Richard Casten GRD ’64 ’67: Hiker, Asthmatic, Death-Defier

A 71-YEAR-OLD DAREDEVIL
A 71-YEAR-OLD DAREDEVIL // Richard Casten

Richard Casten GRD ’64 ’67, a physics professor at Yale, has about 30 percent of normal lung function. Still, Casten has taken on hiking throughout the world, reaching heights that are life-threatening to a respiratory system like his. With steely determination, Casten has traveled throughout the United States to test his body at high altitudes, including a recent 18,000-foot climb to the Mt. Everest basecamp. Because of his severe asthma, this achievement shocked and worried his doctors, who say that his oxygen level during the ascent was that of a patient near death. But to Casten, the fact that he should have been dead was not enough to end his vacation. Back safely, he is here to tell WEEKEND his story about patience and persistence, and overcoming the odds, and sticking it to the man and stuff.

Q. So, you survived. How does it feel?

A. Let me get one thing straight — I didn’t climb Mt. Everest. I heard some people saying I climbed Mt. Everest. I got to the Everest base camp, which is a lot different. There’s still not a lot of oxygen up there. The mountain itself is 29,000 and change. For that, you have to be a professional climber with oxygen and sherpas and everything else. Base camp you can almost drive to. We did some hiking once we got there.

Q. But, you’re 71. And you can’t breathe too well. Why did you go? 

A. I was in Shanghai giving lectures for 10 days; we had another 10 days after. We went to the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. Tthat’s about 12,600 feet. We spent three days there trying to get used to the altitude. They have some amazing temples there — 20 stories high or so. Over the next couple days, we went south towards everest to a bunch of towns, eventually got to the base camp, 17,000 feet. Once we were there, we were going to stay overnight, but we decided not to because we wanted to go to the lake. We hiked up a hill at the base camp for the view.

Q. Did you get enough oxygen? Did you feel sick?

A. When they do those normal lung tests — have you had one of those? — you forcibly exhale into some machine. I score about 29 or 30 — out of 100. So, I have about 30% of normal lung capacity at sea level. And then, you go up and it gets worse and worse and worse. I didn’t have much altitude sickness at all — that’s dizziness, headaches, chills. My wife and I had that the first night or two, nothing too serious. The asthma part means you can’t breathe. You can breathe but you don’t get much oxygen. It’s not a problem of breathing in; it’s a problem of breathing out. You can’t get the old air out of your lungs. I kept texting back to my doctor what my readings were on the pulse oximeter. My readings were about 65. That’s the percent of oxygen compared to the maximum oxygen your blood can hold. I didn’t know if that was low or high. He later told me people with that level are usually in comas. The lowest reading I remember getting was 49. I shouldn’t have been alive with those readings.

Q. What was your communication like with Dr. Geoffrey Chupp? Did he ever text you to go back down? 

A. Yeah, basically all of the doctors told me to go back. I have a theory about this. I’ve hiked lots and lots in Colorado, Peru and so on. I wasn’t really worried at all. Pulmonary doctors will tell you that they expect you to be comatose or delirious. Where do they measure? They don’t go around measuring people in malls; they measure people who are sick or dying of lung cancer. They don’t measure normal people. I suspect their readings are a little skewed because the sample of people they measure are people with very serious lung disease. My lungs are fine.

Q. Did you ever want to go down to lower altitude? 

A. No. My doctor was worried, though. I remember his first response to my low readings: “Oh my god, good luck.” I refer to that as his warm bedside manner. He kept recommending I take oxygen. We both thought you could continuously breathe oxygen, but it wasn’t like that — they had canisters of oxygen you could take five breaths out of. No oxygen of any use.

Q. Did you prepare for the elevation? Runs? Swims? High altitude chamber in your backyard? 

A. No. We were going to go to Santa Fe for a couple weeks trying to get used to the altitude there, but didn’t and went from Shanghai to Tibet. We did absolutely nothing. I thought I was so delirious I imagined the whole trip, but I have pictures, so I don’t think so.

Q. Beautiful? Worth it?

A. Oh my god, it was astonishing. The base camp itself was fascinating. It’s a kind of tent-city. Tent rooms, 20 x 20 feet. Quasi-hotel rooms. Beautifully colored and decorated and warm. The toughest part was the first couple days, getting used to that altitude.

Q. Wait — how exactly did you get there?

A. My wife and I went alone with a driver and a guide. Once you sign up to do one of these things, the Chinese authorities monitor you very strictly. You have to lay out what you’re doing ahead of time. We went around Lhasa first and then to these other towns.

Q. You’ve already escaped death. What’s next?

A. This summer, near the end of the summer, we’re going to the Mt. St. Elias range in Alaska. The mountains are high, but the hiking is only at a few thousand feet. I’ll be in Santa Fe this summer, which is 7,000 to 8,000 feet, but that’s nothing. If I climb a flight of stairs, I have to rest. But after a week or so, I can play tennis in Santa Fe. Oh, and we’re going to Antarctica, but that’s obviously at sea level. We’ll be in Switzerland in August, which is about 6,000 to 7,000 feet.

Q. It seems to me the asthma hasn’t stopped you from having some amazing adventures — is that right?

A. The asthma really affects me. I told myself long ago I would never let it stop me from doing anything, but I have to do things differently. When you hike or climb, or if you look at any book on hiking, they say keep on going at a steady pace. I can’t do that. I spurt out, usually go ahead of everyone else, and then I have to rest and catch my breath. I go as fast as I can, then stop and rest. Another example: I play tennis all the time. I could not run once around the tennis court, around the edge. But in tennis, the points have breaks between them. I couldn’t play soccer because it’s continuous. I need breaks to catch my breath. It’s the same thing as climbing temples — they may be 20 stories high, but you can stop at each story, and see the view.

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