In this thread, we discussed the risks of climbing Everest and the impossibility of building a lift to the summit. It occured to me that the main health risks of the death zone - hypothermia, lack of oxygen, and edema from low air pressure - aren’t too disimilar from the condition astronauts encounter on the Moon or on spacewalks.
A pressurized environment suit with its own air supply would eliminate most of these issues - relying on the outside air would not be an issue, and acclimitization could be avoided. I can see difficulties with this idea, though - the suit would be heavy and make movements slow and awkward, but the gain from not being cold and oxygen-starved might make up for this. The time making the final push, 18-20 hours, would be on par with the longest EVAs ever done, and if you wear the suit the entire climb that would pose logisitcal problems of its own.
Is it feasible? Has anyone ever tried high-altitude mountaineering with such a rig?
Can you even walk in a spacesuit in normal Earth gravity? It seems the mobility limitation alone would be the biggest issue.
I saw some proposals for skin-tight “Mars suits” a few years ago, the environment was still self-contained, but unlike a space suit it could dispense with a ton of the equipment (Mars having a thin atmosphere) and make for a much lighter suit.
I don’t think the suit in that article is one of the ‘skin-tight’ ones, it’s just a more up to date conventional pressure suit. I’ve seen some prototype skin-tight ones, and they are indeed skin-tight. Instead of containing the body in a pressurized gaseous atmosphere the suit material itself is tightly wrapped around the body, keeping tissues from outgassing thru physical pressure alone. Still haven’t got it all worked out yet.
With regards to climbing Everest with one, a skin-tight pressure suit might allow the mobility necessary to summit it. But boy would you get sneered at by the old guard! Hell in Mallory’s day just oxygen bottles were considered “unsportsmanlike”. Stuffy Brits…
How are you going to keep the suit supplied with oxygen? Getting oxygen canisters up to the high camps on Everest is a major undertaking, and so climbers use as little oxygen as possible. If you could devise a way to get more oxygen up there, all you’d need is an oxygen mask, not a whole pressurized spacesuit.
I’ve wondered if it would be practical to run a power line from a generator at base camp up to the high camps and then just refill the oxygen bottles up there. Actual mountaineering oxygen bottles use liquid oxygen that require a factory-sized concentrator, but there are relatively portable gaseous oxygen concentrators that wouldn’t be too hard to schlep up there. Maybe the lower storage density wouldn’t be as much of an issue if you could get a refill at each camp.
The issue with oxygen can be completely solved with nothing more than a face mask and a tank. The question is the partial pressure of oxygen than you breath. At sea level the air pressure is 100kPa. However since the oxygen content of air is only 20%, the pressure of oxygen alone your lungs see is 20kPa. This is the partial pressure of oxygen. What matters, in order to keep your body happy, is to keep the partial pressure of oxygen the same. So when the air pressure drops, all you need to do is increase the fraction of oxygen in the air you breath. It is not necessary to maintain the air at sea level pressure.
This is what is done in space suits anyway. And in spacecraft. Spacesuits are designed to work in a vacuum. One of the hardest aspects of their design is maintaining any sort of mobility in the face of the pressure difference. A full 1 atmosphere of pressure results in a space suit that is so stiff that it is essentially impossible to move in it. Even when the pressure is dropped to 20kPa and the inside is run with pure oxygen they remain hard work to operate inside of.
As for temperature regulation, spacesuits are as much concerned with keeping the astronauts cool as warm, in fact more so, as this is a much harder problem to solve. Rejecting heat whilst in a vacuum is difficult, and a hard working astronaut can get hot very quickly.
Spacesuits are very heavy. Especially those that are self contained. Fully kitted up with a backpack under Earth’s gravity they would be so heavy as to make the idea of climbing even a set of stairs daunting at best.
Eventually the gear used to climb mountains now is pretty much perfectly fitted for purpose. Lightweight waterproof and very good insulation. Oxygen tanks and face masks. This covers the issues of thermal control and oxygen. About the only thing you might seek to add is active thermal control. Better known as a heater. The issue here is whether the power source for the heater is worth the additional weight. The main issue that I suspect extreme climbers would like help in is keeping their fingers and toes worm. Loss of these to frostbight seems to remain endemic.
Space suit is highly inflexible, its like a pressurized balloon, stiff, they could barely bend to pick things up if you’ve seen the videos. Even their gloves were so stiff from the air pressure it damaged their finger nails after a while.
The weight and lack of dexterity would do you in. Add into it that if you were in a pressurized suit and never acclimatized a leak would be make you black out almost immediately, and die soon after. There’s no margin for error if you don’t acclimatize.
The air pressure difference is whatever you need. In space the the pressure differential is 30kPa, since they run pure oxygen (Plus allowing for CO2 and water vapour). Top of Everest is 34 kPa. So if you run pure oxygen at the top of Everest you don’t need any pressure differential at all. So why are you wearing it?
True as far as that goes. But I suspect a slightly higher than normal (sea level) partial pressure of O2 would help your body in producing heat to help keep you warm and the exertion required to move around in the “suit”.
