So You Want to Climb Mt. Everest?

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Bret GilliamMany divers who emerge from initial diving certification programs with an “open water” certification choose not to pursue further formal training, going forward by acquiring practical experience though their diving activities. Often, this works well since practical “real life” experience arguably is just as relevant in producing a qualified diver. At least, in warm water, and under not-too-difficult, conditions.

Many traveling divers are 55 years or older now in today’s demographic. For some, sport diving was still in its infancy when they decided to jump in. A single “checkout” dive satisfied the criteria for a c-card and they went on to enjoy the sport without ever dipping a fin back into a training program.  While certification agencies would now prefer that divers progress at least partly through an enhanced system of ratings, there is no requirement that they actually do so.

Still, with age and prosperity also comes limitations that should be recognized as serious considerations. The 55-year-old plus diver has to take into account the realities of aging that include reduced stamina, possible high blood pressure, cardiac problems, reduced flexibility and mobility, arthritic joints, vision and hearing loss, deteriorated muscular strength, postoperative limitations, side effects of required medications, and general reduced physical fitness. Of course, there are exceptions to such broad-based generalities, but within the general population I’m identifying, possible limitations exist that can affect their fitness to dive. Hey, I’m soon to be 60 and certainly am aware that I’m not the specimen I was even in my forties and diving was my full time profession until just recently when I sold the last of my diving companies. I’m still active in diving, usually at remote areas of the Indo-Pacific, but I remain mindful of personal limits that simply are part of the aging process.

Older divers may be perfectly fine with their original training and the life experience they have acquired through continuing dive participation if they recognize their limitations and restrict their diving to environments and situations suitable. But if they want to indulge some more rigorous or technically challenging diving activities, then seeking out the proper training before jumping off to dive the Andrea Doria would generally be a pretty good idea.

Herein also lies a problem that has increasingly raised its ugly head. I call it the “Into Thin Air” mentality. This references the account of the multiple fatal tragedies that occurred on a series of May 1996 expeditions to summit Mt. Everest as chronicled in Jon Krakuer’s book of the same name. The lesson from that tragic year was that there were a lot of amateur climbers on the mountain who shouldn’t have been there. But they had the financial resources to pay the hefty expedition fees and figured the alpine guides would look after them in spite of any limitations they might have. One woman climber even paid extra to be “short-roped” to the summit, a practice wherein she had a Sherpa essentially drag her up the face of Everest on a tether. When a series of unexpected weather conditions occurred, several amateur climbers died along with the professional guides who tried to save them.

In recent years, some of the same issues have sharply arisen within the diving industry as well-intended, but perhaps under-qualified, folks have signed up for diving expeditions that turned out to be beyond their capabilities. Most operators have screening processes designed to determine the applicants’ expertise in advance. Typically, this requires an application that details training, diving experience, medical history, fitness to dive, etc. This should work well, in theory. The breakdown occurs when divers misrepresent their diving skills and/or medical fitness. This is tough for an operator to determine and, of course, there is the underlying element of wanting to procure a well-paying customer for these exotic trips. So sometimes, the screening process breaks down. Some divers get injured or die, while the lucky ones have close calls or got scared out their wits when the harsh reality of field conditions catch up with them and they are unable to cope.

I’ve experienced exactly these scenarios myself with customers who were so motivated to go on a demanding dive trip that promised a chance to swim with hammerheads, dive deeper wrecks or use more technical equipment such as rebreathers that they let their enthusiasm overcome their common sense. And although they looked good on paper from their applications and came across convincingly in phone interviews, in far too many instances I was being deceived.

Consider a couple of real-life examples that I had to deal with in the last decade: a 58-year-old who didn’t feel it necessary to disclose that he had only one lung, a 46-year-old who was in such poor physical condition that she couldn’t climb back aboard the dive launch without assistance (and this was with no equipment on!), a 64-year-old with a history of four cardiac events in the last two years, a 55-year-old who was sufficiently obese that he could not reach down to put his own fins on, a 52-year-old taking three antidepressant medications with a recent suicide attempt, a 57-year-old in such poor shape he couldn’t swim from the stern to the bow line of a 20-foot dive launch to reach the descent line.

While the above citations are daunting, they were unknown to me or my staff until we had to engage in rescues. But the worst offender was a robust 26-year-old male in great shape who signed up in 2002 to dive rebreathers at Cocos Island. We required a minimum of 150 logged dives, prior experience on liveaboards, current conditions, Nitrox certification, and decompression ratings. He claimed to have all the requisites and promised to bring his Nitrox card with him to evidence that training since he was just completing that program. However, when he showed up with a forged Nitrox card (determined later) and a “pencil-whipped” log book showing 200 some dives in a variety of challenging conditions, he appeared to meet our criteria. Only when we observed him having trouble assembling his standard open circuit scuba gear during an orientation dive and could not figure out how to read his computer did he finally confess that he had only recently completed his basic scuba training and had actually done only seven dives total. He figured diving at Cocos was just another extreme sport merit badge that he could bluff his way through and the staff would baby sit him through any problems. Of course, we shut him down completely and he spent ten days at Cocos getting a suntan but not getting wet.

