Left for dead on the summit of Mount Everest with people stepping over his body and even reporting his death on the internet for his family to read inspired Ted Atkins to create a brand new oxygen (O2) mask and regulator system, which is now the go-to system for climbing at high altitude – and he has just returned from setting up what could be the highest O2 factory in the world.
Having been involved in high altitude mountaineering since 1983, in 1988 Atkins became involved in the O2 systems as a member of the Joint Services Team on Everest’s West Flank route. It was here he realised that the available systems were “not only wasteful, but dangerously inadequate”.
Serving 33-years in the Royal Air Force (RAF), leaving as an Aerosystems Engineering Officer, in 2001 he led the first RAF team to climb Everest, but he did not summit with the team because one of the team members got sick on the summit push. He lost the summit making the rescue.
Atkins returned to Everest in 2004 on his own to try and climb the mountain using his own equipment. He had fair experience of the systems available and thanks to his time in the RAF knew what he needed to do to make a better O2 delivery system.
“The idea came to me just a couple of days before we were due to set off for the summit. In truth I might have liked longer to trial this new invention that was going to change how the mountain was climbed and hopefully preserve my life, but I didn’t have enough time. So, I set off with a prototype system based on a condom inside a Coca-Cola bottle as the core component. They said I was mad and they said I would die,” Atkins said.
One of his cylinders went missing on the mountain and he was left for dead on the summit. “People stepped over my body and some kind person rushed to be the first to ‘blog’ my demise by satellite phone so my wife read of my death before I even knew I was dead. However, I did live to tell the tale, I was rescued by Mingma Sherpa and Andrew Lock. The speed of my ascent was noted by other climbers and I was asked by Jagged Globe to make commercial systems (without string or condoms),” he continued.
One year later and his system became the industry standard. Atkins set up a business in Nepal called Topout Oxygeneering and he continued to develop and improve the O2 systems used on Mount Everest and other high mountains.
“They say it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts but not on Everest. We don’t nearly climb Everest, we ‘Top Out’ or we fail. So, that’s where the company got its’ name from.”
At this time, it was considered that one in 10 people attempting to climb Everest would die trying. Since the introduction of Topout, Atkins has changed the statistic for climbing deaths with O2 from one in 10 to less than one in 700.
Atkins has recently returned from setting up a new O2 factory in Khumjung in the Khumba region of Mount Everest with Sysadvance, a technology-based company, developing and manufacturing equipment for gas generation and purification as well as supplying integrated solutions for gases and compressed air.
The O2 plant was supplied by Sysadvance and is capable of producing 50 l/min of O2 at 93% purity. After being produced, the O2 is compressed (using an O2 booster) and used to fill the small individual cylinders that climbers will use to help them breath while climbing to the top of the “world” and their return.
“These cylinders are used to climb Mount Everest 8848m. At the moment all the O2 cylinders are refilled in Kathmandu or flown to the USA or in the worst case we don’t know where? Many of the cylinders are old Russian stock without any indication of age or service. So, we are importing ‘safer’ cylinders from Poland and asking the Government here for regulations.”
“There have been problems with the O2 quality. It must be dry or the water content freezes in the regulators and stops them working, I know it happened to me. Now we control the quality of our gas, in our own cylinders with our own valves. Having the refill station at 4000m means it is closer to the mountain, but the real reason is that there is no road from Kathmandu so cylinders need to be flown up to Lukla which is as close as you can get.”
“Full O2 cylinders are Dangerous Air Cargo and should not be shipped by air so we are trying to prevent this by having our station beyond the airhead so there is no need to bring the cylinders back. We refill them and store them which is a huge stress buster for our clients,” Atkins explained.
Filipe Barbeiro, Sales Engineer at Sysadvance, said Atkins first contacted Sysadvance at the end of 2010. “We were discussing the project for some time and only after two years the project materialised. The installation was done in the first quarter of 2013 and has been working non-stop since then. Recently, we were in conversation with Ted in order to increment the O2 production capacity with the installation of a second O2 plant from Sysadvance.”
Atkins continued, “The site stands 4,000m above sea level and could be the highest O2 factory in the world. We don’t know for sure, but we don’t know of a higher one. The problems of producing O2 at this height are immense due to the thin air. I have only 600mb atmospheric pressure to work with as opposed to 1000. I have to build a supercharger to feed the compressor to fool it that it is at sea level!” Atkins explained.
“As an engineer my role is to assemble all of the equipment. Lots of the equipment we need is not mainstream, so I have to make much of what we need. We are very remote and cannot rely on spares support. This involves some old-fashioned engineering skills.”
“Everest season happens every Spring. The industry relies on us and the ‘show must go on’ so it needs very careful planning. For this we buy the best we can after careful research; it must keep working and we must have first class aftersales support which we have been getting from Filipe at Sysadvance. Our PSA unit had to be underslung as a load by helicopter as the only way to get it to location. It went wrong and ended up knocking down a stone wall before being dropped. This was a lot to deal with but with the support we got it working again,” he said.
As the station is located in such a uni que location, Atkins said there are a number of challenges he faces, “It is not just the machines that suffer from lack of air, we do too. It takes me at least three days to get to work and I have to walk for two days, often carrying my tools and other supplies. I have limited electricity to work with so I must plan the work schedule very carefully. Planning is everything.”
“Our first plan was to locate the unit much lower but after the airport so we still had that benefit. But, just before we shipped, we had a huge earthquake here which destroyed the village. We considered rebuilding but the power supply was no longer available so we ended up having to move where we could get power.”
Concluding, Atkins said, “Our strategic aim is to provide therapeutic O2 in the Khumbu region for all, not just the ‘big buck’ Everest climber but for everyone who needs it. We want O2 to be available for the trekking industry too. A trekker died recently below the Everest base camp who we feel could have been saved if O2 was available.”