Also, IIRC high altitude sickness is not just caused by the lack of oxygen. Its something about the actual air pressure level (whether its normal air or pure O2). So a modest pressure increase is going to help there as well. ISTR years ago hearing about a “rescue bag” of sorts to save people suffering from high altitude sickness. It was basically like a well sealed body bag you pressurized a bit. That supposedly helped a person recover from the effects of high altitude.
As for the suit, as you noted you don’t really need any pressure if you are running pure O2, but like I said I think a bit of extra pressure will help for the reasons mentioned above. My WAG is pressure increase of a PSI or two would do it. So, your suit is not going to be nearly as stiff as true space suit. Also, the thermal conditions of your mountain space suit are probalby going to be much more easily dealt with than what a true space suit requires.
Additionaly, your mountain suit also doesnt need to be as tough as the space suit. A space suit leak of any consequence is deadly fast. Your mountain suit starts leaking and all that means is you drop down to pure 02 at the local pressure, which is not remotely fatal short term (assuming you’ve been aclimated to something close to what you are running at).
If you are breathing pure O2, a simple rebreather system is sufficient. A high pressure bottle about the size of fire extinsquisher for your O2 supply and a CO2 scrubber about the size of two coffee cans would provide about a days worth of breathable 02 (I’d have to run the numbers to be more specific). As a bonus the scubbing chemical reaction produces both heat and moisture, so rather than breathing cold as hell dry as hell air, you are breathing nice moist warm air.
So, between the lower pressures, no fatal aspect leakwise, easier thermal requirements, and a simple scrubbing system I think your mountain suit is going to be significantly different than a space suit in terms of bulk, weight, and mobility. Its IMO going to more likely resemble what the climbers are already wearing except the outer layer is airtight and they are wearing a scubber/O2 backpack (which probably wouldn’t be any worse than the couple of O2 bottles they often carry anyway).
So other stuff, but I gotta go.
We’ve had this discussion before and one person asked why is hasn’t been done already then. It could well be it just wouldnt help that much but I suspect its also possible that most true climbers would consider it cheating and that folks that are enough of DIY engineering types aren’t the kind that would want to do Everest in the first place these days (though if Everest still hadn’t been sucessfully climbed, a suit enthusiast would probably be more interested in giving it a go).
This is not true. It is not the mere lack of oxygen that is the problem, but that the oxygen is at too low an absolute pressure to be absorbed efficiently by the lungs. A small gain can be made with a pressure demand regulator, which allows the lungs to operate a few mmHg above ambient pressure, but not much, or you don’t have the strength to exhale against that pressure. Wrapping the entire body in a pressurized suit allows the lungs to operate at sea-level (or whatever…6000’ is used for airline cabins) pressure. At this altitude, the climbers would need only atmospheric oxygen concentration, so the suit could be supplied by a compressor. (as airliners do) No oxygen bottles or concentrator would be needed, just a power source for the compressor.
The oxygen issue for climbers has been solved. It becomes an issue when the equipment fails, and the solutions are much more advanced for the environment than NASA suits, which are designed for floating in a vacuum.
Problems occur when there’s a leak, because a climber runs out of oxygen and has no safe retreat. If an astronaut gets a hole in his space suit, he just goes back inside the shuttle. If it happens to a climber at 28,000 geet, he’s probably gonna die.
Interesting. But that does not appear to be a pure 02 breathing system. Nor is it a rebreather system which is about 20 times more efficient in oxygen usage. And its not a pressurized space suit, its a fancy mask.
Though I could be wrong because I am busy here and just skimmed the article.
As others have said, using supplemental oxygen increases the partial pressure of oxygen in a climber’s lungs, allowing them to breathe normally despite the lower pressure. There is obviously a theoretical limit to the altitude you could reach using supplemental oxygen alone and beyond which you would need some sort of pressurization scheme, but I believe that altitude is higher than the summit of Everest*. Currently, climbers limit the degree to which they use supplemental oxygen they use because of the difficulty of getting it up to high altitudes, not because they are at the limits of where supplemental oxygen would be beneficial. If you could get more oxygen up to the high camps, climbers could use more supplemental oxygen which would improve their performance, no pressure suit required.
Furthermore, regarding using pressurized masks, I would point out that much of World War 2’s air battles were fought in unpressurized aircraft with aircrews who went from sea level to Everest-level and higher altitudes in a matter of hours wearing only pressurized face masks. For example, the oxygen system on the B-17 would pressurize and supplement such that the oxygen content breathed in by aircrews was equivalent to around 10,000 feet and was rated up to 40,000 feet. You’re right that you eventually need a pressurized suit or vessel, but it’s at a point much higher than merely Himalayan altitudes.
*In early high-altitude balloon experiments it was found that balloonists could reach 35,000 feet by breathing unpressurized pure oxygen. So that could be the limit of what altitude can be achieved by supplemental oxygen alone, although I don’t know if “reached” means the balloonists could survive comfortably for any length of time or merely that they didn’t die.