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Sunday, 24 July 2011

White Mountain Peak Pictures: July 2011: AMS is not fun

Below is a small sample of some of the photos and video I recorded on White Mountain Peak and a very short account of our new found experience with altitude mountain sickness (AMS).  I will be positing additional photos and video in the weeks to come as I find time to communicate our knowledge and wisdom around high-altitude climbing.  I look forward to hearing any of your comments and critiques; I further invite you to add this site to your RSS feed, to your Chrome Gadget page, or to your iGoogle page so that you can stay on top of our adventures. To add us to your feed, click on the RSS icons under the "subscribe to" heading on the right-hand bar of this page.

(click playing video to watch enlarged on YouTube)

(click photo to enlarge)

Right now my head is swimming with our experience on the mountain and the value I discovered in having a portable SP02 meter with us to measure our blood hemoglobin saturation to help us adapt our breathing style on the mountain and to forecast potential problems.

(click photo to enlarge)

We started from Victoria, British Columbia (sea level) on Tuesday evening and drove all night to finally arrive in Bishop, California at around 7pm the next day.   Upon arrival in Bishop, we packed ourselves into a hotel room and got a good night's sleep.  The next morning, we got up and drove to the parking lot on the mountain (approximately 12000 feet) and started hiking towards the top of the mountain. Four of us began the ascent.  Two of us made it to the top. Two did not go to the top.  One person became ill and was escorted down by one of the original four.

(click playing video to watch enlarged on YouTube)

At altitude, with slightly reduced O2 saturation, we experienced a bit of euphoria and subtle changes in our perception of our surroundings.  While this was quite fun and interesting, this was also dangerous and we do not fully understand the long-term impact when O2 levels go "too low".  In fact, I don't believe we really know what the SPO2 number is for "too low" or how long is "too long" for "too low".  If there is one piece of wisdom to take from this blog, it is to purchase an oximeter that provides you with an indication of the percent oxygen saturation of your blood hemoglobin. You can use such a meter to learn how to breath "properly" to maximize your oxygen consumption and you can use it to decided if you are receiving enough oxygen, if you are exerting too much energy, or if you should perhaps get off the mountain.

(click playing video to watch enlarged on YouTube)

For reference, when I sit at my desk at my office in Victoria my SPO2 ranges between 96 and 99%.  When I  was at rest after driving to Bishop CA (roughly 18 hours later) my SP02 was approximately 92%.  My perception is of course subjective but I believe I could notice differences in my clarity of thought even at 92% in Bishop.  I could maintain a SP02 of between 86 and 92% on the mountain with the breathing technique I adopted and stuck with.  The meter was instrumental in helping me develop my breathing style and keeping my SPO2 above 80%.

I found that each movement of my body and each force that I exerted would lower the SP02 if I wasn't focusing on deep breathing. I now have first-hand experience as to why they say "pole, pole" on Kilimanjaro (step slowly).

My primary purpose for ascending high altitude and measuring how our bodies respond is to investigate brain function changes related to low air pressure and the related hypobaric anoxia.  Often people who ascend to high altitude perceive changes in their own brain function such as differences in the way things sound, a feeling of euphoria, a bit of a disconnection from our bodies, and subtle changes to our vision among other things. We noticed some of these experiences ourselves at only 12000 feet since we gave ourselves essentially no time to get used to altitude.  Our plan is to investigate brain function using EEG equipment on our forthcoming trip up Mount Kilimanjaro.

I carried the equipment that I will be using on Kilimanjaro to assess brain function to the top of White Mountain Peak so that I could try out the weight and balance of a backpack full of equipment and warm clothes for mountain survival.  However, I did not do any brain function measurements at the top of the mountain given the short time we had available and our recent encounter with AMS.  As a team, all of us were not ready to climb to an altitude of 14000 feet because only 2 days before we were at sea level.  I did however experiment with recording EEG data using the Emotiv EPOC on White Mountain peak at an altitude of 13000 feet.  The video below shows me recording ambulatory EEG data using the Emotiv EPOC while my colleague participates in a computer-based cognitive assessment task.

