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Climbing mountains for longevity

Updated on June 20, 2012

Genetics probably play the largest part in longevity. but there is evidence that people can live longer at high altitudes than at sea level. At Vileabamba, a Peruvian village about 2750m (9000ft) up in the Andes. birth certificates show nine people out of 819 aged more than 100. In the United States the average is three per 100,000.

Mountain people, medical researchers have found, are less likely than lowlanders to suffer from leukaemia, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, heart attacks and high blood pressure. On the other hand, they get more tuberculosis, bronchitis and pneumonia.

The first man known to have climbed a mountain for no reason other than that it was there was Antoine de Ville in 1492. Charles VIII of France ordered de Ville, his chamberlain, to take a party to the top of Mont Aiguille, a 2097m (6880ft) peak near Grenoble. De Ville is said to have been so impressed with the view and his achievement that he stayed up there for six days. The first serious Alpine climb was made by a geologist named Jacques Balmat and a physician. Michel Paccard. They climbed Europe's highest mountain, Mont Blanc, in 1786.

Mountaineers wanting to climb Everest - named after Sir George Everest (1790-1866), a British Surveyor-General in India - have to book their turn up to seven years in advance. Only two expeditions are allowed to take place at the same time, and each has to use a different route. In addition, Himalayan weather conditions mean that there are only three periods a year when a climb is practicable: in April and May before the monsoon rains; in October just after the monsoon; and in December and January during the winter. Since Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, first climbed Everest in 1953. more than 130 mountaineers have made it to the top, including five without oxygen and four women. But by the early 1980s about 50 climbers had died on the mountain.

Black bears do not actually hibernate in their mountain habitats. They doze away the winter in a state of lethargy, rousing from time to time, but not eating. In autumn, after fattening them- selves up, they eat indigestible roots and pine needles which form a plug in their intestines. They cannot eat until the plug is passed in spring - which may account for their short tempers at that time of year.

At high altitudes humans adjust to the lower level of oxygen in the air by producing more red blood corpuscles which contain haemoglobin, the substance that absorbs oxygen into the blood stream. Most native mountain-dwellers have also developed other physical advantages to cope with the thin air and lower temperatures. The Quechua Indians of the Andes in South America, many of whom live at heights of around 3650m (12,000ft). have short, squat bodies that minimise heat loss, and bigger hearts and lungs than normal to enable them to carry 20 per cent more blood. In addition, their hands and feet have extra blood vessels which speed circulation so effectively that the Indians can walk barefoot on ice and snow without getting frostbite.

The world's tallest flower spikes-4.5 to 6m (15 to 20ft) high-bloom on an Andean plant. Puya raimondii, which has a sturdy trunk with a globe-shaped rosette of spiky leaves, may take up to 150 years to reach its full height of 10. 7m (35ft). Then it throws out its spike of blooms, as many as 800 on a single stalk.

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