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Peak practice

Chris Mothersdale is gearing up to deliver the world's highest science lesson - on his way to the top of Mount Everest. Yolanda Brooks reports.

It takes more than a good mountaineer to make it to the top of Everest and back in one piece. As well as being in full control of your crampons, you need to be at peak physical fitness, have a sound knowledge of geology and physics, be able to predict unpredictable weather and have a strong nerve, a huge dollop of commitment and a little bit of luck. Physics teacher Chris Mothersdale believes he's up to the task.

In May, almost half a century after Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary made history, by being first to the summit in 1953, Mr Mothersdale will be attempting to reach the top of the world's highest mountain. But things will be very different to how they were then. Thanks to satellite technology, Everest climbers can now "phone" home and keep the world informed of their exploits via the internet. Chris will be making the most of the available communications technology but, unlike many of his modern-day peers, he won't just be the star of his own private adventure - his body will become the subject of a three-month online experiment to measure the physical effects of climbing Everest.

For the next 12 weeks he will be strapped to an array of devices that measure bodily functions including heart and breathing rates, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure and body and skin surface temperature. Once a week, the information will be relayed back to educational software publisher New Media in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, where staff will post the information on their website.

"I expect to come back in a worse state than when I go out," says Mr Mothersdale. "When students log on, they will be able to look at all the data and see how my body is reacting to the mountain. I hope it will add to their understanding of how we acclimatise, and that they will be able to see how science is used in the real world."

Mina Patel, a former biology teacher who used to work with Mr Mothersdale at Cannock Chase high school in Staffordshire, is co-ordinating the project for New Media. Not only will students be able to see how his body copes with the endurance test that is Everest, they will be able to keep tabs on his day-to-day routine in the weeks leading up to his summit bid.

Ms Patel hopes the immediacy of the expedition will have huge classroom appeal. She says: "This is a live science project, the kind of thing that doesn't come along very often. We've created a real project that pupils can follow and it will be completely different from just having a piece of paper with data on it."

While Mr Mothersdale will spend most of the time being the subject, he also plans to take charge and run a science lesson from the highest point possible, to which schools will be able to log on live. New Media has contacted the Guinness Book of Records, and, if all goes well, the lesson will go down as the highest terrestrial science lesson ever conducted.

Experienced mountaineers don't consider Everest a technical (difficult) climb - in fact many parts of the mountain can be tackled by people with limited climbing experience. The twin factors that make the mountain a killer are the extremes of weather and the high altitude - 28,029ft (8,848m).

The weather is so harsh on Everest that for much of the year climbing is impossible. A period in mid-to-late May, following the long winter but before the monsoon season sets in, and a few days in October are the main windows of opportunity for climbers. This is when Mr Mothersdale and a team of nine international climbers (plus the tour leader and his partner) will be making their bid for the top, in an expedition organised by specialist company Adventure Peaks.

Even if you can avoid the worst of the weather, frostbite, hypothermia and snowblindess, there's no getting away from the altitude. At the top of the mountain the oxygen available is one third that at sea level. Altitude sickness is felt from 8,000ft (2,400m). Even with oxygen tanks, the thin air is debilitating and the healthiest of climbers will feel the effects, which range from shortness of breath and headaches to loss of appetite and nausea.

Acute mountain sickness can be a killer, explains Mr Mothersdale. "At the bottom end of the scale it entails severe headaches as if someone is pummelling your head, feeling sick, being unable to keep anything down, being out of breath and feeling lethargic. It can progress into serious illnesses such as pulmonary, cerebral and retinal oedema (a dangerous collection of fluid in the lungs, brain or eyes)." At 10,000ft (3,048m), 75 per cent of people suffer mountain sickness.

Limited oxygen intake also inhibits mental agility and people have died on Everest because they haven't had the clarity of mind to get themselves out of trouble. It is no surprise, then, that the area of Everest over 25,000ft (7,600m) is known as the Death Zone - stay at that level for too long and you are certain to join the 172 people who are known to have died on the mountain.