(click playing video to watch enlarged on YouTube)

Before I scare too many people into staying inside their homes this summer, there is a simple concept to digest to make you feel at ease.  This concept is acclimatization-- get used to the altitude slowly and let your body's physiology adjust to the change in air pressure.  There are various stages to this change.  The first stage I would call "conscious behavioral changes".  This is when you decide you will take it easy, move slowly, and breath hard.  The second change is a change to the characteristics of your blood (takes about a week).  The third change is a change to the capillary proliferation in your body to reduce the distance between  your blood supply and your cells (takes about a month).  There is a research station on the mountain at about 12000 feet and another one at 14000 feet on this mountain and  I assume that when people are properly acclimatized there is little problem.  People actually work at this altitude!

(click photo to enlarge)

I titled the previous blog posting "AMS for fun?".  The question mark was included in the blog title because I really had no first or second hand experience with AMS.  I now say that it is "not fun".  I didn't develop AMS but a friend of mine did. Having a friend develop AMS wasn't pleasant for anyone on the mountain, nor was it pleasant for the person who was sick.  In a week or two I will post some more detail of our account at high altitude and the insights we had that will help us on our ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro.

(click photo to enlarge)

As an afterthought to this story, I've posted additional information for people interested in data collection at high altitude.

The photograph below depicts one of us wearing an Emotive EPOC that I plan to bring on our Kilimanjaro trip to record EEG data. For information on the Emotiv EPOC, go to the Emotiv website.

For more information about blood oxygen levels and what it might feel like to be at high altitude, see the website:  (I have not verified the information on the anesthesia website.)

I just found this video of John Severinghaus describing why the research stations were created on White Mountain Peak and gives some history of high altitude research.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A bit of AMS for fun? White Mountain Peak

A group of us are headed out from Victoria on a road trip to visit White Mountain Peak (; to get a little taste of high altitude.

The plan is to drive to Bishop, California (2400m) and spend the night in a hotel.  In the morning, we'll drive up to a gate (3560m) on our way up to a weather research station at the top of the mountain. Our hike will start at the gate and continue to the summit at about 3800m.

It seems to me the drive up to 2400m in a car might be a bit challenging; especially when one considers we're starting our road trip at sea-level.

Our intention for this road trip and high altitude hike is to give some of us a taste of what ascending Kilimanjaro might be like.  The summit of Kilimanjaro is, of course much higher than the summit of White Mountain Peak, at an altitude of 5895m.

Monday, 18 July 2011

How does measuring EEG at high altitude relate to understanding the aging brain?

I am often being asked to describe how all of my projects fit together. For those of you 'in the know', I'm not only examining brain function related to high altitude and developing the processing algorithms to do so, I'm also working on a project to measure brain function in relation to health and physical exercise.  We are currently working on the processes involved in both projects.  That is, we're figuring out how to collect reliable data that are indicators of fitness and brain function from people in settings that are outside of the experiment laboratory.

In addition to identifying procedures for collecting reliable data, we're also developing algorithms to process the data that detect the information of interest contained in the data and reject noise sources in the data.  This is where an investigation of high altitude brain function comes in handy.

An investigation of changes in brain function in relation to a mountain ascent provides the opportunity to collect data having progressively 'changed' brain function (as the climber ascends the mountain) in the space of a week.  Once these data are collected, I can sit down and create an algorithm that mines the data for features that correlate with the anoxic effects of altitude (changed brain function that relates to the fundamental operation of our brain) the following week.  It is the algorithm that is developed on these data that can be applied to data collected from the average aging person that could be sensitive and revealing of changes in the fundamental operation of the brain due to disease and aging.

