or worse) due to frostbite. We understand how to treat frostbite injuries much better now, and often mountaineers who suffer quite severe frostbite during a climb manage to survive with all their bits intact. But one method of treatment discovered by a little known Austrian mountaineer in the 1950s, seems to have been neglected by the medical profession, and it’s one that sounds quite appealing.

Herbert Tichy after the first ascent of Cho Oyu. His hands were so badly frostbitten that he even had to have help to enjoy a smoke (Photo: Herbert Tichy, taken from the book Himalaya, 1968)
Herbert Tichy after the first ascent of Cho Oyu. His hands were so badly frostbitten that he even had to have help to enjoy a smoke (Photo: Herbert Tichy, taken from the book Himalaya, 1968)

When Maurice Herzog arrived back at Camp 5 after the first ascent of Annapurna in 1950, his hands were like icicles after losing his gloves during the descent. His team mate Gaston Rebuffat immediately took him into the tent and began whipping his fingers with a bit of rope and vigorously massaging them in an attempt to get some feeling back. Down at base camp and during the trek out, expedition doctor Jacques Oudot subjected him to a series of agonising novocaine injections which lasted for hours, and caused him to writhe in pain as his climbing partners held him still. Oudot managed to prevent the onset of gangrene, but Herzog eventually had to have all his fingers and toes amputated.

Nowadays we know the rope treatment and vigorous massage only aggravates frostbite and makes amputation more likely. Standard treatment now is to gradually thaw out frozen body parts by placing them in warm water, or warming them against a team mate’s chest, armpit or even crotch (though it’s worth noting the latter can be sensitive to extreme cold – a patient in America recently sued his doctors over a frostbitten penis after they left ice strapped to his member for longer than necessary). What has not been studied is why Sherpas are often able to withstand severe cold much better than western climbers, and a possible reason for this was discovered by chance by the Austrian Herbert Tichy in the 1950s.

In 1954 Tichy made the first ascent of 8201m Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, with his compatriot Sepp Jochler and the Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama. It was an unusual ascent by the standards of the time, in that it was a small lightweight expedition with only a handful of members, very different to the huge siege-style assaults of 8000m peaks which had been prevalent until then. When the Italians made the first ascent of K2 the same year they had a party of 30 mountaineers and scientists and 35,000 pounds of equipment. By contrast Tichy, Jochler and geographer Helmut Heuberger had just 1800 pounds of kit.

Cho Oyu seen from the Tibetan side of the Nangpa La. Herbert Tichy made the first ascent on 19 October 1954 with Pasang Dawa Lama and Sepp Jochler
Cho Oyu seen from the Tibetan side of the Nangpa La. Herbert Tichy made the first ascent on 19 October 1954 with Pasang Dawa Lama and Sepp Jochler

Tichy was already suffering from frostbite after diving on his tent with gloveless hands to prevent it being blown away in a gale, but when he discovered they were in a race for the summit with a team of Swiss climbers who had appeared on the mountain without a permit, Tichy realised if he wanted to make the first ascent then he would have to make a bold strike for the top without giving his hands a chance to recover.

They reached the summit on 19 October, but Tichy’s hands were severely frostbitten, and he assumed he would lose fingers. When Indian customs officers inspected his baggage at the border and found it to be missing 180 pairs of socks which were in his inventory when he left, they thought he must have sold them and tried to charge duty. With black humour Tichy held up his frostbitten hands and asked if they wanted to charge duty on his fingers as well. But when he eventually presented himself for treatment at a clinic back home in Vienna he was in for a surprise. His doctor looked at the photographs of his hands taken in the Himalayas and then at the hands themselves, and remarked in amazement:

“You should by rights have lost one or two fingers, but I don’t think we shall have to operate. Did you use any particular preparation?”

“I had the usual Padutin and Ronicol injections, plus ointment and massage,” replied Tichy.

“I have never seen anything like it in all my long experience of frostbite on the Russian front. Did you keep to any particular diet or regime?”

“Yes,” Tichy admitted, “on the way down we were either tipsy or completely sozzled for two whole weeks.”

“Well, that’s what saved your hands,” said the doctor. “As you know, alcohol dilates the blood vessels and stimulates the circulation.”

