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 American Oxygen System By Eric Simonson November 2001

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.  In particular, I remember our 1989 Kanchenjunga expedition where we ended up at Base Camp with cylinders that had been valved incorrectly and wouldn’t fit our regulators!  If it hadn’t been for a generous Soviet team on the other side of the mountain that provided some extra cylinders, we would have had a huge problem.  On our 1991 Everest climb we used a novel British system that worked OK, except that we had a number of O ring failures with the regulators.  Problems such as these with misfitting valves, lack of quality control, and unreliable shipping made me decide that I needed a system for our IMG/Expedition 8000 teams that I could monitor and control at every part of the process. This includes selection, installation and testing of cylinders and valves, cylinder cleaning, filling with dehumidified oxygen at high pressure, the proper packing and shipping of the cylinders, custom clearance in Nepal and/or transit to Tibet, and the removal of cylinders from the mountains after the expeditions.

IMG/Expedition 8000 has used since 1994 an American system that I have developed.  We currently own well over 100 of these American made cylinders, enough to simultaneously run Everest North, Everest South, and Cho Oyu (which we did in Spring 2001).  Many other groups use the various Russian type systems that have certainly worked well for them, and have their own advantages and disadvantages.  One advantage of having your own system, though, is that we use different regulators, which makes it less likely that our cylinders will be stolen or pilfered by other expedition teams on the mountain!

We start with Kevlar or carbon fiber wrapped aluminum cylinders made in California with a volume of about 525 cu in.  Before use they are chemically cleaned, valved, and then pressurized with dehumidified oxygen to 3000 psi.  The full cylinder weighs about 17 pounds, and holds over 1800 liters of oxygen (750 liters of O2 gas weighs about 1 kg).  This is enough for 10 hours at 3 LPM, 15 hours at 2 LPM, 30 hours at 1 LPM.  These cylinders are heavier than the Russian bottles, but climbers do not need to switch bottles so often since they hold a lot more gas. 

For these to be legally shipped by air they must be packaged in special boxes and dangerous cargo paperwork and documentation must be accomplished.  Since the ValueJet crash in Florida a few years ago, caused by mishandled oxygen equipment, we can no longer take dangerous goods directly to the airlines, but must work through a Federally licensed dangerous goods freight handler.  Oxygen can be flown on a passenger jet (unlike propane canisters, which must go on a freighter aircraft), as long as the total quantity of gas in each baggage hold does not exceed specifications for various aircraft.  Thus, to ship a large quantity to Kathmandu, it might take several different flights.

In Kathmandu, the gas cylinders either clear Nepal customs (duty paid at this time for use in Nepal), or go to a bonded warehouse for transit to Tibet (for Cho Oyu, Everest North, Shishapangma).  Transit requires special permits from several Nepal ministries, a process that takes some time to complete.  If the stuff is going to Tibet, it must go in a bonded truck to the border and we must deal with both Nepal customs at Tatopani and finally the Chinese customs at Zhangmu, where duty is ultimately paid on the cylinders, since they are considered a “consumable” item.

The actual use of oxygen on the mountain is based on the expedition philosophy.  In addition to emergency medical oxygen, we usually make O2 available to our IMG teams on Cho Oyu above C3 at 24,500, on the North Side of Everest starting at C5 at 25,500, and on the South Side of Everest starting at C3 at 24,500.  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!

We use regulators that give a wide range of flow rates.  For sleeping, most climbers will use 0.5 or 1.0 LPM, for moderate climbing something like 2.0 or 2.5 LPM, and for going hard on summit day, will turn up to 3.0 LPM or so.  Much more than this just wastes oxygen.  We’ve experimented with several different masks over the years, and have yet to find one that we are entirely happy with.  It depends a lot on the bone structure of each climber’s face, to see what will give a good fit.  If the mask leaks a lot, it causes the goggles to fog, which is a big problem.  We currently have British, American, and Russian masks, and we encourage everyone to try on different ones to see what works best for them.

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 Sagamartha Park on the Nepal side of Everest (which requires a deposit to be paid on cylinders), and the forces of the free market.  Thanks to several cleanup expeditions, many of the bottles from the South Col have been carried down, and now many teams pay a bounty to their Sherpas to recover cylinders.  We were amazed on the North Ridge in 2001, when looking for bottles to carry down and bring home for some of our sponsors (they make great souvenirs) that most bottles below Camp 6 were gone.  Ultimately, it makes good business sense to bring them down, since they can be re-filled.  Our IMG / Expedition 8000 teams have brought back to the USA most of the cylinders we have used in the past decade.  We have them chemically cleaned, re-valved with new burst disks, hydro tested if required, and refilled for the next trip.

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