The 1% Podcast

Dr. Roger McMorrow

Everest Podcast Dr Roger McMorrow


  • 01

    Dr Roger McMorrow

    The perils of climbing the ‘Roof of the World’ — Mount Everest The 1% Podcast


My guest today is Dr. Roger McMorrow.

On the 24th May 2007, at 8am, in minus 40°C, Dr. Roger McMorrow reached the summit of Mount Everest the world’s highest mountain from the South side.

In this episode we find out what it’s like to stand on top of the world, the difficulty in getting back down, find out what is the ‘death zone’, the very real possibility of dying, controlling fear, the psychology of mountain climbing, bodies on the path, how to cross a 50 meter-deep crevasse, setting up the world’s highest medical laboratory on Everest’s South Col, rescuing a young Nepalese woman on the mountain, how long it takes to climb Everest, Sherpas, the Himalayas, Nepal, attitude to risk and much, much more.

This podcast was recorded a day before news broke that Seamus Lawless had fallen and went missing on the decent after summiting Everest on May 14th.

After discussing this with Rodger we felt that it was right to release the podcast as it highlights one person’s journey to summit Everest. It also highlights the beauty and dangers of the mountain and some of the specific challenges that climbing Everest holds, as well the the dedication and efforts of those that climb the highest peak in the World.

Our condolences go out to the families of Shay Lawless and Kevin Hynes who tragically died climbing Everest this year. May they rest in peace.




Show Summary


2:40 Introducing Dr. Roger McMorrow

  • His medical training and specialization in anesthesiology
  • His role as Clinical Director of Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital


3:30 The origins of his love of mountaineering

  • Being expelled from Catholic school at 16 after a practical joke
  • Transferring to Friends’ School in Lisburn
  • His introduction to camping and hiking through The Duke of Edinburgh scheme
  • Discovering the British Exploring Society – “The Hogwart’s school of mountaineering”
  • Learning survival, climbing and camping skills in northern Norway
  • Joining the Queens University mountaineering club


6:25 Always higher

  • The main appeal of mountaineering: exploring strange and unusual places
  • Mountaineering offers something for everyone, whether it’s bouldering, technical waking, or glacier travelling
  • Roger’s first Alps climb in Chamonix-Mont Blanc
  • How his Mont Blanc climb made him want to go even higher


8:35 The pros and cons of Everest

  • While most mountaineers like solitude, Everest offers the opposite
  • Why several climbers have a love/hate relationship with Everest


9:15 Roger’s team’s scientific studies

  • The goal: to study the effects of low oxygen levels
  • His principal colleagues: Nigel Hart and Michael O’Dwyer led by Mike Grocott, with UCL’s Caudwell Xtreme Everest group
  • How lack of oxygen is a common cause of death in intensive care patients
  • The ethics challenges of low oxygen experimentation


12:20 Why Everest?

  • Climbing Mount Everest is a well-supported undertaking
  • Combining their medical career with their passion for mountaineering
  • The result: over 100 scientific papers published


13:20 The study’s findings and the science of low oxygen levels

  • Humans can acclimate to oxygen levels on par with those of diving mammals, specifically the diving Weddell seal
  • The lowest recorded oxygen level is 1/3 of the level that causes death in IC patients
  • The role of mitochondria in our ability to acclimate
  • Our body’s ability to rely more heavily if needed on low oxygen-tolerant cells
  • Comparisons with the human fetus, who is able to survive on the low oxygen levels in the mother’s blood
  • “We are born with this ability”


15:58 Logistics of the climb

  • Delivering much of their equipment in advance, some of it by helicopter
  • The challenge of heavy, sensitive equipment
  • Creating custom equipment, tents and generators
  • The importance of Sherpa support and their unique acclimatization abilities


19:41 Preliminary physical training

  • Feeling like he had been practising since the age of 19
  • The importance of simply sitting in place, acclimatizing
  • The mental impact of just looking at the mountain
  • Mike Grocott’s rule for the Everest climbers: having been above 8000 m
  • Their climbing leader: Dr. Dylan, the only one who had been above 8000 m
  • The 2 preliminary expeditions to Cho Oyu
  • Their goal: getting an arterial blood gas sample
  • The challenges: shrunken arteries because of the cold and preparing an operation area under difficult conditions and limited funding


24:37 Learnings from Cho Oyu

  • The effects of fatigue
  • Proving that obtaining a blood gas sample was possible under these conditions


