Secret lives of staff: Westmead surgeon reaches new heights

Dr Delfino Di Mascio has a passion for climbing mountains across the world.

For someone who had last seen snow when he was 10, a trip to the Himalayas a few years ago proved a revelation for Westmead vascular surgeon Dr Delfino Di Mascio.

“First thing that I did was I went to Everest Base Camp,” he said.

“I’d never slept in a tent before, I didn’t know how to layer properly. “

It was the beginning of a journey which would help shape his other passion in life – mountaineering.

“I went to Everest and something happened up there,” Dr Di Mascio said.

“I was walking around and I looked at these mountains that were like – wow – you know, I was in awe – this small person walking in this really beautiful, vast space.

“And I thought, I reckon I could climb that one over there, I could do that.”

Dr Delfino Di Mascio in the operating theatres at Westmead Hospital.

Dr Di Mascio specialises in vascular conditions, affecting the veins and arteries in the human body, which conduct oxygen to every living cell.

He undertook his internship and residency at Westmead where he also completed two years of his general surgical training prior to vascular surgery.

And while he acknowledges it is a challenging job, he has taken on an equally challenging past time – climbing some of the highest peaks in the world.

He started on what he calls the ‘small stuff’ – fly-in, fly-out trips in Australia and New Zealand.

At first he ascended the 2,834m Hochstetter Dome in New Zealand’s Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.

Then it was on to Mt Dixon, the 23rd highest peak in New Zealand, a technical climb at a height of 3,019m.

“I went to Argentina after that and started chasing some bigger peaks and some bigger expeditions,” he said.

In 2015 Dr Di Mascio took on Aconcagua and Cerro Plata.

Dotted with the crosses of climbers who have perished, Cerro Plata is one of the highest peaks in central Argentina and is just shy of 6000m.

Aconcagua on the other hand rises 6,959m – the highest mountain in the Americas and the highest outside of the Himalayas.

Dr Di Mascio says his love of climbing mountains helps him with his job as a surgeon.

The Westmead surgeon has also ventured north to Alaska, in 2016 and 2017, where he attempted Denali twice.

Denali, at more than 6100m, is the highest mountain peak in North America, and the third most isolated peak on Earth, after Mt Everest and Aconcagua.

“So when you get on top of the summit it’s so amazingly beautiful and it’s a deep sense of accomplishment … it’s been all worth it,” he said.

As with his medical training, he has learned from the best in the field when it comes to mountain climbing.

“They’re sort of next level, they’ve climbed K2 and Everest and a million other peaks, they’ve almost died, they’ve crossed over to the other side and come back to tell the story… and so they can share so much in the way of what they’ve learned about themselves in these really really tough conditions, and I love that,” he said.

The doctor admits his past time can be quite dangerous.

“I was on this line that I called the ridge of fear… we were all roped up, and a whole team vanished on this section a couple years ago … and I looked right and there’s a drop of 1500 metres, and I look left, and there’s a drop of only 800 metres, and I said to myself … if I go, I’d rather go to the left!”

Mountain climbing has claimed countless lives around the world and continues to do so.

DR Di Mascio arriving at work at Westmead Hospital.

So why does a person whose job is saving lives want to take such a risk?

“It’s allowed me to be a much better person,” Dr Di Mascio said.

“I’ve focused a lot more on what matters, the way that I process things is completely different, it’s made me more real as a person and my interactions with patients are really awesome and hugely connected.”

Dr Di Mascio loves the long expeditions in the mountain wilderness.

It becomes quite meditative – how do I survive with no creature comforts, in a wilderness that is…suffering?” he said

“You’re sleeping in a sleeping bag for four weeks, the food is pretty average and you’re hurting out there.”

In 2019, he is heading back to Alaska.

“That’s a big expedition, a really heavy trip, physically and mentally,” he said.

Earlier this year, he returned from an expedition to the Vinson Massif in Antarctica.

At 4,892m, Vinson is not for the faint-hearted.

While not as high as many other peaks, its isolation in the polar desert amid extremes of temperature and weather, demands experienced climbers only, with a firm knowledge of outdoor survival and skill in the use of crampons, rope travel and ice axes.

“Summit day was huge, with ambient temps of -36 degrees, and you’re out there for 12 hours … half our team didn’t make it,” he said

Dr Di Mascio expects to complete his first 8000m ascent next year, or a “nicer” Himalayan peak. 

It is a vacation where you can expect extreme discomfort and temperatures of around minus 36 degrees Celsius.

“You’re out in the elements for an extended period of time,” he said.

“The normal day-to-day things become so difficult and complicated out there”

“I love that aspect of it, the uncertainty.”

Next stop, Mt Everest.