Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Limits of Pain - Irukandji Syndrome

"I didn't think it was possible for anyone to endure that level of pain
without turning into a vegetable..."

-Irukandji victim

Great Barrier Reef, northern Australia. Enveloping thousands of kilometers of the Queensland coastline, the largest reef in the world attracts tourists in their millions every year to marvel at the incredible coral features, miles of unspoilt beaches, and to snorkel and scuba dive in its lazuline waters.

But any visit to the shore of Queensland brings unrelenting reminders that this idyll comes with a price. During the peak of its high season between december and january, many tourists are surprised to find endless beaches closed, dotted with vague warning signs. A return to the popular seaside resorts finds tiny portions of beach equipped with buoyed net enclosures, a half-hearted compromise for intrepid bathers in a season where the sea itself has become a threat.

Beyond the delicate mesh of the nets, the sea wasps have arrived. Jellyfish, of all shapes and sizes, are drawn to the shallow waters near the coast where their prey of small fish is plentiful and more easily caught.

Infamous among them and seen to the left is the lethal Box jellyfish, chironex fleckeri, considered to be one of the most venomous creatures on earth. Its powerful sting gives instant and excruciating pain, affecting the heart and nervous system in ways capable of killing an adult human in a matter of minutes. Survivors are often left with horrible scarring as if severely burned.

The stinger nets turned out to be a crude but effective solution against the chironex fleckeri. Because it often grows as big as a human head, the mesh would easily keep it, along with sharks and other marine predators, from coming in contact with the swimmers within. Tourists could feel safe, and injuries were largely prevented.

That is, until reports started coming in of a whole new set of symptoms. Rumors told of a sting that was hardly even felt, that left no mark on the skin, and that, 20 minutes later, started its sinister effect on the body with overpowering nausea. And then pain. Unimaginable, unwavering pain. Pain so severe, the mere sustained shock of it could prove fatal.

Something was slipping through the fine mesh of the protective nets, and it would take years of detective work to track down the tiny, invisible creature behind the new attacks. Heart attacks and similar conditions were often blamed in the case of tourists; in scuba divers, decompression sickness was suspected. When the news finally broke, the unassuming, anonymous nature of the elusive culprit only added to the terror.

Carukia barnesi - the ancient Irukandji jellyfish. The size of a man's thumbnail with four tentacles only a few inches long, it is effectively transparent and impossible to see or avoid. Its venom is 100 times as potent as a cobra's, and only the minuscule amount injected in each sting keeps the jellyfish from being the top killer of the Queensland shore. But in a diabolical twist, while its venom might be unlikely to kill outright, it has been known to make its victims long for the respite of death as an end to its unbearable pain.

“The symptoms overwhelm you. On a pain scale of 1 to 10,
it rated between 15 and 20...”

- Irukandji victim

It is likely that the pain from an Irukandji sting ranks among the most intense and excruciating agonies possible to experience - skirting the actual limits of maximum pain. With the soaring blood pressure, profuse sweating and frantic cramps, some bodies simply buckle under the pressure of the unrelenting torment, with brain hemorrhages and heart attacks having been documented as a result. Victims report wanting to rip their own skin off, begging doctors to be killed just to be put out of their misery. A female victim elaborates, "It's like when you're in labor, having a baby, and you've reached the peak of a contraction—that absolute peak—and you feel like you just can't do it anymore. That's the minimum that [Irukandji] pain is at, and it just builds from there."

"I don't think anything can prepare you for it. It comes in these sorts of crazy waves of pain, which increase in intensity
until you get to the point where you just can’t handle it..."

- Irukandji victim

Dr Peter Fenner is Australia's leading expert on the grouping of symptoms that later came to be known as Irukandji syndrome. What he tells of the course of the symptoms shows that the Irukandji has further tricks up its sleeve than the mere pain: "You get cramping in the muscles of the legs, moving up into the abdomen, into the chest, into the arms," says Dr Fenner. "It's the really severe cramping pains that people become totally distraught by. It comes in waves, rather like labour pain, getting stronger and stronger. You need vast doses of morphine to control the pain. Victims get a really severe headache and begin vomiting. They feel absolutely dreadful. A feeling of impending doom is how they describe it".

