Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Oxygen Mask Failure on Everest Prompts Recall

If you followed the 2018 Himalaya spring climbing season closely, you probably recall that several teams experienced failure to their oxygen masks during their summit push on the North Side of Everest. Both Furtenbach Adventures and Adrian Ballinger's Alpenglow Expeditions reported issues with their masks, although other teams experienced issues as well. Now, the manufacturer of those masks has issued a recall in order to replace a faulty part that seems to have been the cause of the failures. 

Alan Arnette, who was amongst the first to report the failures this past spring, has shared more information about the recall. He indicates that a faulty O-ring was the cause of the problem with the tiny, but crucial part experiencing a defect when experiencing high humidity at altitude. That combination of atmospheric conditions could reportedly break the O-ring itself, causing the oxygen mask to malfunction as a result. 

According to Summit Oxygen, the company that provides the masks and tanks for many of the teams on Everest, the masks themselves didn't actually fail and that much of the problem was due to "operator error" due to the faulty O-rings. I'm not sure exactly how the person using the oxygen mask can have an error when the O-ring breaks at altitude, but that is how the situation is being spun at least. Apparently, there was at least one error caused by a climber stepping on the oxygen tube with his or her crampons as well, puncturing the hose as a result. 

As Alan is quick to point out, there are a couple of things to keep in mind the help to put this all in perspective. First, only between 25-30 masks, out of 500-1000, actually experienced any problems. That's a fairly small amount, although not being able to breathe oxygen on Everest is always a scary proposition. He also indicates that all of the teams except Alpenglow had enough spare masks to continue their summit push without any issues. In the case of Alpenglow, the team retreated to Base Camp, but many of the clients were able to go back up the mountain a few days later and still summit as well. 

Summit Oxygen's Neil Greenwood reports that he is currently in Kathmandu retrofitting the company's current set of masks to ensure that this failure doesn't happen again. He also points out that the equipment was used on K2 this year without any problems. It seems that there were some very specific conditions, on one particular evening on Everest (May 15/16), where the failures occurred. With an updates O-ring design, this issue shouldn't happen again. Greenwood's statement about the masks can be found below:
"To update you on the situation regarding the regulator failures during the spring season 2018. We have concluded our investigation and having carried out extensive interviews with those affected and also those who thought they had been affected, it is now clear that approximately 25 – 30 regulators were affected all on one particular night (15th/16th May 18) with the exception of one incident where one individual was affected the following night (16th/17th May 18). The problem was without doubt caused by the high humidity levels in the atmosphere during that period (approximately 80% at one point) combined with miniscule leaks on one or both of the piston o-rings. This is further corroborated by the fact that there have been no previously reported cases of this nature and none since. The same equipment was used on K2 this year with no reported problems."

2 comments:

Daniel Walker said...

Oxygen Mask failure is a common issue that is faced by the trackers. Can you please suggest some measures or precautions steps when such things happens?

Kraig Becker said...

Not much to do when at high altitude, other than just turn around. You can of course, check to make sure the tank is turned on, still has oxygen, and that the regulators are working. But if the mask fails as in this story, time to head back to camp.