"The majority of people who die on Everest do so on the way down, and I'm very aware of that," says Mr Mothersdale. "It boils down to having the common sense to do what you think is right for yourself. It does worry me, but you can only play it by ear."

Mr Mothersdale, 37, has been climbing for 14 years. He's a regular climber in the lakes and has climbed on snow and ice in Scotland. He has extensive climbing experience in the Alps and in the past three years he has climbed two uncharted Himalyan peaks - Koa Rang (5,800m) and Chalrula (6,529m). His experiences on snow and ice and the high-altitude climbing are good preparation for Everest, but they are not enough, and he has been putting in extra training that would make Lennox Lewis wince.

"I teach supply for a couple of days each week, near my home in Carlisle, and on those days I'll do two or three hours in the gym. I spend two days a week in the mountains, climbing or walking with a heavy rucksack, and for two days I'll go out on an eight or 10-mile run, and then do maybe 20 miles on the bike."

All the equipment he is taking up the mountain has been donated by companies. But the trip still doesn't come cheap, and he's meeting the pound;10,000 cost himself. The climbers will be starting off as a team, but will probably attempt the summit in pairs. There's a chance that he won't succeed in his quest but he says this will have no effect on his virtual lessons. "If I'm honest with myself, there's a good chance I might not get there. But all the information coming back is based on me getting higher and higher up the mountain, not necessarily on reaching the top."

Whether or not he reaches the roof of the world, just making the journey has been a long-term dream. "I never thought I'd have the money or the time to climb it. This is an opportunity I never thought I'd have." His attempt to climb Everest is also an opportunity for schools, at home and abroad, to add a little high adventure to their science lessons.

You can follow Chris Mothersdale's progress online at everest.asp. He flies out to Kathmandu next Thursday before travelling overland across the Himalayas to the first base camp at 5,200m. Data from the measuring equipment will be posted on the website every Wednesday afternoon. Schools will be able to enter a competition to find the best science investigation write-up. Winners of the competition, with separate categories for key stages, 2,3,4 and ASA2 level, will be rewarded with ICT equipment. Teacher's notes and free downloadable software will also be available on the site.Other useful websites:www.nationalgeographic.comeverest




1920 Members of a British expedition report seeing figures in the snow. Stories of the abominable snowman, or yeti, a monster said to inhabit the Himalayas, begin.

1921 First western summit attempt.

1923 While on a lecture tour in the United States, a reporter asks British climber George Mallory why he wants to climb Everest, and Mallory immortally replies: "Because it's there."

1924 Mallory disappears with another climber, Andrew Irvine, in what some people believe may have been the first successful attempt on the summit.

1953 First recorded ascent, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, using breathing equipment invented in the Second World War.

1978 First summit without oxygen.

1996 Worst year for fatalities - 15 dead.

2001 15-year-old Temba Tsheri of Nepal becomes the youngest person to reach the summit, and American Sherman Bull, at the age of 64, becomes the oldest.


* The Himalayan peak of Mount Everest was created 60,000,000 years ago.

* Its official height is 8,848m (29,029ft), although in 1999 climbers using global positioning systems measured the mountain at 8,850m (29,035ft).

* The mountain is "growing" by 4mm a year as forces within the earth push upwards.

* It straddles Nepal, where it is called Sagarmatna (goddess of the sky) and Tibet, where it is known as Chomolungma (mother goddess of the universe).

* It took its western name in 1865, after Sir George Everest - surveyor general of India from 1830-43 - who recorded the peak's location in 1841.

* Between 1922 and 2001, 172 people died climbing the mountain; around 120 bodies are still up there.

* 1,468 people have made the summit since 1953 - around 8.5 for every death.

* Everest has been called "the world's highest garbage dump". Routes are littered with discarded equipment, bottles and frozen human excrement. Later this year, American Bob Hoffman will lead "the Final Sweep", a litter-busting campaign that aims to remove the estimated 10 tonnes of rubbish that remain on Everest, and restore the peak to its pristine state in time for the 50th anniversary of the first successful climb.

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