In May 2007, Xtreme Everest sent a research team to the summit of Mount Everest. They took the first-ever measurement of the level of oxygen in human blood at 8400m, on the balcony of Everest. This was the centrepiece of an extensive and continuing programme of research into hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and human performance at extreme altitude. It’s aimed at improving the care of patients, especially those in intensive care, for whom hypoxia is a fundamental problem.
Then in 2013 a group of doctors and scientists from the charity returned to Nepal for 3 months. They undertook medical research on groups of trekkers who had signed up to be medically tested along the Everest Base Camp trek. The research team were specifically looking at how Westerner’s physiology differs from that of the Sherpas who have such clear advantages in the mountains over lowlanders; as well as testing twins and children to see whether epigenetic changes affect acclimatisation.
Thanks to numerous donations and generous sponsors, they have managed to analyse data from these research studies conducted at altitude. They have looked at everything from the working of the mitochondria, to nitric oxide metabolism and even the analysis of the ciliary hairs in the nasal passage. The results have increased our understanding of how our bodies respond to low oxygen environments, and the team has already started to use this knowledge to alter the care given to critically ill individuals.
One in five of us will end up in intensive care and one-fifth of those admitted will sadly die. A major cause of this is a lack of oxygen when it is most needed. This unique research team exploits the oxygen-thin air at high altitudes to provide critical insights into how intensive care patients might be helped in the future. It could save thousands of lives of people with a range of diseases including cancer, heart/lung disease, and cystic fibrosis.
So what better way to celebrate the charity’s 10th anniversary than with a trek to Everest Base Camp where more medical research could be conducted along the way?
The research this time involved blood tests, collecting various swab samples, and detailed ultrasounds of our hearts and lungs. Together with the other trek group leaders, Andy and I also wore a special physiological monitoring vest and pulse oximeter. These assessed our heart rate, ECG, breathing rate, and sleeping positions as we ascended up the mountain. After a day of testing at ‘sea level’ in Kathmandu (1400m), we all flew out to Lukla (2800m) high in the Himalayas where the trek begins. It took 11 days in total to trek to Base Camp, with acclimatisation and medical testing days in Namche (3440m) and Pheriche (4270m).
Whilst the team have published a number of articles about their findings, and presented across the globe, their results have never formally been fed back to the Sherpa community who have supported them since their first visit to the Everest region. As part of the 10th anniversary trek a very successful conference was held in Namche for all of the Sherpas who had either helped with the expeditions so far, or were involved in the studies in 2013.
On Good Friday we then successfully led most of our group into Everest Base Camp. We could not have asked for better conditions that day – warm, sunny and clear – giving us fantastic views of Everest and the Khumbu icefall. Walking back from Base Camp it began to snow and overnight over a foot of snow fell. This made the first day of walking down a very different matter, but the scenery was made even more spectacular!
With over 80miles of walking, 2 close yak encounters, more than 50 people undergoing medical testing, and successful conferences by Xtreme Everest for the Sherpas and other Nepalis, it was certainly a busy trip requiring both physical and mental strength from everyone. I am very proud to say I helped in the success of this expedition, and been part of the Xtreme Everest team.
To find out more about the fantastic work Xtreme Everest have done, please visit http://xtreme-everest.co.uk