“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.
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.
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.”
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.