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Report: Danger at Relatively Low Altitudes

Posted on: October 14th, 2009 by admin

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AAC member Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist from Maryland, has published a very interesting report in the October issue of Outside magazine about studies of mountaineers’ brain scans. It’s long been known that mountaineers may experience some permanent changes in their brains—and resulting loss of function—after climbing to extremely high altitudes without supplementary oxygen. But a Spanish neuroradiologist and his colleagues are documenting abnormalities in the brains of climbers on peaks as low as Mont Blanc (15,771 feet). You can read the article here.

In search of specific advice for climbers, we contacted Fields, who said,”The take-home message for climbers is to take altitude illness (even relatively mild illness) seriously, and acclimatize properly. No more running from sea level to 10,000 feet in a day with a splitting case of AMS for me! Of course there will be situations (changing weather, etc.) that will require you to take the additional risk of a rapid ascent, but climbers should know this is the exception and that they are assuming this risk to avoid a greater one.

Fields elaborated in an email: “Here are some more thoughts that might be of special relevance to the AAC community. Maybe we can build on this and make some changes for the better. These are only my opinions, and many climbers will have other views.”

1. The Park Service should provide an overnight camp for climbers at 5,000 feet for use the day before ascending any high-elevation mountain. All we need is a porta potty and a patch of ground. Considering all the resources the Park Service devotes to SAR, [and that] many of the tragedies are a consequence of altitude illness, I think it is criminal that they do not allow climbers to acclimatize. On Mt. Rainier, for example, there is a junk shop, lodge, visitor center, and restaurant at 5,000 feet, but you can’t camp. The nearest camping is at 3,000 feet. That elevation is useless for acclimatizing because the oxygen partial pressure is not sufficiently different from sea level. Climbers ascending from the 3,000-foot camp are not permitted to camp again until reaching over 8,500. This Park Service policy is almost guaranteed to make people coming from sea level ill. This is negligence in my view, given the new medical knowledge of altitude illness and brain damage. People living at high altitude who are already acclimatized would not need to camp the first night at 5,000 feet, but climbers should have this option to properly manage this known risk of climbing.

2. Personally, I really admire the extraordinary climbers who pushed beyond what were believed to be the limits of human physiology by ascending the highest mountains on Earth without supplemental oxygen. Now, however, this has become something of a merit badge for climbers—the thing to do if you want to be elite and climb in the most esteemed style. To my way of thinking, this makes no more sense now than dashing to the summit without a jacket. Secondly, as a practical matter, not everyone has the physiology and training of those elite climbers who showed this was possible. There is no need to repeat this achievement, and the trend to emulate these climbers is trouble. People will pay with their lives or their brain tissue.

3. Guide services should consider offering clients extended trips on big mountains with ascent profiles and rests that allow more time for acclimatization. Clients need to be willing to pay for the extended trip and provide the demand for this option—the guides don’t need it because they are acclimatized. My guess is that the guide services wouldn’t mind doing fewer summits per year for the same amount of income and less health problems.

4. As a scientist, I know how difficult it is to do this kind of research. Essentially, it will never be done to the extent we would like because of the sticky issues involved in human experimentation and the competition for grant funding that views climbers as a fringe group in comparison to health issues of wider scope for the population. Neal Beidleman offered a great suggestion to me: The data we need for this scientific research is already in the climbing community itself! What we need is to survey our members to obtain medical information on their neurological health and correlate this with their climbing experience. Statistical analysis could tell us what the risks are and develop better ascent profiles and measures to avoid long-term illness. Do high-altitude climbers have more Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, memory problems, dementia, etc., in later life or not? Can the AAC help do this? I would be very eager to participate as a scientist in developing such a study.

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