|Every summer, Dr. Peter Hackett, a physician and leading researcher on the physiological and psychological effects of altitude, abandons the comforts of warmth and ground level stability to spend two grueling months some 14,000 feet up Mount Denali, the highest mountain in North America and the coldest in the world. Hackett, accompanied by a team of six, resides and works in a University of Alaska research facility consisting of a cluster of small buildings erected on a large glacier on Denali that takes up to a week to reach by climbing. Trapped in arctic isolation for eight brutal weeks, team members must secure themselves with rope while walking about the compound, so as to prevent themselves from tumbling into a crevasse, and the bleak white frozen oblivion. This isn't the Hollywood special effects action movie version of mountain climbing seen in "Cliffhanger" and "Vertical Limit." Hackett's is a dangerous, ongoing quest for science and adventure, not a snowy thrill ride featuring Sly Stalone or Chris O'Donnell.
Hackett, an experienced climber who has scaled Everest twice, first became interested in the phenomenon of altitude sickness as a helicopter rescue doctor in the Himalayas. In response to the scarcity of scientific literature on the subject, Hackett spent fifteen years researching and authoring over fifty papers on hypoxia, a low level of blood oxygen that effects climbers and mountain populations. Hackett became interested in the effects of extreme cold while working on frigid Denali. He describes the unique stresses that the extreme cold and altitude exert and the appeal of the extreme setting: "You are very much at the mercy of the elements up here. You can get depressed after four or five days of hundred-mile-an-hour winds that keep you from going out and doing anything. There's nothing more unnerving than trying to get a little sleep inside your tent with your boots on and your ice ax next to you - if the tent explodes in the wind, you want to be prepared to smash it to the snow immediately so that you don't get blown away. Those kinds of stresses can be very trying, [b]ut ... [w]hat's most impressive is the absolute lack of most life forms - no plants, insects or mammals, and birds rarely. There's only ice and rock, yet there are moments of intense appreciation of the raw beauty of this austere environment."
The range of physiological and physical effects of high altitudes is an unpredictable science, evidenced by Hackett's own spectrum of experiences. Upon arrival at the research facility 14,000 feet above sea level, Hackett feels lethargic a somewhat dizzy, often followed by vomiting and a "terrible" first night. "In a few days I feel better," explains Hackett, "and eventually I feel good." At higher altitudes, however, thinking gets muddled. "Near the summit of Everest, I was sure that if I jumped off, I would be able to fly," says Hackett. "I caught myself ... being inappropriately euphoric, and bit my cheeks and slapped my face to cause enough pain to snap me out of it. But it was a very real sensation - I truly felt that no harm could come to me. Even lower down, when cerebral function starts to deteriorate, the ability to remember, discriminate, and perform tasks quickly becomes impaired. Then you breathe a little artificial oxygen, and all of the sudden, you're much smarter."
Above all, Hackett must stay in control of his team in the extreme conditions, acting as an effective leader with a clear head and a well-honed survival instinct. "In a tough environment like a climb, you need to be able to say, 'God, this is incredibly stressful,'" says Hackett. "'No wonder we're feeling pushed to the max. It's minus forty and we don't have a stove and we ran out of fuel. If we don't figure out a plan, we could die.' This is an extreme example, but it has happened to me more than once. In that situation, a group can pull it together because there's a common goal and survival comes first." Evidence that Dr. Hackett possesses leadership skills to complement his mastery of the cold and altitude of his near-stratospheric lab, and his uncompromising dedication to the pursuit of science. Peter Hackett, M.D. goes to extremes and excels.