Life at 7,000m (PART II)


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.

This is Part II of her journey.

Click here to read Part I

Current Conditions Update from the lab

Living in a windowless laboratory under low oxygen conditions has its ups and downs. This past week has been one full of medical tests, learning for everyone, questions, concerns, disappointments, and laughs (I couldn’t do without the latter).

Ralf and I are now theoretically acclimatized and should be able to live at 8% oxygen, or the equivalent of 7,100 m (138 m higher than Aconcagua) for the next two weeks. We spent the first 2.5 weeks acclimatizing, took a couple of rest days at lower altitudes, and now we are back to the maximum “altitude” for the most important part of the study.

It all started with a ski tour

Ralf Dujmovits skiing at about 4,000 m on the Swiss / Italian border. Lyskamm (4,527 m) and the Matterhorn (4,478 m) are behind him. Photo by Nancy Hansen.

Ralf Dujmovits skiing at about 4,000 m on the Swiss / Italian border. Lyskamm (4,527 m) and the Matterhorn (4,478 m) are behind him. Photo by Nancy Hansen.

Not included in the 2.5 weeks of laboratory acclimatization are the seven days Ralf and I spent on a beautiful, high ski tour along the Swiss / Italian border. The European alpine clubs have many huts that are higher than most mountains in the Canadian Rockies. A few of them are higher than any peak in Canada outside of the St. Elias Range. Despite their lofty altitude, many of these huts still provide full service – with hot cooked meals, home-made cakes, beer, coffee, bedding and even showers.

After we left the Swiss Monte Rosa Hut (2,883 m), we gained 1,500 m of altitude to the Swiss / Italian border, standing on top of a 4,341 m bump before descending beautiful corn snow to the Gnifetti Hut in Italy. At 3,647 m, it is higher than Mt. Assiniboine. It was built in 1876 and now accommodates 176 people!

Nancy skis nice corn snow towards the Gnifetti Hut (3,647 m). Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Nancy skis nice corn snow towards the Gnifetti Hut (3,647 m). Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Due to the combination of altitude and exertion, I felt quite unwell for the first few hours at the hut. After a nap, I felt much better and was able to enjoy the amazing Italian food served to us. Over the two days we stayed at the “hut”, they served us roast chicken, asparagus risotto, fine Italian cheeses and prosciutto, creamy lasagna, chocolate fondue with fresh fruit, and more. It was really 4-star dining!

Enjoying chocolate fondue and fresh fruit at 3,647 m in Italy. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits. 

Enjoying chocolate fondue and fresh fruit at 3,647 m in Italy. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits. 

Meanwhile, back in the lab

When I wrote the last blog post a week ago, Ralf and I had reached two daytime altitudes of 6,700 m. We spent the next two days at 7,100 m, with the nights at 6,000 and 6,350 m. The highest I’ve ever been in the mountains is 6,700 m (although I slept there).

The feeling of losing oxygen in the lab is quite different to gaining altitude outside. Outside, we are working hard carrying heavy packs and climbing uphill. Then we have to build a camp and get busy melting snow, drinking and eating. In the lab, we just sit around in relative comfort while they pump nitrogen into our rooms. For the first couple of hours, it feels like I’m having a great time drinking just a little too much wine. I feel quite euphoric and giggly. At some point though, it feels like I should have stopped drinking wine a long time before, but someone is still pouring it down my throat. During the four days we went to 6,700 m and 7,100 m, I spent the last couple hours of the day feeling really unwell, and counting down the minutes until they raised the oxygen levels for the night.

Nancy trying to appreciate the finer aspects of being at high altitude. Video by Ralf Dujmovits.

There are many tests the scientists conduct on us daily to make sure that our bodies are not being pushed beyond what they should be. Ralf passes all the tests with flying colours. In almost three weeks in the lab, his only complaints have been a couple of very brief, very minor headaches. Scientifically speaking, he is an easy, almost boring subject in this particular study so far. Don’t get me wrong – the reason he was selected to be here was because of his high altitude experience and expertise, which they are relying on heavily, and which we all appreciate immensely.

Ralf Dujmovits looking relaxed on his final 8,000 m peak, Lhotse (8,516 m) in 2009. Photo: Ralf Dujmovits collection.

Ralf Dujmovits looking relaxed on his final 8,000 m peak, Lhotse (8,516 m) in 2009. Photo: Ralf Dujmovits collection.

I, on the other hand, am giving the scientists a bit of a hard time. They have certain tests to which they have assigned critical numbers – numbers that decide whether they raise the oxygen level or remove me from the study. In several of these tests, I am hovering right at the critical number, giving them cause for concern. The biggest problem seems to be the transfer of oxygenated blood from the right side of my heart to my lungs. My lungs don’t seem to want to accept it, and this creates big pressure in the right side of my heart as it tries to force the oxygenated blood out. I don’t actually feel that anything is wrong, except when I tried to ride the bicycle last week at 6,700 m. I could barely sustain 15 km/hr, which is almost nothing on a bicycle on flat ground. I think back to my few altitude excursions at the 6,000 m+ level, and can see that I suffered from the same lack of energy. Now I know why.

The doctors will be carefully monitoring my heart’s pulmonary pressure and my blood gases in the coming days to see if I stabilize or if the situation worsens. Not to worry – my heart will not give out. If we did not monitor the situation and it was to get worse, I would likely develop pulmonary edema, but that is not going to happen in the safety of the lab. In the mountains, without daily complex medical testing, it does happen to many.

Our hearts at the beginning of the study, taken by the MRI experts at the German Aerospace Centre.

We had some joyous moments in the lab in the past week. The first was when they raised the oxygen level to 12.5%, or about 4,000 m. Ralf and I rode, ran, and climbed until we sweated, we worked our abs, drank a beer and stayed up until 11 p.m. It felt like the first day of spring after a long winter!

Training like crazy on our day at “just” 4,000 m. Yippee! Video by Ralf Dujmovits.

The next came two days later, when we got to go outside from our windowless lab for the first time in 17 days. We had to wear masks to maintain our low level of oxygen, but it was a real treat to see the rainy sky for a few minutes.

Day 17 was an exciting one for us - we got to leave the lab! Video by Dr. Ulrich Limper.

Another source of joy for us is the team of scientists and support staff who are working here and looking after us. The whole team is incredibly nice, interesting, fun to be around, highly educated, and we really feel that they have our best interests at heart. Since my German speaking skills appear to be disappearing (hopefully temporarily) at the same rate as our ascent, I appreciate that they all speak excellent English.

The team that is looking after us! Video by Dr. Ulrich Limper

That’s it until sometime towards the end of the study, or until they are forced to remove me – whichever comes first. I feel like I’m a participant in “Survivor”, trying desperately not to get voted off the island. If only my lungs and heart will cooperate!

For those who didn’t read the first blog post, here is a summary of why Ralf and I are here:

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).