DAN Member Profile: Ken Kamler, M.D.

Hometown: New York City
Age: 67
Years diving: 48
Favorite dive destination: Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Why I'm a DAN member: When I first started diving, there was no single organization looking out for the good of the sport. DAN has filled that role with its research, education and emphasis on safety.

Standing on the summit of Vinson Massif in Antarctica, kneeling in the mud of the Amazon jungle, floating in NASA's zero-gravity C-9 "vomit comet," rocking on a boat in Galapagos waters or exploring undeveloped Eastern Bhutan, Ken Kamler has practiced medicine in settings far outside the traditional. An orthopedic surgeon trained in microsurgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Kamler realized his medical journey didn't have to be limited by the walls of hospitals or clinics; early in his career he joined a climbing expedition to Peru, where he found himself opening doors to a unique and inspirational practice.

Kamler went to Peru knowing he would have to treat any malady from athlete's foot to skull fractures and that he would have to provide his own supplies, but he did not necessarily expect to be treating locals thrown from a truck that rolled down a ravine. But fate intervened, and the combination of preparation, resourcefulness and coincidental timing in the aftermath of that incident introduced Kamler to the president of The Explorers Club, who was diving at a lake not far away. Kamler went on to have a longstanding relationship with the elite club, becoming a fellow in 1984 and spending more than two decades in leadership roles including vice president and director.

As a child growing up in the Bronx, Kamler learned about extreme environments from reading books such as Annapurna, Maurice Herzog's 1951 account of climbing the highest mountain ever climbed at that time, and watching TV shows such as Sea Hunt, a fictional account of the underwater adventures of a former U.S. Navy diver. The idea of exploring the vast open spaces of these narratives — of leaving behind New York's concrete skyline — intrigued Kamler. Rather than direct his curiosity to the vast world outside of his immediate sphere, however, he directed his early passion for exploration toward the microscopic, where he could explore an entirely different world. As he explained: "The most mysterious, unexplored area in the universe is the human body. Nothing is as complex." This mindset ushered him into the world of science and medicine.

Kamler soon discovered that medicine as he knew it would not accommodate his adventurous spirit. "I didn't want to be a prisoner of my profession," he said. Instead he dreamed of accumulating experiences and began traveling extensively to austere environments as an expedition physician. In 2013, for example, he was the expedition doctor on Jeff Bezos' salvage boat that aimed to recover the first-stage rocket engine from Apollo 11, the NASA spacecraft that landed the first humans on the moon in 1969. Using advanced sonar and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), the team navigated rough seas to lift the engine from its 14,000-foot depth.

Ken Kamler organizes his medical tent on Mount Everest.

Kamler has been on six expeditions to Mt. Everest, including four with the National Geographic Society, using laser telescopes and global positioning satellites to measure the exact height of Everest and tectonic activity on the Asian continental plate. Serving as chief high altitude physician on two expeditions for NASA-sponsored research, he helped study human physiological responses to extreme altitude. He was the only doctor high on the mountain during the infamous May 1996 storm that claimed eight lives, an event later documented in Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air and the IMAX film Everest.

Being a physician in extreme environments can be difficult. "What people don't think about is that the doctor is in the same harsh environment as the patient he is treating — cold, wet, tired, oxygen-deprived — and has to call upon his own inner strength to overcome what conditions he can, and ignore those he can't, so that he can focus on what needs to be done," Kamler said.

In his summit attempt of Everest, Kamler climbed to within 900 vertical feet of the top, and he sees that experience as a success. It is not a number or a specific feat that drives him, but rather the personal triumph of pushing beyond his limits. "Everyone should have his or her own Everest — some nearly impossible goal you can pursue," he said. "Whether or not you make it, you will have pushed yourself to your limit. When we find inner strengths we never knew we had and achieve more than we ever thought possible, it is life-changing."

On Mount Everest Kamler treats a climber with severe frostbite and hypothermia.
This sense of adventure and appreciation for diverse experiences carries over to Kamler's interest in diving. He considered his first scuba class, which he took in college, a medium of transportation that gave him immediate access to a different world. He maintains a sense of wonder about it even as an adult and recalls with infectious enthusiasm moments such as a time he was helping with a fish-counting study in the Galapagos Islands and a shadow passed over him. Glancing up, he realized it was a shoal of hammerhead sharks, silhouetted against the sun above.

His patients appreciate his fascination for the natural world and often look forward to asking him about his travels, which he has written about in Doctor on Everest and Surviving the Extremes. Although he enjoys mountaineering, diving and finding opportunities to strip down to the essentials of living, Kamler still maintains a surgical practice in New York, earning many accolades for his medical accomplishments. But that is not stopping him from setting out for the Yucatan's cenotes, Venezuela's tepuis or ancient Inca ruins in Peru.
For More Information
Watch Kenneth Kamler's TED Talk, Medical Miracle on Everest.

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2015