Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Mt Everest

Another contribution to organic athletes website

Let the Mountains Touch Your Heart
Submitted by StefaniaLicari on June 8, 2009 - 13:45.

….A trek up to Everest on a mangoes mono-diet
I had never thought about Mt Everest before but I had been dreaming of Tibet for years. For some reason, Tibet represented the ultimate spiritual journey. So here we are, I book my trip to Lhasa and I include Mt Everest- and why not if I have to go all the way to base camp, I might as well go further. I find out that the highest point you can go without being a serious climber (rock, ice climbing) is Camp 3, and my climbing experience are limited to rope climbing a very few times below 4000m.
Camp 3 is an area where advanced Base Camp is located and the altitude of the area is between 6340m and 7100m. What I didn’t know was that I would have found extreme weather conditions (warm days but freezing -20 C nights), very challenging terrain and painfully uncomfortable camping. Toss that in with dry air, frequent headaches, occasional dizziness and one major episode of sickness in the middle of the night.
Also what I didn’t know was that I would have had the chance to be in one of the most scenic and stunning places of the world. And it really touched my heart.
Tom (a Swedish guy) and I made our way to Camp 3 6370m over a period of 9 days starting from Base Camp (5020m). Our Tibetan support team included: a guide, a cook, a yak man and 3 strong yaks who kindly carried our rack-sacs, tents, food supplies up to camp 2. As almost a fruitarian (my diet consists mainly of fruits, plus veggies and nuts) I had to ask the tour company to provide fresh fruits for me. The kind yaks carried for me 50 kg of mangoes (for purpose of understanding I have to make the point that mango is truly my favourite food and also I thought it would be the best to tolerate altitude stress) and I had 5 kg of mangoes a day for the entire trip up to final destination. In the evening I would also have some vegetables.
Only at the very end my team came out of the shock of seeing somebody eating so many mangoes, and actually be happy! To me that was paradise, can you imagine a better reward after an intense trekking day than your favourite food over and over again?
The trekking was a serious struggle, and we really found the terrain quite challenging. To understand the reason of such a shortness of breath while trekking or running in Mt Everest, we need to go back to our physiology books and have a look at what happens when we go so high.
Not only there are major kinds of environmental stress, such as the extreme weather conditions and the dry air that can result in rapid dehydration, but the most significant factor is that the air pressure is much lower at the higher altitude due to the fact that the atmosphere is less dense, that means that air molecules are farther apart. At 5500m (Camp 1 Everest) for instance the atmospheric pressure is less than half of that at sea level! While at sea level oxygen can easily pass through the lung membranes into the blood stream, at high altitudes, the lower air pressure makes it more difficult for oxygen to enter our vascular system, which results in hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). Symptoms of high altitude include loss of appetite, distorted vision, difficulty in memorizing and thinking clearly, headache, dizziness, vomiting, nightmares, restless sleep etc. In serious cases, pulmonary edema and cerebral edema might occur due to an abnormal accumulation of fluid respectively in the lungs and around the brain. These can be quickly fatal and the only real treatment is descending to lower altitude as soon as possible.
The current scientific thinking is that generic inheritance is responsible for altitude sickness. Those who have low expression levels of the PDP2 gene generally have more severe symptoms. This gene codes for protein that assists in the conversion of food into fuel and seems linked with response to altitude.
When going up, our clever body responds with some physiological and anatomical changes (acclimatisation) that occur over a matter of days or weeks and let crazy people like me to go up and still be good enough to take pictures or test a bit of running. Fundamentally there is an increase on the respiratory rate and the pulse rate due to the decreased oxygen pressure. In more detailed terms this can be explained by looking at the alveolar gas equation (PA02= Pi02- PAC02/R)* that helps to understand the gas exchanges at the level of the lungs membranes. The hyperventilation will result in decreased C02 which will help to maintain the ratio close to normal level.
Are there any good points to extreme altitude? Why do some athletes choose to go and train at high altitudes? Despite an initial drop in fitness when exposed to altitude, physiological changes including the production of more red cells to facilitate the transport of oxygen and an increase in the lungs capability, cause athletes and non athletes happily experience an improvement in their performances when they go back to sea level.
So the struggle is worth for the views, the spiritual experience, and the increased fitness when back home.
Did I get fitter? I am sure I did, if it was not that on my flight back I stopped in Delhi and I caught the “Delhi belly” so no running for a bit.
There is an advert of a snack bar that says “nothing can weigh you down, when you are at the top of the world.” I went to Mt Everest with the idea that it would have been a great achievement, that I would have felt stronger and bigger when at the top - a bit of an ego trip. But we never get from our travelling what we “plan” or expect to, especially when we go into them with an open heart and an open mind- open to understanding, and perhaps to big changes. I went to Mt Everest with a clear intent, and came down with a totally different result - something much more rewarding, something I was not even aware I was capable of.
I went up to 6370 m with the idea to get all pampered up about how good I was, and what I found at the top instead, was that the only big favour I could do to myself was opening my eyes and my heart and drop my expectations and my big ego trips and embrace the humbleness that Tibetan people so genuinely express in every single act.
I had the realisation that compassion is the key to a better world, that achievements (such as climbing, running…etc…) don’t make you a better person per se, don’t give you any merit when they are ego based. We need to learn how to live in symbiosis with humans and other creatures, we need to speak words of wisdom, we need to nourish and express true compassion. The world if full of ego centred super-achievers, by going up to Mt Everest I wanted to give myself something new: its not about achievement this time, I am here as a learner, a listener, a disciple. What a real empowering experience.
* PAO2= Pio2 –PaCO2/R R= coefficient factorPiO2= Fi02 (Pb-47mmHg) at sea level
PAO2= alveolar P02 calculated using R 0.8 except at the very summit of Everest (over 8000m) where R is 0.84Pi02 pressure of inspired oxygen in the tracheaFi02 is fraction of inspired oxygen 0.21 at any altitudePAC02 is arterial PC02 assumed =alveolar C02