Disturbingly, Irukandji venom seems to affect the mind as well. Victims report a sense of being certain that the pain will kill them, that death is inevitable, compounding the overwhelming stress of the experience. No antivenom exists, and in some cases not even the strongest painkillers can take the edge off the torturous suffering. Because Irukandji syndrome, though temporary and rarely lasting longer than a few days, has such a varied and unpredictable progression, complete sedation is extremely risky, leaving no other course for victims than be left alone to face the onslaught head-on, writhing in torment at the limits of pain.

Online documentary:
Killer Jellyfish (two scientists are stung and filmed suffering the agony of Irukandji syndrome)
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Tuesday, 7 December 2010


Vast thanks to ziggykorn1 for suggesting/featuring me at, waking up to 80,000 new hits on my unknown blog was just outrageously enjoyable. I even had to upgrade to Photobucket Pro thanks to the reddit crowd!

Anyway, I hope some of you stick around; weirdly enough I've recently been toying with ideas for new articles for the first time since april and was just about to start writing again.

I have to say I think it's just brilliant how engaged everyone is. "Abandoned on Everest" obviously touches on gray area ethics and there are no right answers. Welcome back to all of you, and expect more.


Monday, 5 April 2010

Abandoned on Everest

In 2006, a lone climber attempting the summit of Mount Everest for the third time was, purely by chance, caught in an amateur photograph taken by another climber of the scenic mountaintop ahead. The climber in the photograph was making his way up what is known as the Final Push of the Northeast ridge, between Camp VI at 8,230 m and the summit. It was late in the afternoon, a foolishly reckless time to undertake the lengthy and dangerous route.

It would be many hours before the the photographer and his climbing team saw the man again. Leaving the camp at the recommended time, shortly before midnight in order to reach the summit at daybreak, they were first in line of a total of roughly 40 climbers attempting the Final Push that day. A long train of men, all tethered to the lengths of rope permanently in place to keep climbers on the right track.

For decades, this rope had taken climbers within a few feet of what became known as Green Boots cave. A small limestone overhang located at 8500 m, it was already infamous among climbers for the same reason it earned its nickname. For the past ten years, the body of a climber who died in 1996 has been a grim landmark for every climber of the Northeast route, lying curled up in the fetal position, wearing fluorescent green mountaineering boots.

This morning, however, Green Boots had company. Sitting no more than two feet to the left of the corpse was a man who at first glance appeared to be dead. His gloved hands were on his knees, his hood and hat cast his face in shadow. The only feature visible was the man's severely frostbitten nose, already a greenish black hue. On closer inspection, the vapor from the man's breath could be seen rising.

What happened next entered the folklore of the highest mountain on earth. Every man interviewed gives a different story. What is certain is that every single one of the 40-odd climbers attempting the summit that day left the man in the cave, whose name was David Sharp, to freeze, either by choice, by ignorance, or by misjudging him as a corpse they already expected to see in that infamous cave.

While chilling in itself, the incident pales in the bigger context of the deadliness of Mount Everest. For every ten climbers who have ever reached the summit, the mountain has claimed one of them. In the 56 years since the first men in history reached the top, 216 people have died, and the grim reality of the horrific conditions of the Final Push is that 150 bodies have never been, and likely can never be, recovered. They are all still there, and located, almost without exception, in the Death Zone.

Above a certain altitude, no human can ever acclimatize. Known as the Death Zone, only on 14 mountains worldwide can one step beyond the 8000 meter mark and know that no amount of training or conditioning will ever allow you to spend more than 48 hours there. The oxygen level in the Death Zone is only one third of the sea level value, which in simple terms means the body will use up its store of oxygen faster than breathing can replenish it.

In such conditions, odd things happen to human physical and mental states. A National Geographic climber originally on Everest to document Brian Blessed's (ultimately botched) attempt at summiting, described the unsettling hallucinogenic effects of running out of oxygen in the Death Zone. The insides of his tent seemed to rise above him, taking on cathedral-like dimensions, robbing him of all strength, clouding his judgement. Any stay in the Death Zone without supplementary oxygen is like being slowly choked, all the while having to perform one of the hardest physical feats imaginable.

Lack of oxygen and treacherous terrain are not the only challenges on Everest, however. Ascents are very rarely attempted outside a very short window between May and June when conditions are at their absolute best, with average temperatures of -27 degrees celcius, and 50 mph winds. But Mount Everest is so high that the top actually penetrates into the stratosphere, where winds known as Jet Streams can flow up to 200 mph, driving temperatures down to minus 73 degrees celcius.

