How can Climbing Everest, Covid-19 and Pulse Oximeters have anything to do with each other?

When we walked up to Everest Base Camp last year, every day finished with a passing around of the pulse oximeter to check our heart rate and oxygen saturation.

If I had been on Everest this year as planned, I would of been checking myself and the team as we headed up and down on our rotations on the mountain. I’d know we were all ready to go for the top once our Base Camp stats were close to our sea level stats, usually after a climb to Camp 3 several weeks into the expedition and a return back to Base.

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A well acclimatized team at the Everest Base Camp coffee bar. Conrad Anker (left), arriving after his 4-day hike up from Lukla, Dr. Monica Pris and Adrian Ballinger. Mystery man right – I really must find out his name?



When Covid-19 came along, I was all ready to go Guide on Everest for Jagged-Globe and had already started checking my pulse at home as part of my training. So I just kept doing it.

If every morning I could wake up and find my pulse nice and low and my oxygen saturation at 99%, so much the better. Having a low pulse would give me more room to move at high altitude. It is not uncommon to have a resting pulse of 95 or more and oxygen saturation in the 60’s at the South Col‎ at 7,906 m (25,938 ft), so at least starting out with a low heart rate and good oxygen saturation helps.


At 8,000 meters without oxygen on Everest’s North Ridge, heart rate 165 and oxygen saturation of 63, and still moving, barely.  Very isolated and probably very few viruses around.


Like practically everyone else this year I am of course stuck at home, though I just kept using the pulse oximeter when the Everest season was cancled, as it seemed to make sense.

If my pulse was steady and low it meant I was unlikely to be fighting an infection. If my oxygen saturation was steady and high, it was pretty unlikely my lungs were in any way affected.

As I watched the torrent of Covid-19 news roll in, suddenly there was talk of the value of our little pulse oximeter readings being used to help track the advance of Covid-19.

Many of us working as Mountain Guides have been using pulse oximeters for years as part of our high altitude protocol with our groups. The renowned high altitude specialist Dr. Peter Hackett ran a seminar for our American Mountain Guides Association annual conference several years back. He ran through his latest findings and outlined the proper use of pulse oximeters and their importance in the mix of symptoms we track at altitude.

While pulse oximeters and heart rate will only be part of any health equation, they can be a very valuable one. And it is important to know that what happens at altitude is not what happens with Covid-19, nor is the treatment the same. But running low on oxygen saturation is never a good thing for the human body, and knowing where you are at can certainly be useful.

On our hike in to Everest Base Camp last year, Peter Hillary and I put our daughters Lily and Phoebe in charge of circulating around our group of 18 each evening to give us an idea of how everyone was feeling. Coupled with the Lake Louise altitude chart and a simple scoring system, it was an easy way to get an overview of any developing physical ailments as we walked up the trail.

Like any group, the readings varied quite widely, but overall the trend let us know how people were feeling. It takes the “I just feel lousy,” comment and puts it in context and allows us to know how better to react and treat people as we marched up the trail.

Lily Hillary (left) and Phoebe Anderson, our high altitude nurses and keepers of all the stats as we hiked up to Everest Base Camp with The Mountain Company.

So if you happen to have a pulse oximeter in your first aid kit, and can’t reach the heights this year, you can always wake up and check your pulse and oxygen saturation and have a sense of how you may be doing.

It can’t hurt and it is not like there is whole lot else to do. And if your heart rate starts dropping due to some added long distance training, and your aerobic capacity increases, it can only be a good thing when we can go back to the heights.

If you are interested in the latest technology, Wired Magazine covers some of the latest and the addition of a rudimentary pulse oximeter you can now get on a Garmin Watch.

Everest, South summit, sunrise
The first hint of sun, from just below the south Summit, Everest.