What is of primary interest are brain function features contained in the EEG that relate to lasting brain function rather than temporary divergences from normal brain function such as those caused by low blood sugar, low oxygen, too much coffee, or inadequate sleep.  That said, our behavior is our brain function and if we are having a day of significantly unusual brain function, our behavior should also be affected.  Yes, I'm building an, "I'm having an off-day" detector.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Extreme exercise fatigue on Finlayson: my blood sugar and my brain

On Saturday, during the Mt. Finlayon Madness competition, a colleague and I hiked to the top of the mountain and 'prototyped' part of our High-Altitude Brain Function on Kilimanjaro experiment.  Throughout the day, I ran up and down the mountain as a participant in the competition. Each time I reached to top of the mountain, my colleague, Megan Yim, went through the procedure of measuring my blood glucose, blood pressure, heart rate, EEG, and ran me through some of our computer-based cognitive evaluation processes.  The weather was perfect for debugging our examination procedure; it rained most of the day and we had to come up with ways to keep the equipment dry. These wet and cold conditions helped reveal weaknesses in our data collection paradigm and presented us with an opportunity to creatively shore up these weaknesses.

In addition to providing for an 'alpha-test' of our high-altitude paradigm, it also revealed to me how my body responds to extreme exercise fatigue. This race gave me an opportunity to push my body harder than I have in the past.  It wasn't the ascent and decent of Finlayson that was the real challenge for me (says my ego); it was the fact that I did it during a fast. The morning before the race I drank about 1 litre of chocolate milk to get me going before arriving at Finlayson.  Other than that, I didn't consume any calories until about 3pm that afternoon.  Of course, I drank as much water as needed.  Doing this helped to simulate a physically and mentally strenuous activity and I had to work really hard to get to the top of the mountain.  The first thing that I learned is that I am truly a competitive person. I didn't like fasting and watching other people eat cookies, while they pass me on the way up the mountain.  It wasn't so much that they were eating cookies in front of my that bothered me;  it was that I incapacitated myself enough that I couldn't keep up to some of them.  Yes, my ego took a beating. Upon my 4th ascent up Finlayson, I was in hurting;  I imagine that this is similar to what I'll be facing over a multiple day ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro. On Mt. Kilimanjaro however, it won't be blood glucose that will be in short supply-- it will be oxygen.

During this prototype experiment, I discovered that what I eat and when I eat during high-level physical output has a very profound impact on me and I'm now wiser having had this experience. However, there was a time in my life when my wisdom was lacking.  When I was in high-school I used to play rugby.  I played as a back; they put me on the wing.  It was my job to run as fast as I could, keep slightly behind the other backs with the ball, and when the time was right, they would pass the ball to me and I would score on the other team.  At least, that was what was supposed to happen.  For me, whenever I got the ball, I would usually not make the best decision about where to go to get between the other players and score.  It always seemed like I couldn't think and run hard at the same time. It seemed strange to me that I had difficulty thinking while I was running with a ball, attempting to doge my opponents, to score points for our team.

Some personal insight as to why I might have had difficulty thinking clearly while playing rugby when I was in high school came when Megan and I were on Mt. Finlayson.  After my first ascent up the mountain and during my fast, my blood sugar was in the low range (the "you should probably eat" range"). I had difficulty with our cognitive tests; I felt cold and distracted.  After my second ascent up the mountain, my blood sugar actually increased a bit to a range were I felt like myself; I felt pretty good. And I did OK on our cognitive tests. This was also the case for my 3rd ascent up the mountain.  On my 4th ascent, I felt terrible.  I really had to push myself hard; it wasn't my legs that were the problem, it was that I was felling terrible from the inside; it was really difficult to move forward. But I did-- I had food waiting for me at the top of the mountain.  When I reached the top, we collected my info:  my blood sugar was very low and my cognitive test scores were terrible.  After collecting data, I gorged myself on cookies, chips, and scones. This is where I learned something about my rugby days; when we measured my blood sugar again about 20 mins after eating, it was very, very high. While my blood sugar was high, I did our cognitive tests and did terribly. Maybe eating Jello before each game didn't help with my decision making during rugby games.

Interestingly, after the next descent and subsequent ascent, my blood glucose returned to the normal range and my cognitive exam scores were great.

