By Dr Melanie Windridge, physicist, speaker and writer

In the early hours of 21st May I climbed towards the summit of Everest with my Sherpa partner, Tenzing, finally arriving for the sunrise at the top of the world. As the first to arrive that day, we experienced this extraordinary, majestic environment by ourselves. We radioed base camp to update them. When it was light we took photographs. I took a snow sample that would later be sent to the Pyramid Research Station at Lobuche to be analysed for pollution levels. Then, just as the first climbers from the North side were reaching the summit, and as a couple of my team-mates were coming across the final metres of the summit ridge, we began our descent. It was almost 5:30am and we had been at the summit nearly an hour. Three hours later we were back at Camp 4 at the South Col (7900m) and, later that evening, back at Camp 2 (6350m).

Dr Melanie Windridge embarking on her Mount Everest climb

The summit was the culmination of almost two months’ effort on the mountain, years of preparation and training and a huge collaboration by my expedition team, knowledgeable leaders and Sherpas.

As a scientist, I approached my Everest climb and the risk it entailed in a logical manner, looking at ways to reduce the risk and increase my chances of a successful summit. Along the way I met scientists and engineers who helped me understand the science and technology that support people in their bid for the summit and help stack their chances for survival at the extremes of the world in their favour. These were a diverse group of people, in a range of professions, whose combined skills are making it ever safer to explore extreme environments. In this article, I’d like to introduce you to just a couple of them.

Dr Suvash Dawadi: Volunteer Doctor at Everest ER 

Everest is an environment of extremes. Reduced air pressure at high altitude means the body gets less oxygen with each inhalation and acclimatising slowly is key to survival.

Dr Dawadi, who this year was a volunteer doctor at Everest Base Camp, explains that “our bodies are not meant to function at that altitude. So, anything that you’re doing above 7000-7500 metres you should not be doing in terms of physiology”. He emphasised the importance of experience – not just mountaineering skills, but also knowing your own body at altitude. “Although there’s a standard science, each of us is different and everyone reacts differently,” he said. The right training beforehand, adequate nutrition and wearing the right clothes to protect your body against extreme weather, while also being mobile and comfortable, are all very important.

Stephanie Chapman: Chemist at the University of Southampton 

Fabrics are engineered by altering the design, construction and chemical coatings to achieve the desired performance. When I spoke to Stephanie Chapman, she told me about the chemistry behind clothing designs that keep us comfortable on the mountain. She explained the process of wicking and the benefits of microfibres, how Gore-Tex is waterproof yet breathable, and how hydrophobic coatings can improve the performance of down clothing. “It’s immensely important to have the right clothing when you’re up against the elements in the mountains. It’s going to be cold and damp. You want to make sure you stay comfortable, also from a psychological perspective.”

In an increasingly technological world we will need more science graduates in all sorts of areas, and girls should be taking science and maths too if they want to boost their future employability. Just 20% of physics A-level students are girls, a figure which has barely changed for 25 years (though there were signs this year that it is finally on the rise!). I hope that these exciting, real-life stories of how science and technology help people explore and better understand the world will help challenge some of the stereotypes of science careers and show young people, particularly girls, just how varied and diverse science careers can be.

Melanie on the summit of Mount Everest

Melanie has created “Science of the Summit”, a video series on the Institute of Physics YouTube channel, in which she explains how science has improved safety on Mount Everest in bite-sized, enjoyable videos of 3-10 minutes: If you have any questions for Melanie, follow her on Twitter or Facebook where she will be announcing an Ask Me Anything session later this year.