This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
So you might have heard of "airplane boners." This term colloquially describes erections on planes, allegedly due to changes in air pressure that affect blood pressure. Only apparently it doesn't just happen on planes. I recently got sucked down a bit of an internet rabbit hole, reading about how this same phenomenon affects mountaineers climbing big mountains. And particularly the biggest mountain of them all: Everest.
Now, I have to admit I was skeptical, so I decided to ask an expert who in this case happened to be my dad, who is a doctor. So I asked Dr. Domenic Roscioli about altitude-related blood pressure, and whether it could cause a permanent erection while mountain climbing.
It was an awkward conversation but Dad explained that “because air is thinner at altitude, it causes blood pressure to rise.” This, he said, can cause “severe exhaustion, shortness of breath, disorientation, heart palpitations, and yes… erections.”
By this point my amusement had graduated to outright fascination, so I decided to find someone who’d climbed Everest to ask whether they'd experienced a long-term boner. And that’s how I found a passionate 26-year-old climber named Srinath Varma who'd experienced Everest in all its glory.
VICE: How many times have you climbed/attempted to climb Mt Everest?
Srinath Varma: I have attempted two times and I’ve made it to camp three, which is about 26,300 ft. Unfortunately, I had to stop there because I was suffering High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HACE), which comes as a product of altitude sickness. I’d been training for one whole year for this, but my body needed to acclimatize to the extreme conditions, and I didn't have enough time.
What was it like to experience HACE?
It slowed down my entire blood flow, so my heart was beating hard and fast and my mind started to play tricks on me. It’s the weirdest feeling. The lack of blood flow to your brain, paired with oxygen deficiency really does make your mind go blank. You feel as though you have no retained knowledge and you start to forget how your body works—it’s scary!
Okay and um, did you get an erection?
Yes, it happened to me just after I crossed 4,500 meters [2.8 miles]. I think it depends on the climbing experience though, I’m sure it’s different for everyone. For me I only ever got boners during the morning.
Walk me through your first Everest boner. What happened?
Well I wasn’t prepared for it, I didn’t even know it was a possibility. I woke up and I asked the sherpa why it was happening and what caused it, and he explained it was because of the altitude and blood flow, and he said it was pretty common.
Why did it only happen in the morning?
Given the environment, your body isn’t working normally during sleep, your temperature isn’t stable, and your blood pressure is increased. So apparently, it’s normal to wake up with a boner.
Did it happen to other people you were with too?
Yes, it did. I didn’t ask them about it though.
I mean, they probably had no idea why it was happening either. And I assumed they’d be embarrassed about it. It’s not something you have to point out you know. The boners were just there, everywhere in plain sight, in the freezing cold.
Did a boner make it difficult to climb?
No, I don’t think it made much difference. It was difficult to hide though, obviously, so if you’re self-conscious it could have an impact on your climb. My mind was already playing tricks on me with the lack of oxygen, so being worried about how I looked wasn’t beneficial.
So, having a boner didn’t affect your mood at all?
Well, I mean, it wasn’t comfortable. I was wearing tight clothes and it was at least -20 [-4 degrees Fahrenheit] degrees. But it is not even close to the most difficult thing about climbing Everest, so I just had to carry on until it went away.
What a trooper! How long did it last?
About two hours per day, I think. I just had to drink a lot of water to speed up blood circulation, and also keep my body warm and constantly moving. It’s a patience game.
I wonder if more people knew about mountain boners whether they’d be more or less interested in climbing Everest.
[Laughs] Maybe more. Who knows. Depends on what kind of guy you are. It’s a part of life though, right? You learn to not be embarrassed. Fear of death on Everest is far more important than fearing a potential boner.
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