International Mountain Guides Oxygen Systems
by Eric Simonson
I started working on my own system in the early 1990's after I became dissatisfied with the service and accountability I was getting from foreign suppliers. Problems such as poorly fitted valves, lack of quality control, and unreliable shipping made me decide that I needed a system for our IMG Expedition teams that I could monitor and control at every step of the process. I wanted to know for sure what our teams were using and know for sure that it was going to work right!
Since 1991 IMG has used a system based on high tech carbon fiber wrapped aluminum cylinders made in California, USA. We have had great success with this system on many dozens of expeditions and gotten about 500 climbers to the summit of Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, and Everest. We currently own over 300 of these American made cylinders, and nearly 100 masks and regulators enough to simultaneously run multiple teams on Everest and Cho Oyu. Having a proprietary system means that no one will steal our bottles at the Balcony, South Summit, or high camps!
Unlike many companies that use cylinders that have been refilled in Nepal or India, we bring all our cylinders home to USA where they are inspected, tested, and refilled by our longtime IMG oxygen supplier, with whom we have worked for many years. Before filling they are chemically cleaned, valved with new burst disks, and then pressurized with aviation grade dehumidified oxygen. We know that everything will be handled correctly, with no shortcuts, and we can track each step in the process. The cylinders are hydro tested every 3 years, per USDOT regulations, and must be retired when they reach their lifespan, regardless of condition. To import the oxygen into Nepal we ship in compliance with USDOT regulations, and pay a garbage deposit to the Nepal Ministry of Tourism which is not refunded until the cylinders are re-exported from the country. Now, we must show the actual airway bill proving that we sent the cylinders out of Nepal before we can get our money back!
Our IMG cylinders hold 1800 liters, which is enough for 10 hours at 3 liters per minute (LPM). Each bottle and regulator weighs about 16lbs/7.3kg total. You will never carry more than this. For the summit bid on Everest we provide oxygen for sleeping at Camps 3 and 4 at 1 LPM and climbing during the day at 3LPM. This is considered quite a generous flow rate. Most climbers will use about 7200 liters total on the summit bid, from Camp 3 to the top and back to Camp 3, but we have more oxygen if necessary for emergency. For the climb to the summit you start with a full bottle at the Col and use about half of it on the way up to the Balcony (it is usually about a 5 hour climb to Balcony). You will switch to another full bottle at the Balcony and leave the half full bottle at Balcony for emergency back-up. Leaving the Balcony with a full bottle you go to the summit and back to the Col (normally this is about 8 hours). With our system you do not need to do a bottle change at the South Summit (there have been many cases of missing/lost/stolen bottles from here over the years). We also send backup oxygen, masks, regulators up high with the Sherpas for emergency. On summit bid we have additional Sherpas who will carry oxygen just up to the Balcony, and who will then come back to the Col to wait in reserve in case of emergency up high. This is an important safety aspect having climbers ready at the South Col to support.
For Cho Oyu we provide sleeping oxygen at Camp 3 and 1800 liters for summit day. Most climbers will find that this is enough to go from C3 to the Summit, and back to Camp 2 (10 hours at 3LPM).
Extra oxygen is available for both Everest and Cho Oyu climbers, but we need to know ahead of time; you cannot order "on the spot"! On Everest, you can get an additional cylinder at the South Col for $1500, and if you want to go on summit day at 4 liters/minute, you can have another cylinder carried to South Summit for $5000. On Cho Oyu we offer the additional oxygen as part of the "Personal Sherpa Option" ($7000). For this price you get a personal Sherpa guide and get to start on oxygen at Camp 2 (normally we start at Camp 3).
It is very important that climbers familiarize themselves with how the system works prior to plugging in at high altitude! In particular, switching bottles is notoriously difficult if it is cold, dark, windy, or snowing. With high-pressure oxygen any contamination in the valve or threads by dirt or ice can render the entire system unusable. Additionally, the risk of a devastating fire or explosion increases with any contamination or mistreatment of the valves or cylinders. This stuff needs to be handled carefully, and it is critical that climbers take the time to practice with the bottles. Out of thousands of cylinders which our teams have used over the years, we have never had a system failure. We HAVE had people make mistakes attaching regulators, adjusting flow rates, etc. Practice, Practice, Practice!
We will provide medical oxygen for emergency use and also additional oxygen to use for practice, especially to assist climbers in getting proficient with the arrangement of masks and goggles, and to understand how the mask will effect vision (it is harder to see your feet!) Again, it is critical that climbers have had the chance to practice with the oxygen system prior to the summit bid!
We've experimented with several different masks over the years, including British, American, and Russian varieties. For most climbers, our favorite mask is the TopOut system (www.topout.co.uk) made in the UK, and we will plan on providing a TopOut mask to each of our IMG climbers. The TopOut mask includes a patented reservoir system that enhances the efficiency of the mask, allowing climbers' oxygen to last longer and be more effectively utilized by the lungs. We have several different sizes available, for good fit. Most climbers will use a Medium or Small. The TopOut mask is built on the 3M R-6311 Respirator body and doing workouts at home with the 3M mask will simulate some of the issues using oxygen. Many climbers have asked about "practicing" at home with a mask, so you can check the fit of the mask and goggles. For climbers familiar with scuba diving, you will be reminded of the necessity to breathe easy and steady, don't pant, just focus on moving the air efficiently. The best mask for any climber is the one that fits the best, and this depends a lot on the bone structure of each climber's face. If the mask leaks, it causes the goggles to fog, which is a big problem. Beards are not recommended for good fit, and climbers are encouraged to shave for summit bids. IMG climbers can try several different types of masks to make sure they have one that works well for them.
We use regulators that give a wide range of flow rates, and we always make sure that every climbing team has back-up regulators with them in case there was ever a problem. Each regulator is provided with an extra "O" ring (these can be cut or damaged if climbers are not attentive on how the regulators are attached). We also provide plastic "splitters" which make it possible for climbers to share a bottle. This is useful for sharing a cylinder for sleeping in a tent, and also for an emergency.
Regarding the cleanup and removal of cylinders from the mountains, I'm happy to report that this problem has been largely remedied through the combined efforts of climbers and Sherpas, the Sagermartha Park on the Nepal side of Everest (which requires a deposit to be paid on cylinders), and the forces of the free market. IMG had paid thousands of dollars over the years to have bottles carried back down and re-exported to USA. We make every effort to recover 100% of our oxygen bottles. Ultimately, it makes good business sense to bring them down, since they can be re-filled. Our IMG teams have brought back to the USA most of the cylinders we have used in the past 20+ years.
Eric Simonson, IMG Himalayan Programs Director