Any exposed skin at high altitudes, even at the best of conditions, are prone to frost bite. A reaction to extreme cold, frost bite starts when blood vessels in the skin contract to preserve core body temperature, in conditions where normal blood flow would lead to the body cooling dangerously fast.

Over time, if the exposed areas of skin are not heated, the lack of blood flow causes tissue death and, even if reheated, gangrene. At this stage, amputations are common.

Climbers are by no means ignorant of these facts. They are reiterated in every source, in every article, and somehow adds to the dangerous allure of the mountain.

But in the words of David Brashears, five time summiteer of Everest, "there had been nothing in my training to prepare me to pass through the open graveyard waiting above."

The case of Hannelore Schmatz is an infamous one. On October 2, 1979, after a successful summit, and for reasons unclear, she died of exhaustion 100 meters short of reaching Camp IV. For years, any climber attempting the southern route could see her body, sitting, leaning against her backpack with her eyes open and brown hair blowing in the wind. Despite being so exposed and so visible along the well-trodden climbing route, rescue operations are virtually suicidal in the Death Zone. A Nepalese police inspector and a Sherpa who tried to recover Hannelore's body in 1984 both fell to their deaths. It was finally high winds that blew her remains over the edge and down the Kangshung face.

An area along the northeast route to the summit has earned the unassuming nickname of "Rainbow Valley", simply because of the multicolored down jackets of the numerous corpses littering the hillside. Even in the harsh conditions of lethal altitudes, corpses can remain for decades, some appearing frozen in time with climbing gear intact.

Brashears explains, "Despite the snow and ice, Everest is as dry as a desert, the sun and wind quickly mummify human remains." The picture below serves as an example, it shows the corpse of mountaineer George Mallory, lost on Everest in 1924, and the state in which it was found in 1999 after 75 years exposed.

No study has ever been done on the causes of death on Everest, what it is that makes people sit down and give up sometimes within shouting distance of safety. But climbers refer to a kind of confrontation with fear that they experience at a certain point up the mountain. The realization that, not only will you not be able to help anyone else in trouble, but if you mess up, in any way, no one will likely be able to help you either.

Media term it "summit fever", the apparent callousness that drives mountaineers to disregard ethics on their Everest ascents, sometimes literally climbing over dead bodies to reach their goals. But whatever the preparation and outlandish cost, perhaps it's not simply ruthless determination that makes someone abandon their team mates, and yet still have the energy to summit. In such alien conditions, utterly hostile to human life, climbers might face their own mortality. Under the spectre of pure, unadulterated fear, they must realize that they are beyond help as well as beyond helping anyone else.

If they don't, they fall among those who never leave, abandoned on Everest.

Online Documentaries:
Dark Side of Everest:
Dying For Everest:

Monday, 29 March 2010

Zone of Alienation

In the aftermath of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history, when the severity of the fallout started dawning on Soviet officials, it was realized that parts of of the affected areas would never again be habitable. The immediate and direct damage was limited to the exploded Chernobyl Reactor 4, and the 47 deaths of the firemen and "liquidators" who battled the vicious graphite blaze and the cleanup that followed.

But radioactivity slowly spread with the dust and debris, and like a mist descended on a vast area in the Kiev Oblast surrounding the plant, that would come to be known as the Zone of Alienation.

Spanning an area of roughly 500 km2, the Zone of Alienation is a deadly reminder of the prolonged effects of nuclear fallout. Even a quarter century after the April 1986 accident, it is still restricted, some parts entirely and permanently off-limits, and extensively bordered by guards and police. It is likely that it will continue to be for hundreds of years to come.

       The Zone had many smaller towns and settlements, but the one that most captures the imagination is the city of Pripyat. A "nuclear city" built in 1970 to house power plant workers, it was located a mere 3 km from the power plant, with a thriving population of 50,000 at the time of the disaster.

Unlike the bleak older Soviet cities with narrow streets and tiny yards, Pripyat was open and vivid, designed by the brightest architects in Moscow to be the idyllic home of Ukraine's keenest nuclear scientists and engineers. It would turn out to be the area hardest hit by the fallout.

It is said that in the night of the explosion that shook Pripyat at 01:23 am, some residents flocked to a nearby railway bridge (seen below), later known as the Bridge of Death, to get a better view of the burning reactor. Unaware of the danger, they were right in the path of the leaking radiation, exposing themselves to over 500 Röntgens, a fatal dose. They all later suffered agonizing deaths.

