The Physiologist Who Made Climbing to New Heights Possible

The Physiologist Who Made Climbing to New Heights Possible

Why you should care

Because the science behind heroes is nothing to scoff at.

When Michael Ward, doctor to the 1953 British expedition to Mount Everest, stood before the audience celebrating the 40th anniversary of the historic climb, he didn’t praise team leader John Hunt, as others had, or the climbers who’d reached the summit. Instead, after pointing out decades of unsuccessful British attempts full of talented and courageous men, he chalked up much of the expedition’s success to the scientific innovations of the wheelchair-bound gentleman relegated to the back of the lecture hall — the “unsung hero of Everest … Dr. Griffith Pugh.”

Ward’s remarks, made at the Royal Geographical Society of London, caught Harriet Tuckey, Pugh’s estranged daughter, off guard. Even friends, like Ward, who were quite fond of her dad would later tell her, “I would have thought as a father he would have been dreadful.” Never enamored of her distant parent, and only in attendance to help manage his wheelchair, her curiosity had nevertheless been stirred. Eventually, more than a decade on, she would research and write Everest: The First Ascent: The Untold Story of Griffith Pugh, the Man Who Made It Possible.

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Members of the 1953 Mount Everest expedition team.

Source Alfred Gregory/Royal Geographical Society

Everest had been an exclusive British playground before World War II — a place where men could prove their mettle and scoff at unmanly aids like supplemental oxygen or proper hydration. With the war’s end, that all changed. The Chinese blocked access from the Tibetan side, and to the horror of British alpinists, Nepal gave the Swiss climbing permission in ’52, before the next British attempt in ’53. The age of “beloved amateurs,” as Tuckey puts it, had come to an end.

Pugh gave the British climbers the reality check they needed. It wasn’t … their Britishness that got them to the top.

Guy Cotter, New Zealand climber

Enter Dr. Griffith Pugh, a physiologist with a special understanding of punishing high-altitude conditions. As a child and adolescent, while his parents were in India, he attended school in England. During breaks, with no nearby home to return to, Pugh spent his time skiing and climbing in the Swiss Alps. By the time he graduated from Oxford with a degree in medicine, he’d become an Olympic-caliber cross-country skier and an accomplished climber.

During the war, while stationed at Cedars Mountain Warfare Training School in Lebanon, Pugh was given the task of developing a “doctrine of mountain warfare” for the British military. He dove into the research, using soldiers as guinea pigs to come up with inventive ways to manage and maintain a fighting force at altitude. With the cessation of hostilities, he headed back to London to work for the Medical Research Council, where he would be tapped to help Britain literally climb to new heights.

The Swiss had no qualms about oxygen use, which meant the Brits would have to rely on more than mental and physical fortitude if they wanted to make the summit before anyone else. After a preliminary research run with Pugh in the Himalayas in ’52, Eric Shipton was replaced as team leader with John Hunt — a man who favored military-style logistics — on the condition that the expedition focus on Pugh’s scientific know-how and instruction. After the Swiss failed to reach the summit (a bit of schadenfreude there), Britain got another “first” crack at Everest.

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Athlete Bruce Tulloh runs at Twickenham using a breathing hose. The hose enabled Dr. Griffith Pugh (inside the car) to monitor Tulloh’s physical stress and endurance.

Source Getty

“Pugh gave the British climbers the reality check they needed. It wasn’t, they reluctantly discovered, their Britishness that got them to the top,” Guy Cotter, a New Zealand climber intimately acquainted with the mountain (he’s being played by actor Sam Worthington in the film Everest), tells OZY. Doubling the oxygen intake, adhering to the mantra of “climb high and sleep low,” redesigning boots and clothing to better combat the grueling conditions, and introducing a detailed diet for rationing high-altitude expeditions were just some of the changes Pugh brought to the team’s regimen.

The importance of staying hydrated, as advised by Pugh, became paramount, because hard physical exertion, combined with breathing in dry mountain air, often led to severe dehydration. Cotter knows from experience how important fluid intake (4-plus liters a day) is for high-altitude mountaineering. “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!” he says. “Dehydration causes the blood to thicken, putting more pressure on the cardiovascular system, and also an increase in the likelihood of frostbite, stroke, heart attack, et cetera.”

Sir Edmund Hillary (not a sir before ’53) took Pugh’s recommendations to heart to such an extent that when he and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit — the first climbers ever to do so — he admitted he had no choice but to “urinate on it.” Pugh’s impact on Himalayan climbing, as Tuckey describes, was “dramatic and immediate.” Thanks to his techniques, the world’s six highest peaks were conquered within three years of Everest, with many more soon to follow. Despite his success, his contributions were quickly shuffled aside in favor of the legend of the mighty alpinist. Even climbers who’d cooperated with the irascible, problem-solving Pugh, like Hillary, preferred to highlight their superman status — rather than the scientific advancement — in their grand achievements.

While many in the climbing world once sought to deprive Pugh of credit, a somewhat reluctant Hillary would, years later, confide to Tuckey: “Your father, in a way, made it possible to climb Everest.”

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