Incredible? Yes. But the frequency of such misrepresentations is more than occasional. It’s happening more and more and has caused many operators to adopt far more stringent screening and risk management policies. (All this narrative doesn’t address the other issue that’s like the “elephant in the room”: some operators are not doing their best to screen out divers who may not be sufficiently qualified. This is due to current economic pressures to grab every customer who can pay the fare. An examination of some recent fatalities and accidents have confirmed this practice. This is not the way to increase your business bottom line… it’s the way into costly legal litigation, increased insurance premiums for all operators, and trip for some folks to the morgue.)

There’s nothing wrong about wanting to expand your diving universe, no matter what age. But you owe it to yourself and to the dive operator to be completely candid about your experience and any limitations you may have. Don’t figure you can bluff you way though a ripping current or a decompression ceiling if you don’t have the prior experience or training.

There are a great variety of focused advanced training programs that can ease your way into gaining the experience and expertise to participate in more challenging dives.  While it’s difficult to define really what an advanced diver might be, I think any modicum of common sense would suggest that less than 10-12 total experiences in anything would hardly meet any reasonable definition of ”advanced.” Would you consider yourself an advanced skier with 10 runs down the mountain? How about an advanced driver rating with 10 trips around the neighborhood following driver education classes?

It’s your life on the line and the ocean can be a very unforgiving place to play chicken in traffic. You can also risk the lives of fellow divers who may need to forsake their safety to attempt to rescue you. I had to break off my own decompression a few years ago to surface and rescue a diver who had incurred a deco obligation and then surfaced anyway because he couldn’t understand his computer readout. Ironically, although I dragged him back down to complete his deco and an extra margin for his omitted deco profile, he emerged unscathed and I got bent. Luckily, the vessel had a great supply of oxygen and I could treat myself in the field.

Some trips that offer incredible thrills such as Cocos’ schooling hammerheads or Truk Lagoon’s deeper wrecks require rigorous specialty training, both academically and in assimilating the procedures for using more complicated equipment. Rebreathers are a prime example. By comparison, open circuit equipment is fairly simple and relatively fool-proof. If you don’t turn the valve on, the regulator won’t breathe and that’s a fairly obvious problem. But in rebreathers, you can actually breathe through the closed or semi-closed loop without turning the gas supply on. There is no immediate warning that things are amiss until you pass out from hypoxia. Rebreathers have demanding and unforgiving maintenance regimes as well as lengthy check lists before diving. If you’re not willing to make a commitment to taking on the added responsibility that such equipment requires, then stay on open circuit.

Be up front with your instructor about your physical condition, experience and your motivation for seeking the training. Sometimes the most valuable lesson to be learned is that you shouldn’t be placing yourself in an environment that exceeds your ability or comfort zone.

Most of all, if you’re going to seek more challenging diving, you must recognize the absolute need to be capable of independent skills that allow you deal with contingencies on your own since site conditions can frequently place you in situations where the only help you’re going to get is going to come from your own actions.

I love the passion and enthusiasm that middle-aged and older divers bring to the sport. And I’ll go out of my way to include them in any training program or far flung expedition for which they qualify. But let’s also stop the rush to jump off into the deep end solely for a cheap thrill that might be your last.

I remember forty years ago when I was part of a Navy deep diving team working filming submarines passing by us at high speeds from about 20 feet away. The diving officer reminded us that the key to the generous retirement programs and hazardous pay bonus was surviving that long. It was good advice then. And still is.

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So You Want to Climb Mt. Everest?, 4.5 out of 5 based on 40 ratings
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6 comments for “So You Want to Climb Mt. Everest?

  1. Stephen Pahl
    March 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Adding to Bret’s story, I recall on a Bret trip to Cocos a diver whom everyone knew was way out of his league and everyone avoiding him in fear of the “accident.” His story doesn’t effect just operators and trip planners. It also affects fellow divers.

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  2. Rich Jacoby
    March 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Right on, Bret. One point to touch on is regular exercise. You know my age – 80 – and I couldn’t even consider diving if I hadn’t begun a regular workout program 40 years ago. It’s paid off. Now, though, I have to think seriously about how much more I can do: like another trip to Raja Ampath, which I dove three years ago. But no more tech stuff for me. Just nitrox.

    Stay fit, Bret – and everyone. It’s the only way to go to keep diving into those “glorious” sunset years.

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  3. March 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Right on! I kept waiting for the punch line – for those of us old enough to remember, “There are bold divers and there are old divers, but there are no old, bold divers.”

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  4. John Tobin
    March 25, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Very encouraging blog. At 56 and relatively new to diving (3 yrs) I often wondered how long I can do it. Thanks to Rich Jacoby’s story, I got plenty of time, God willing! Excuse me while I’ll I get to my exercise routine. Thanks Bret!

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  5. Mary Wicksten
    April 25, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    My problem is beach diving while wearing a 1/4 inch wet suit. There is just no way I can balance on one foot to put on fins in the surf zone while wearing the tank, weights and that HOT suit. A dry suit requires even more weight, so it’s boat diving for me. (My neutral buoyancy is good). There also is just NO WAY that I can haul myself, the tank, a weight belt, etc. over the side of an inflatable boat–I need help or a side line to which I can tie my gear. Relax, dive guides–I have not the slightest intention of diving in honking currents in the northern Galapagos, Cocos Island or one of the other places where people go just to see big fish.

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  6. January 23, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    Join us on a 2013 Cocos Island HH Shark and Sea Turtle Tagging Expedition on UnderSea Hunter’s biggest, newest vessel, Argo and its 3 person submersible. May be tax deductible. See http://www.SeaTurtles.org/expedition or email me at TSteiner@SeaTurtles.org

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