26:42 Weight gain and weight loss

  • Why one loses so much weight and muscle mass when climbing
  • Attempting to gain weight in preparation. The key: late-night take-out


28:49 Choosing to ascend the South side

  • The multiple possible routes to Everest
  • The logistical ease of bringing equipment through Nepal
  • Building relationships with the companies on the South side
  • Their priorities: 1) Safety – 2) Science – 3) Summit


30:27 The challenges of the climb

  • Why the biggest challenge is the mental challenge
  • The difficulty of being away from family and children
  • The importance of having alone time in separate tents
  • How one discounts and rationalizes risk
  • What it means to minimize risk


35:27 Risk-taking in Roger’s professional life

  • “I don’t like doing risky things”
  • His job as an anaesthetist: making risky surgery less risky
  • An important skill: remaining calm when things go wrong


36:55 Medical responsibility

  • Committing to join any rescue taking place on the mountain
  • The trouble caused by logistical issues between different expeditions


40:42 The Sherpas

  • How the Sherpas were treated as members of team
  • Their importance and large number due to the amount of equipment needed
  • The hierarchical and familial nature of Sherpa work
  • The respect and financial rewards that come with being a Sherpa
  • Questions about the next generation of Sherpas


45:12 “Summit fever”

  • The effect of hypoxia on decision-making
  • Their decision beforehand of deferring decisions to those at base camp
  • Setting a hard turnaround time regardless of where they were
  • The impact of late summits on death rates


48:17 Unpredictable weather

  • Since climbing Everest is often only done once, the urge to summit can lead to bad decision-making
  • The 200 km/hr winds that make Everest unclimbable most of the year
  • The difficulties and crowded trails caused by this short climbing window
  • Their decision to hold back 3 days after the window of good weather opened


51:32 Rescues

  • Saving the life of a young Nepalese woman left for dead
  • The limits of their medical field equipment


58:45 Challenging areas

  • Khumbu Icefall: “It’s like knowing someone wants to kill you, but you’re not sure when they’re going to pull the trigger or where they’re going to come from”
  • Summit day: climbing in the dark, being far from help, and reaching the highest altitude of the whole trip


1:02:47 Summit day

  • Getting equipped with down suit, visor, oxygen mask
  • Walking alone, hearing just your own breathing
  • Breathing 8-10 breaths per step


1:05:47 Nourishment

  • How hard it is to eat, especially when not acclimatized
  • Another challenge of altitude: a pot of water taking an hour to boil


1:06:42 Acclimatization to altitude

  • Increased respiratory rate
  • How your brain adjusts to hyperventilation
  • Chronic altitude problems and the impact on internal organs
  • The highest stable human population: 4500m


1:09:20 Serious health risks

  • AMS (acute mountain sickness)
  • Pulmonary oedema
  • Cerebral oedema
  • Losing brain mass after a trip to Everest
  • The difficulty in predicting how well each person will acclimate
  • The best advice: “Climb high, sleep low” and ascend gradually


1:14:47 The effects of age

  • Why children perform worse at altitude and why young people acclimatize slower
  • Why older athletes are the most common climbers


1:16:00 Summit night

  • The fear of the returning jet stream
  • The feeling of familiarity at seeing the view from the summit
  • Feeling a sense of melancholy when reaching the summit after working so long and hard to reach it
  • The beautiful view and sunrise from the top
  • Feeling hypoxia-induced confusion
  • The phone call to Roger’s wife from the summit


1:25:15 The descent

  • Battling horrendous wind
  • Feeling the effects of exhaustion
  • Understanding how a small deterioration in conditions can turn a good day lethal


1:27:17 Next time

  • Feeling lucky to have been in such a well-organized expedition with like-minded people
  •  “You get what you pay for” – how to choose a commercial trip


1:28:42 The legacy of the climb

  • How it has defined and affected Roger’s life
  • “It’s a great thing to have done rather than be doing”
  • How preparing for the climb was hard on his family


1:30:12 How his family deals with risk

  • “It’s almost like a way of life”
  • Taking his kids camping and climbing


1:31:57 Climbing with his wife Sarah

  • Their meeting in the Alps
  • Sarah joining their team of 3 to climb an unnamed peak in India
  • How they selected this particular unclimbed peak
  • The epic descent down an unfamiliar face of the mountain
  • Naming their new mountain: Draíocht Parbat