Small Screen: Height of madness

The phrase "life-and-death drama" is grossly overused. But in David Carter's case, it is absolutely accurate.

Carter, an American mountaineer, scaled Everest as part of a project to determine the effect of high altitude on climbers' cognitive abilities. He wasn't feeling too clever on the way up, but on the way down his condition rapidly deteriorated.

He takes up the story. "I had a common cold, but at altitude the phlegm in my throat was coagulating, and I was choking to death. Ed Viesturs [his companion] had to do the Heimlich Manoeuvre on me for six hours.

"Then I went into respiratory arrest, and Ed, who is a vet, was preparing to do a tracheotomy on me. I was ready to go and die, when suddenly I thought, `Hell, I'm not going to.' I put my hand down my throat and ripped out a brownie-sized piece of phlegm. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me because it made me realise that getting to the top of Everest was no big deal. I'm the luckiest son of a bitch alive, and I'm a better person for it."

This shockingly compelling incident forms the climax to "Thin Air", a gripping contribution to C4's Equinox strand. The aim of the documentary, by David Breashears and Liesl Clark, was, according to Carter, "like an old anti-drugs commercial that we had in the US. It showed an egg frying in a pan, and said `this is your brain on drugs'. Everest does the same damn thing; it's probably not a real good thing for your brain."

Above 17,000ft, the air contains 65 per cent less oxygen than it does at sea level. The body rapidly starts to decline from the combined effect of muscle wastage, sleep loss and weight loss. From 19,500ft onwards, Carter is visibly flagging. "It's slow, you're winded, dehydrated, you're losing your voice, coughing. But the views make it worthwhile."

When you climb above 26,000ft, you are entering what is known as the "death zone", where humans cannot survive for long. Such is the effort required even by the act of breathing that the last 300ft of the mountain takes two hours to climb. The 29,028ft summit, which pushes out into the jet stream, is littered with corpses of climbers less fortunate than Carter. No-one has enough spare energy to carry them down. For Breashears, on his fourth trip to the top, seeing the bodies "only makes me question my sanity".

In the film, Carter, Breashears and Viesturs are depicted struggling at altitude to repeat simple sentences. In a "true or false" test, Carter is shown saying it is true that "lion is a military title".

But, beyond the scientific trials, the trip had valuable life lessons. "I was a member of the best team in the world," Carter says. "I was surrounded by the Michael Jordans of high-altitude climbing. It made me realise that whatever you do in life, it's important to be able to work as a team. I climb because I enjoy working with a team that's focused on the same goal - you don't always get that in business. A true climbing team is only as strong as its weakest member."

Perhaps because of his brush with death, Carter also realised there are some "spiritual aspects" to it.

"Everest is a living thing, and it picks and chooses who gets to the top and who survives. You have to believe in the mountain and pay attention to its rituals. Every hour I think about that climb - some titbit will come into my head. I'm an aggressive, Type-A person, and it makes me slow down and smell the roses. I left part of myself up Everest. When I die, my spirit will float right over that mountain."

Carter has promised his family that he will never attempt to reach the summit of Everest again, and Breashears has vowed the same - "I need lots of people to prevent me from changing my mind".

But Carter has no time for the doom-mongers who assert that you should never try it in the first place. "People say, `you must have a death wish', but I laugh and reply that I do it because I love life. I'll never just sit around on my ass. Next week I'm going climbing in Russia."

Nor does he agree with people who claim that high-altitude climbing is a selfish pursuit. "I hear that all the time, but life would be pretty damn boring without adventure. Nothing would be accomplished without risk. Look at Lindbergh, or the astronauts. Explorers have taught us so much."

So what has Carter learnt from the experience? "Being on Everest was the best time of my life, even though I was in mortal danger. Pushing yourself to the limit is a neat feeling. It shows me that anyone can do it.

"There are lots of Everests out there for people. My Everest just happened to be Everest."

`Equinox: Thin Air' is on Tue at 9pm on C4

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas