The Science Behind Oxygen Tanks and Mountain Climbers


Climbing tall mountains can sometimes necessitate the use of oxygen tanks and there is a very good reason for this.

Why do mountain climbers use oxygen tanks? The short answer is that there is less oxygen in the atmosphere the higher up you go. As such, climbing tall mountains like Mt. Everest would often lead climbers to bring oxygen tanks with them. However, oxygen tanks can also be a good way to survive during emergencies and to counteract damage from cold air.

At the end of the day, oxygen tanks are tools that can have its uses, but it can also cause problems if you are not careful with how it is used.

Why do Mountain Climbers Need Oxygen Tanks?

There are a few reasons why oxygen tanks might be needed by mountain climbers while ascending to the top of the peaks that they were targeting. However, before we go any further, the tanks we are talking about here are the portable kind. These can often be as small and slim as thermos canisters and they are good for a few things, such as:

·         Breathing

·         Filtering

·         Progressing

·         Surviving

Of course, those are too generalized to be acceptable answers. As such, you can take a look at the table below to see the biggest reasons why oxygen tanks are used by climbers:

ReasonsDescription
Extra OxygenFor getting extra oxygen that is missing from the atmosphere due to the altitude
Protection from cold airFor shielding the lungs from the cold air, which can damage the tissue
Enables progressAllows the climbers to keep progressing despite the reduced levels of oxygen
Accessible climbingMakes climbing more accessible to those who had less training
EmergencyAllows climbers to move faster in case of emergency
SurvivalIn case of being buried in an avalanche or stuck in a cave in, the tanks extend the survival rate

For the most part, these oxygen canisters were created for the sole purpose of making up for the more limited amount of the gas that can be found in elevated areas. Altitude can have quite a cruel effect on the ability to breathe, but people living high up in the mountains do eventually adapt to it. In a more limited sense, climbers can do the same.

Even so, there are just times when the amount of oxygen gets so low that even the most experienced of climbers can no longer tolerate it. On that note, the existence of such convenient tools for climbing mountains has paved the way for a ton of problems. It certainly is not the only one to have done so.

We can discuss the issues that have since come up due to the fact that these oxygen canisters have become much more widely available later on. For now, it’s worth remembering that they can be as much of a blessing as they are an epidemic.

Extra Oxygen – The first and main reason why climbers use oxygen tanks is to supplement their supply of oxygen as they make their ascent higher and higher towards the peak of the mountain. As you might already know, air pressure goes down the higher you go and this is accompanied by the loss of the atmosphere’s ability to hold on to oxygen.

When that happens, oxygen molecules disperse, which then causes a shortage in the essential gas. However, this does not automatically mean that you can no longer breathe when you have climbed the highest mountains. It just means that it will be harder to breathe. Oxygen tanks are meant to supplement that and make it easier, instead.

Protection – It’s no secret that the higher up the mountain you get, the colder the air is going to get. Breathing in cold air can be quite harsh on the lungs but it can still be manageable until you pass a certain point. Eventually, the cold air will cause the water molecules in the lungs to crystallize, which would then cause blockages in the blood vessels.

This would cause them to burst, which is how you sometimes get bloody coughs when you spend too long being out in the cold. Using oxygen tanks, this cold air can be mitigated since you are getting your oxygen from an artificial source. It won’t be much, but at least you won’t be directly breathing in the harsh, chill air.

Ability Boost – Biology dictates that your body needs oxygen in order to function and since we already established that there is less oxygen in higher altitudes, you can see where this is going. This doesn’t just come in the form of fatigue either, as if you were just slowly losing strength. It also comes with reduced motivation and an increase in the desire to quit.

Oxygen tanks can act as temporary ability boosters, which can clear your head and give you that extra push to keep on going if nothing else will. In this sense, these canisters can basically act as something of a crutch that will enable you to achieve your goal. If you have no problems with that, then good for you.  

Accessibility – Speaking of oxygen canisters being crutches, you should also note that these handy items have basically made it easier for even novice climbers to reach the highest peaks in the world. Normally, you would need to spend months preparing for the trip and even before that, you would need to train for years in order to acquire the kind of body to do so.

One of the reasons for such preparations is so that your lungs, muscles, and heart will be able to cope with the reduced oxygen levels on top of all the other challenges that mountains have to offer. With oxygen tanks, though, this is no longer an issue. They basically offer a shortcut to those who have neither the time nor the desire to prepare properly.

Emergency – Then we have emergency scenarios where you basically need to move very fast for things like getting rescue, evading an avalanche or rock slide, or running away from a predator while at higher altitudes. You are definitely going to need that boost of movement that the extra oxygen can give you because you can’t run that fast if you can’t breathe.

Of course, oxygen canisters are hardly ever used for this purpose. However, you certainly can if you had to. Still, as far as main reasons for getting it goes, this is far from being at the top.

Survival – Finally, we have survival, which is probably one of the most critical functions of oxygen that hardly ever gets brought up. Just imagine for a moment that you got caught in an avalanche and you could not move due to an injury or something. Being stuck under the ice means poor air circulation and since you’re already at high altitudes, this spells bad news.

With an oxygen canister, though, you will have a limited amount of breathable air in your possession that will basically buy you time. It certainly won’t be a lot, but it will undeniably have a major impact on your chances of survival, for sure. So that is something that you might want to keep in mind.

Mountains, Altitude, and Oxygen

It was already discussed before, but oxygen can get quite scarce the higher up the mountain you go. Altitude does play a big role in this, but the environment and the low temperatures will not be doing you any favors, either. It is simply a fact that when you are breathing in cold air, you are basically harming your body.

Even when you are at level ground, the cold air makes it very difficult to breathe. Your lungs will seize up and the very atmosphere that goes into your lungs is made of ice crystals. This is why you should avoid doing strenuous activities when it is winter and you are outside. Now, just imagine those same conditions but at altitudes where oxygen is in short supply.

No matter where you are, high altitudes lead to lower temperatures and air pressure. Lower air pressure leads to less oxygen and it all just snowballs from there. You can probably already see where this is going. Even in mountains in regions that are normally hot will have ice caps simply because of how high up they go.

You can also contract this illness called altitude sickness, which is also related to the lower levels of oxygen, air pressure, and yes, the colder temperatures. This health issue comes with all kinds of problematic symptoms like loose bowels, vomiting, nausea, paranoia, delusions, and many others. Basically, it’s not something that you would want to experience.

Yet, this is exactly the fate that awaits you when you carelessly try to scale a mountain that you have never been to before and you have never trained to climb. Even experienced climbers can still be affected by altitude sickness, from time to time.

Oxygen Tanks Vs. Natural Breathing

Oxygen is essential for a lot of reasons and not just for keeping you alive by breathing. It affects everything, including your metabolism, your mental acuity, your emotional stability, and of course, your physical abilities. Without oxygen or if there is very little of it going into your body, you basically will not be able to do anything.

These facts are particularly acute for climbers since they will be dealing with oxygen issues soon enough. As for how this can be dealt with, there is the artificial method and the natural method. As you might have already guessed, oxygen canisters occupy the former while the latter is basically just you breathing as normal.

However, while the artificial method only really has one realistic answer, the natural breathing method can be a bit more complex. To start with, it begins with the lungs becoming accustomed to the sudden changes in oxygen levels and climate conditions. Climbers usually spend months or years cultivating the kinds of bodies that are capable of doing this.

They do so through all kinds of methods, from simulating the climb via shorter mountains with similar terrain to sleeping in hyperbaric chambers where the oxygen levels are intentionally restricted. Being able to acclimate to these punishing states is how professional climbers are able to start from the base and ascend great heights without falling to the same issues as novices would.

As already mentioned, the oxygen tanks are basically a means of taking a shortcut with regards to this particular topic. By simply having a canister full of the stuff that you need to breathe at hand, you can keep climbing where most normal people would already have collapsed. Instead of spending months in the mountains, you just take a quick trip to the store.

Now, this is not to say that those who would dare to climb mountains with an oxygen canister are unfit. They would have to be in reasonably good shape to even attempt the feat. Rather, they just don’t have the same amount of time to devote to getting ready for the trip since they have their own lives, careers, and other things to care about.

So, which of these approaches is better, in the end? If you are someone who only wants to be able to claim that you climbed a really tall mountain, then the artificial method might be more your speed. It takes less time and all you really need to do is be fit enough to survive the climb. You don’t have to be almost superhuman, like most climbers tend to be.

However, if you are in this for the challenge and to prove to the world that you can beat the odds, then you definitely want to go with the natural breathing method. Not only will this basically put you at much higher odds of coping with the situation, you will also be safer since your body is able to adapt faster. That’s just one less thing to worry about.

Related Questions

Does Altitude Sickness Lead to Death?

It does and with a much higher rate of fatality than most would assume. Altitude sickness basically sets in when the body was not given the chance to acclimate to the lower air pressure and the lack of oxygen. This leads to various unpleasant symptoms until it inevitably leads to death.

What Are the Chances of Dying on Mt. Everest?

Regardless of how experienced you are as a climber, the chances of dying as you attempt to summit Mt. Everest is still high. Naturally, the less experience you have, the higher the chance of dying. Without money to hire sherpas and equip yourself properly, you are almost guaranteed to perish.

Problems with Oxygen Tanks

So, now that we have discussed the reasons why oxygen tanks are used by climbers, are there any drawbacks to using them? Quite a few, actually, but the most relevant would have to be the following:

·         Becoming too dependent on the tanks

·         Adds to the burden you need to carry

·         Can be quite unpleasant to breathe

·         Provides you with a false sense of confidence

·         Has led to pollution

While there is no denying that oxygen tanks have saved a lot of lives while on the mountains and they have allowed a lot of people to achieve their dreams, they do have their share of problems. These problems can then lead to disaster for the climbers for any of the items listed above.

Suffice it to say, the worst thing you can do when using an oxygen tank is to believe that it is your strength that the temporary boost that it gives you is your own strength. You become too enthusiastic and careless, which is a deadly fault to have on top of a mountain.

The Oxygen Tank Disaster

Another issue with oxygen tanks is the rate at which they are abandoned along mountain trails, campsites, and so on. Too many climbers simply throw them away when they are forced to turn back, after using them up, or when they climb back down. Not all of them are doing this, of course, but enough of them are that it is beginning to be a problem.

As you might expect, oxygen cylinders are not exactly biodegradable materials. They will stay in place until they are removed and when they are not, they will be there for a long time. When multiple oxygen tanks are thrown away in one place, therefore, it becomes quite noticeable. Once it is, the respective authorities responsible for that area will need to act.

In Mt. Everest, in particular, oxygen tanks are piling up and the locals certainly do not appreciate how much garbage is being left all over the famous site. This makes sense since those managing natural attractions are even compelling climbers to bring their own wastes with them when they leave. Oxygen tanks can certainly be much more of a bother.

If this trend continues, there is a very good chance that popular climbing sites might end up being closed to the public for some time. This will be quite the punishment for earnest climbers due to some irresponsible parties. 

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