High altitude mountaineering brings a whole range of challenges, from extreme cold, changeable weather and oxygen deprivation. Amanda Seims, from the Carnegie Faculty at Leeds Metropolitan University tells us about her research into high altitude performance.
I am a PhD student within the Carnegie Faculty at Leeds Metropolitan University. My PhD is focused on pre-expedition methods to improve physical performance and well-being at high-altitude which has an application in both the military and the outdoors industry. In addition to this I provide a consultancy service within the Carnegie Research Institute, helping individuals prepare for high altitude expeditions.
A decrease in exercise performance is unavoidable when ascending above 3000m due to the level of hypoxia (decreased oxygen intake) and individuals typically perceive exercise as more difficult, with an increased feeling of breathlessness compared to when at sea-level. Quality of sleep is usually impaired during the initial few days of altitude exposure which can impact upon performance, not to mention additional impact from symptoms associated with acute mountain sickness (AMS). With time, the challenges faced at high-altitude become less severe as the body adjusts to cope with the hypoxia. Some individuals choose to spend time in high-altitude regions before or at the start of their expedition in order to initiate the acclimatisation process but this requires additional time and is costly.
The use of intermittent hypoxic exposure (IHE) in a laboratory has been investigated as a practical (<3 hours of time required per day) and cheaper alternative than real high-altitude exposure prior to an expedition and may reduce the time required in-country for acclimatisation. IHE has been shown to produce important adaptations relating to ventilation which can enhance oxygen transport and reduce symptoms of AMS.
Additionally, exercise performance at altitude begins to improve along with a decrease in the physiological stress experienced, making it feel less difficult. The results of these studies provide support for the use of IHE prior to high-altitude expeditions, however they are typically based in a laboratory and conducted under very controlled conditions therefore their application to the real situation of an expedition is limited.
The Carnegie Research Institute within Leeds Metropolitan University uses an Environmental Laboratory Facility to simulate conditions of extreme altitude and temperature. This facility has been used to assist individuals trekking Mt Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp and climbing Cho-Oyu and all clients have provided positive feedback on return from their trip. However, research is needed to scientifically assess the effects of pre-acclimatisation using IHE and the extent of its benefits on a subsequent expedition. In November this year, The Leeds Metropolitan Universitys Himalayan Research Expedition, sets out to do just that.
The research will be led by myself and will form the final study within my thesis. The expedition team will be provided with a programme of IHE prior to an expedition to Mera Peak (~6500m) in the Himalayas. Within the altitude laboratory and during the expedition physiological responses to exercise will be evaluated in the team. The rate of acclimatisation and symptoms of AMS will also be monitored in each individual. This is an exciting project as research in this area is typically limited to the laboratory, and testing in the field will be very challenging both logistically and physiologically.
Trekking companies on Mount Kilimanjaro typically use a fast rate of ascent, resulting in a high prevalence of AMS with many trekkers not reaching the summit. There may be other situations where a fast rate of ascent is unavoidable such as where military operations require fast deployment of personnel to areas of high altitude.
Pre-acclimatisation strategies could benefit both of the above situations, as well as increasing safety and enjoyment of any high-altitude expedition. The results of the project could provide positive support for the use of high altitude training programmes within hypoxic laboratories, encouraging more individuals to take advantage of this technology.
Our Expedition team ranges from complete novices to experienced high altitude mountaineers, almost half female, aged from 19-50+. The expedition leader, Dave Bunting (MBE) is the Outdoor Development Manager for Carnegie Great Outdoors within Leeds Metropolitan University and has led many expeditions to the Himalayas including the armys Everest West Ridge expedition in 2006. Carnegie Great Outdoors deliver outdoor and leadership programmes both within the University and externally as well as organising overseas expeditions. This expedition combines the practical application of expert research knowledge of the Carnegie Research Institute with the specialist high-altitude expedition leadership experience of Carnegie Great Outdoors.
For more information about the expedition and the research please visit www.himalayan.org.uk. If you would like to support our expedition in any way please visit our Sponsorship and Donations page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
We’ll be following Amanda and her team to see how things pan out in the Himalaya! If you’re planning an expedition, don’t forget to follow their links to learn more, and have look at our muchbetter mountaineering holidays!