Picture credit: benfairless, flickr.

Within 40 hours of the meltdown, Pripyat was being evacuated by the Soviet military. Residents were given no choice but to leave their highly radioactive belongings behind. Most hastily abandoned everything they owned, as they were told to expect shortly to be allowed to return. 1200 buses were needed for the evacuation, forming a convoy 15 miles long. A total of 336,000 people had to be resettled as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. In Pripyat, now a time capsule of Soviet Ukraine, many of the 160 apartment blocks remained furnished until modern-day looting and widespread metal theft left most of them picked clean. Today, overgrown and steadily crumbling, Pripyat remains the largest ghost town in the world.

For years after the disaster, the Zone of Alienation remained derelict and virtually uninhabited. A new city, Slavutych, was built for the former residents of Pripyat and the Zone villages, 45 km from the Chernobyl plant.

However for some evacuees, the longing for their abandoned homes and possessions eventually drove them to illegally migrate back to their former houses. They were joined by the samosely, or "self-settlers"; reclusive drifters for whom the lonely Zone, despite its risks, was a perfect alternative to urban Ukraine. Officials turn a blind eye to these squatters, numbering roughly 50 in the Pripyat area, neither allowing or forcibly preventing them from occupying abandoned apartments.

As a result of the absence of human interference, wildlife populations in irradiated areas of the Zone have multiplied enormously. Stories of horrific mutations are many, but proof is as yet scarce. Birds, some of which have been seen to nest in the cracks of the sarcophagus covering the still-smoldering Reactor 4, have been found to have low reproductive success as well as a high numbers of birth defects, including albinism and deformities.

Nature is reclaiming the Zone of Alienation. Among tales of mutated monsters and forests of misshapen trees is the cold fact that Pripyat and the other Zone settlements will likely never be safe to live in again. Even in 2010, the city is not safe to tour without a radiation dosimeter, and the Reactor 4 sarcophagus may not be approached closer than 400 meters. Incredible as it may seem, the other reactors and buildings of Chernobyl power plant was not closed down until 2000, protected by 200 meters of concrete.

Bafflingly, Slavutych, the city built in 1986 to house the Chernobyl evacuees, and the one place one might expect long-term effects of massive radiation exposure to manifest, has a uniquely low mortality and high birthrate, giving it the lowest average age by far of any city in the Ukraine. The mysteries of radiation are apparently many, and the answers to some of them are surely waiting for us somewhere deep in the Zone of Alienation.

Chernobyl Today: A Creepy Story told in Pictures

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Towers of Silence

The ancient Zoroastrian tradition tells of how human flesh, once dead and decomposing, is so unclean it will pollute everything it touches. Holding the elements of earth and water as inviolably sacred, their religion did not permit the dead to be interred in soil or disposed of in the sea. Fire above all was worshipped as god-given and pure, and burning the dead would be the greatest of desecrations.

In acts of elaborate ritual the dead would be carted out into the forbidding desert by the nasellars, ritual pallbearers of Zoroastrianism. Far from settlements, they were taken up winding slopes up stark and ragged sandstone hills, to the Towers of Silence.

A Tower of Silence, known as dakhma in the sacred avestan tongue, is a large, cylindrical structure with a plateau of slabs laid in concentric circles surrounding a center pit. Its sole purpose was to leave dead bodies exposed to the searing desert conditions, though most importantly, to ever-circling, ever-present voracious birds of prey.

Through a peculiar religious loophole, Zoroastrians had found a solution to the problem of the elemental pollution of putrefaction. Men outermost, then women and children, were laid supine in separate circles, leaving animals to feed on the dead at will, and so evading the defilement of earth, water and fire. It was considered to be a person's final act of charity. When after as long as a year nothing remained but sun-bleached skeletons, the nasellar would collect the bones, disposing of them in the vast center ossuary pit, built to hold the bones of thousands.

Unusually, the tradition of burial by exposure is still upheld by modern-day Zoroastrians. While Iranian dakhmas were banned in 1970, parsi Zoroastrians in Mumbai and Karachi still maintain Towers of Silence, though not without difficulty. An assortment of factors have combined to reduce the modern-day population of birds of prey in the region to a mere 0.01% of what it was. Despite modern ventures such as vulture breeding and solar panels to speed up decomposition, without vultures to feed on bodies, the dead are left to rot unattended, offered up to empty skies, in concentric silence.