When we ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro this Fall, it will be the oxygen that is in short supply.  During conditions of low air-pressure, our brains will not function as they should and we will likely feel a fatigue similar (or greater) to what I felt on my 4th ascent up Finlayson while fasting. I'll be able to give you a comparison of a glucose low and an oxygen low very shortly; some of us are headed up White Mountain (4344m altitude) this week to find out what a short high altitude exposure is like.  Interestingly, we can drive up to 3560m before going for a hike to the summit.  I have a feeling we're going to be hit hard by the altitude given that we will have basically no time to get used to the altitude.

Overall, our high altitude endeavors are to add to our understanding of the cognitive effects of mild anoxia, and to our understanding of the impact this has climbers and mountaineers. Our planned Kilimarjaro study will be used to inform a larger study for the purpose of developing recommendations for high-altitude adventurers to detect impending problems at higher altitudes and perhaps even optimize training in order to preserver decision making.  We will continue to post information pertaining to our preparation and our actual trip up Kilimanjaro over the months to come.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Mt. Finlayson: EEG and extreme exercise fatigue

As part of my preparation for our Kilimanjaro project, my colleagues and I will be collecting a similar set of data while I participate in an extreme endurance race this weekend.

This Saturday, a competition called "Mt. Finlayson Madness" will take place on the steep Mt. Finlayson hiking trail. During this competition, participants will ascend and descend Mt. Finlayson as many times as possible within a time of 12 hours. (  While I am very interested to know how many times I can get up and down the mountain in the space of 12 hours, I'm even more interested in how my brain function changes while I throw myself up and down a mountain in a competition against other people.

Multiple types of physiological data will be collected. We will collect EEG data using the Emotiv EPOC headset. We will also collect blood glucose, heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen level data.  In addition to these data, we will also experiment with some neuropsychological tests.

If the data are interesting, I'll be sure to post them to this blog for other people to see.  Along with data, we will also post some video of the event.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Officially 35 years old

I'm now officially 35 years old!  Have I reached the middle of my life?  Hard to say.... I'm told that things keep getting better.  At any rate, I haven't discovered a downside to being 35, healthy, and active.  Maybe those that are older than me are too wise to speak of such a thing (a downside).

I also thought about what it means to be 35 and living the life that I have right this moment.  Right now my own opportunity is to challenge the established assumptions about the world and perhaps accelerate or re-direct some of our social and technological momentums.  Being 35 means that I have the opportunity be mentored by, and get to inject enthusiasm into, those with much more life experience than myself and I get to teach and mentor those who look for examples in their lives.

A question that popped into my head as I ate my birthday dinner asked what the world will be like in another 35 years.  The only thing I can say for certain is that in 35 years I'll be looking at the world through the eyes of a 70 year-old. In truth, I really have no idea if I will still have my health.  I am hopeful that I'll still be as open-minded as I've become with a continued capacity to have new ideas, and objectively weigh the values, and be a part of the opportunities, the next generation introduces. I know that I will continue to have people in my life that will keep my mind open and challenge my assumptions.

Thank-you everyone for this life I have and for sharing it with me!


I recently discovered that "35 years old" is a popular search term on the internet.  This got me thinking a little bit about why some people might using this particular key word search.  Some possible reasons:

You really just want to see more of my Action Adventurous blog:

You're interested in finding some love?: Try a dating site :)
A colleague and I are currently writing an article that provides an analysis of which dating site to use.  We should have the full article posted in a week or so and I'll be sure to add a link to the article from this page.
For now, I'll give you what our analysis found would be a good site for a typical 35 year old male with a graduate school education: FYI: I am not a member of this site.

Adventure? What do I do now that I'm 35? What's next?
Consider a mountain adventure. There are many guiding companies available.

RMI Guides: (I have some friends who use this company)
Team Kilimanjaro: (we used this company for our trip in 2011)

Perhaps you're into some adventure charity:

Across the divide:

Finally, maybe your next step is to go back to school:

University of Victoria:
University of British Columbia:
Stanford University: