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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)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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