Life at 7000m (PART I)

 
 

Editor's Note - Most of our readers know Nancy Hansen as an ACC Ambassador, an accomplished mountaineer and the person closest to completing what is perhaps the greatest tick list in all of climbing – The 50 Classic Climbs of North America.

Here, Nancy and her partner Ralf Dujmovits, go inside for science – into a “hypoxia chamber” in Cologne, Germany - to be guinea pigs for a study on the positive benefits of extreme hypoxia on human beings.

Note that this is not a tacked-on medical test while on an expedition or acclimatizing for a big mountain, this is two climbers volunteering for a month of severely limited oxygen in the hopes of benefiting medicine and helping others. We wish them well.

Enjoy Nancy’s story and spectacular photos of acclimatizing in the Alps, follow the link at the bottom of the page to more info on the project and stay tuned for updates - Nancy will be sending more words and images as her latest adventure at altitude continues this month.


 On the way to the Monte Rosa Hut in Switzerland. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

On the way to the Monte Rosa Hut in Switzerland. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Living Up high

Just a few metres away, outside the walls of our laboratory in the lovely city of Cologne, Germany, the air holds a rich 21% oxygen content. The oxygen in the air we are breathing at this moment is 8.5% - the same that is normally found at just under 6,700 altitude metres. We are working towards living in an environment with just 8% oxygen, the equivalent of being at 7,000 metres, for 14 days.

My partner, Ralf Dujmovits, and I are taking part in a medical study at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). The goal is to find out if living in a low-oxygen environment provides health benefits to the heart. For those interested, I’ve given a brief description of the scientific background of this study at the bottom of the page.

 Ralf and I enjoyed a lovely day of skiing from the Theodule Hut to the Monte Rosa Hut, with a 900m descent, a 500m ascent, and 12 km of distance, all under the watchful eye of the Matterhorn. The famous Hörnli Ridge, ascended by thousands each summer, is on the right skyline. Photo by Nancy Hansen.

Ralf and I enjoyed a lovely day of skiing from the Theodule Hut to the Monte Rosa Hut, with a 900m descent, a 500m ascent, and 12 km of distance, all under the watchful eye of the Matterhorn. The famous Hörnli Ridge, ascended by thousands each summer, is on the right skyline. Photo by Nancy Hansen.

Ski tour acclimatization

Ralf and I started our acclimatization by making a wonderful ski tour in Switzerland and Italy. Ralf had previously told me about the Margherita Hut in Italy which stands on the summit of the 4,554 m high Signalkuppe - one of the highest peaks in the Alps. At the time, I thought we would never have a reason to stay at this insanely placed hut, but this medical study provided the perfect excuse! After a night in the famous Swiss village of Zermatt, at the base of the Matterhorn, we took two cable cars and a chair lift to the Theodule Hut (3,317m) on the Italian side of the border. Ski lifts go to this Italian Alpine Club hut from both the Italian and Swiss sides, and skiers enjoy coffee, beer, and lunch right under the massive south and west sides of the Matterhorn. Some, like us, stay overnight and enjoy fine Italian cooking and great views out the panoramic window.

 The recently renovated Theodule “Hut" (3,317 m) on the Italian/Swiss border. The chairlift coming from the Italian side ends 50 m from the hut. The lift coming from the Swiss side ends just above the hut, so you can easily ski in, drink a beer or espresso, and carry on down either the Italian side or the Swiss side. The Matterhorn is just a few kilometres away, but we only got to see it in parts due to the cloudy skies. I was surprised and highly entertained by the snow groomer passing in front of our panoramic window at dinnertime. The huts are different in Europe! Photo by Nancy Hansen.

The recently renovated Theodule “Hut" (3,317 m) on the Italian/Swiss border. The chairlift coming from the Italian side ends 50 m from the hut. The lift coming from the Swiss side ends just above the hut, so you can easily ski in, drink a beer or espresso, and carry on down either the Italian side or the Swiss side. The Matterhorn is just a few kilometres away, but we only got to see it in parts due to the cloudy skies. I was surprised and highly entertained by the snow groomer passing in front of our panoramic window at dinnertime. The huts are different in Europe! Photo by Nancy Hansen.

In the morning, we awoke to dense fog. After delaying our start by enjoying a couple extra delicious Italian espressos, we looked at a webcam and discovered that the sky was clear only 200 m from the hut. We quickly began our journey to the incredible Monte Rosa Hut (2,883 m) on the Swiss side. The new Monte Rosa Hut was built in 2009 for 1.5 million Euros. It is truly spectacular, resembling a huge crystal set high on a mountainside. The Matterhorn lies opposite, and the two somehow strangely compliment one another. The Monte Rosa Hut sleeps 120, and it is nearly 100% self- sufficient in regards to energy. It won many environmental and architectural awards at the time it was built. Most Monte Rosa Hut visitors in both summer and winter hope to climb the Dufourspitze, (4,634 m), which lies above on the border between Italy and Switzerland, and has the claim of being the second highest peak in the European Alps (after Mont Blanc). If you decide to visit this amazing place, bring a few bags full of money – the huts in the Alps, and particularly in Switzerland, are not inexpensive.