Sherpa hospitality: after our ascent of Mera Peak in 2004 we were made to drink alcohol by our Sherpa hosts in Tangnag
Sherpa hospitality: after our ascent of Mera Peak in 2004 we were made to drink alcohol by our Sherpa hosts in Tangnag

Pasang Dawa Lama was one of the most celebrated of all Sherpas behind Tenzing Norgay, who made the first ascent of Everest. In 1939 Pasang Dawa climbed almost to the summit of K2 with the American Fritz Wiessner, and his decision to turn around short of the top probably saved the lives of both of them. He lived in the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, and had been promised a bride there if he reached the summit of Cho Oyu. When the team returned to Namche across the Nangpa La pass, they found themselves included in two weeks of Sherpa festivities in Pasang Dawa’s honour. The chang (millet beer) was paid for out of expedition funds, and Tichy said in his book Himalaya that they were obliged to “comport ourselves according to the laws of hospitality”.

Luckily I’ve never experienced frostbite myself, but perhaps I too have Sherpa hospitality to thank for this. The first time I climbed Mera Peak in 2004 several of our team, including myself, wore inadequate gloves and suffered mild frostnip after our -30°C summit day. During the ascent I took my gloves off and discovered my hands were purple, heading towards black, but I was inexperienced then and unfamiliar with the onset of frostnip, the precursor of full blown frostbite. One of our Sherpas warmed my hands in his own, a team mate gave me some liquid hand warmers to put inside my mitts and we continued onwards. My boots were also inadequate, and I returned home with a black little toe which fortunately recovered soon afterwards. The tips of my fingers were numb for several weeks, but otherwise I was unharmed. Herbert Tichy’s doctor will no doubt have told me the reason for this was because the day after our ascent we spent an evening in the Sherpa village of Tangnag, where our hosts insisted on tipping liberal quantities of San Miguel beer down our throats.

In my opinion no mountain is worth sacrificing a digit for – it will always be there to climb another day in different circumstances. The best cure for frostbite is to be well equipped with good clothing, and to stay in base camp when high winds are battering the summit. On 8000m peaks climbing with oxygen helps to circulate blood to the extremities and is one of the best safeguards against frostbite.

But it’s nice to know that a few celebratory drinks afterwards doesn’t do any harm either.

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10 thoughts on “Sherpa hospitality as a cure for frostbite

  • March 27, 2013 at 4:34 pm
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    Another interesting piece of information. I know you write books but I wasn’t aware you had written so many. Enough to keep me going for quite a long time yet. I’m really looking forward to the coming season although I haven’t any personal friends climbing this year Cheers Kate

  • March 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm
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    Thanks, Kate. Yes, I do, just my travel diaries, and some would say alcohol plays too prominent a part in them. 😉

  • March 28, 2013 at 11:45 am
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    My good mate alan silva who has had his toes bitten many times swears by beer (not too many – just enough to get tidly was his instructions to me in answer to my prying) as a cure for frost bite. It just goes to show every cloud has a silver lining then!

  • March 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm
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    That’s right, Axe, though as for your own party trick, I’m not sure drinking it while doing a head stand makes it any better. 😉

  • March 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm
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    Ah, but despite the alcohol (or probably because of it?) I love your diaries! They are the most entertaining and interesting I’ve read. I recently bought a book by Ralf Dujmovits and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner about their ascents of all 14 800ers (“2×14 Achttausender”, with amazing photography!) and although it’s really wonderful, as basically a non-climber (my highest mountain being a 4000-m peak in the Alps and I won’t be repeating the experience) I couldn’t always relate. But your stories speak to me as a “normal” mountain-loving person. 🙂

  • March 29, 2013 at 5:20 pm
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    Thanks, Ann, glad you like them. I did once share a plate of apricots with Gerlinde in an office in Skardu, but that’s about the nearest I’ll get to mountaineering superstardom!

  • February 9, 2014 at 1:20 am
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    I just got frostbite out on a long ski in idaho on a very cold day, guess it’s time to get drunk! thanks for the info!

  • February 9, 2014 at 10:19 pm
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    Sorry to hear that, Carl. I hope it’s nothing too serious. I recommend consulting a doctor first and foremost, but having a few drinks shouldn’t do any harm as well.

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