With the expansion of expedition mountaineering came advancements in medicine specializing in the specific challenges to human health in high altitudes. The proximity of the death zone where the human body begins to shut down with the lack of oxygen and low temperatures, led to serious dangers. Expedition doctors, usually experienced climbers themselves and fans of the sport, were indispensible members of the teams. They dealt with issues such as: high altitude illness, pneumonia, exhaustion and frostbite. But they also handled other emergency situations such as bone fractures, concussions and spinal injuries.
In 1967, immediately following the successful summiting of Tirich Mir, Cervinka accompanied Vilem Heckel on a photo climb to a nearby peak, Dir Zom, without taking a necessary break for recuperation. Due to extreme exhaustion, he suffered from a pneumothorax – a collapsed lung – a life-threatening condition occurring when air escapes from the lung and pours into the chest. Cervinka’s life was saved most probably because it was a pulmonologist, Zdenek Vlc, who served as the expedition medical doctor.
Heckel masterfully captured Cervinka’s exhaustion in a series of black and white photos, which have become iconic additions to the world of mountain photography. In Souvenirs From High Places: A History of Mountaineering Photography, author Joe Bensen comments Heckel’s photo as follows: “The texture and detail are paramount in this close-up image; it is another typical example of Heckel’s avant-garde approach to his art.”