 The space-age Monte Rosa Hut (2,883 m) faces off the Matterhorn (4,478 m). Photo by Nancy Hansen

The space-age Monte Rosa Hut (2,883 m) faces off the Matterhorn (4,478 m). Photo by Nancy Hansen

First two weeks in the Lab

Ralf and I had been to the DLR facilities in Cologne for extensive testing three times before we “moved in” to our window-less, but spacious laboratory two weeks ago. Between the pre-examinations and the first two days in the lab, we underwent multiple MRI examinations on our brains and hearts, multiple echocardiograms, electrocardiograms, blood and urine tests, a VO2 max test, muscle tests, and more.

 Our home for 4.5 weeks. It has everything we need except windows and oxygen! Photo by Nancy Hansen.

Our home for 4.5 weeks. It has everything we need except windows and oxygen! Photo by Nancy Hansen.

Since we had already spent a night at the Margherita Hut at 4,554 m, we began our first two days in the lab at the equivalent of 3,500 m. At this level, the doctors, engineers, and physicists who are working on the study were able to conduct their examinations without wearing breathing masks. They’ve been wearing masks ever since.

 Happy to be giving blood for science? Dr. Fabian Hoffman does a medical check on us each morning and takes blood every five or so days. He also performs our echocardiograms. This photo was taken when we were still “at 3,500 m", and the staff did not yet wear oxygen masks. Did you ever wonder why you feel crappy at the end of a long airplane flight? They pressurize the cabins to between 1,800 m (expensive airlines) and 2,400 m (cheap airlines). If you aren’t acclimatized, you feel the effects of altitude! Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Happy to be giving blood for science? Dr. Fabian Hoffman does a medical check on us each morning and takes blood every five or so days. He also performs our echocardiograms. This photo was taken when we were still “at 3,500 m", and the staff did not yet wear oxygen masks. Did you ever wonder why you feel crappy at the end of a long airplane flight? They pressurize the cabins to between 1,800 m (expensive airlines) and 2,400 m (cheap airlines). If you aren’t acclimatized, you feel the effects of altitude! Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

I’ve had three difficult nights in the lab so far – the first night that we changed to 5,600 m, and then to 6,000 m. I slept extremely poorly and had a strong headache during those three nights. Ralf’s body, with his 35+ years of high altitude experience, seems to know what to do, and he is having no trouble at all. The comparison of our blood and lung test results show this, as does our general feeling of wellness (or not…)

 Difficult nights in the lab with only a fraction of available oxygen. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Difficult nights in the lab with only a fraction of available oxygen. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Going higher and higher...

Our schedule (which was created based on our input) so far has looked like this:

  • Day 1: 3,500 m (13.5% oxygen)
  • Day 2: 3,500 m (13.5% oxygen)
  • Day 3: 4,350 m (12% oxygen)
  • Day 4: 4,960 m (11% oxygen)
  • Day 5: 5,290 m (10.5% oxygen)
  • Day 6: 5,290 m (10.5% oxygen)
  • Day 7: 5,600 m (10% oxygen)
  • Day 8: 5,975 m (9.5% oxygen)
  • Day 9: 6,000 m (9.5% oxygen)
  • Day 10: 5,300 m (10.5% oxygen)
  • Day 11: 6,350 m (9% oxygen) - sleep at 5,300 m
  • Day 12: 6,350 m (9% oxygen) - sleep at 5,600 m
  • Day 13: 6,700 m (8.5% oxygen) - sleep at 6,000 m
  • Day 14: 6,700 m (8.5% oxygen) - sleep at 6,000 m

At first we trained every day on the treadmill, stationary bike, and rolling climbing wall (!) We are finding the climbing wall to be really hard!!! We have it overhanging by only 10% and the holds are big, but, when rolling, we can only stay on it for three or so minutes at a time before we are completely anaerobic. We finally discovered that if we use it statically, we can make little laps up and down and stay on for as long as we like. Weird. The treadmill and bike are much easier to manage, and it feels good to exercise when we can.

 Here is the surprisingly difficult climbing wall. Big holds, barely overhanging, can’t seem to stay on for very long… Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Here is the surprisingly difficult climbing wall. Big holds, barely overhanging, can’t seem to stay on for very long… Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

For those interested, here is an extremely brief overview of the science stuff, summarized in my own words:

Heart tissue in adult humans and other adult mammals cannot repair itself after suffering damage from a heart attack. In the womb, human babies develop with 8% oxygen content and heart tissue grows (and can repair itself) until about one week after birth. Researchers at the University of Texas induced heart attacks in mice, put them through a proper acclimatization period, and then exposed the mice to a 7% oxygen environment for two weeks. The heart tissue in the mice showed significant repair and recovery.

(Hypoxia-induced myocardial regeneration, Watura Kimura, Yuji Nakada, Hesham A. Sadek, J. Appl. Physiol, August 17, 2017).

Read an interview with Ralf about the project (in English) by the Deutsche Welle’s adventure sports journalist Stefan Nestler here.

Until next time…

 Morning light on the Monte Rosa Group. Photo by Nancy Hansen.

Morning light on the Monte Rosa Group. Photo by Nancy Hansen.