Leeds Beckett scientists prepare Army for Everest challenge
A team of six Regular and Reserve soldiers, along with their team doctor, will depart from the UK in April to attempt the feat. As part of their preparations for the conditions that they will face, they are taking part in a research study led by Leeds Beckett PhD student, Mark Cooke, and supervised by Dr John O’Hara, Reader in Sport and Exercise Physiology, and Visiting Professor Lt. Col. David Woods.
The University experts are putting the team through a pre-acclimatisation protocol, allowing the expedition team to experience and acclimatise to the physiological challenges of climbing at an extreme altitude. The aim of the research is to enhance the likelihood of the team reaching the top of Mount Everest.
Dr John O’Hara explained: “At high altitude, pulmonary diffusion and oxygen transportation are limited, meaning the body is in a state of oxygen deficiency. The body tries to compensate for this, and through acclimatisation, this situation can be improved. However, at extreme altitudes such as on Mount Everest, the body cannot completely compensate, which makes such a challenge very hard and potentially life-threatening. Therefore, we hope that this training prior to the expedition will help them acclimatise more effectively whilst on the mountain and enhance their performance. In conjunction with outdoor activity specialists, Carnegie Great Outdoors, we have a strong history of working with military expeditions in preparing for such challenges and feel strongly that this research will assist them in summiting Mount Everest.”
Dr Kirsty Watson, British Army team doctor and an Army Reserve officer with 208 Field Hospital in Blackpool, added: “My role is to keep the team alive and well on the mountain and bring them home again! The injuries that you see tend to be injuries from falling, problems with their teeth, lots of altitude sickness, pulmonary oedema (the build-up of fluid within the lungs) and cerebral oedema (fluid on the brain), chest and skin infections. I’m expecting to see all of these, which is part of my duty of care.
“I think that this training will make us feel more prepared going to altitude and this can save them time but also the symptoms of feeling unwell. I think what we are doing here is amazing and that it’s going to be the future. It’s really quite exciting to be involved.”
Mark Cooke said: “The point of pre-acclimatisation is to try and kick-start the body’s response to being exposed to altitude as the body has to adapt in order to survive and perform at extreme high altitudes. We can assess the team’s responses in our chamber where we can control the environment and monitor how they respond, which in turn can help us to try and predict how they may respond throughout the expedition. Many of the team have got lots of experience of altitude exposure so they’re quite comfortable with some of the symptoms which occur on exposure to hypoxic (reduced oxygen content) environments. Certain individuals respond well to altitude and are efficient in their adaptation. However, some Individuals do not cope well at altitude and are therefore more at risk to altitude-related illnesses such as Acute Mountain Sickness. So having a number of intermittent hypoxic exposures prior to departure will maximise the chances of the team having a successful expedition.”
In 2006, Dave Bunting MBE, Outdoor Development Management at the University’s Carnegie Great Outdoors, led a team of climbers from the British Army on a ground-breaking expedition to attempt to become the first British team to complete the infamous West Ridge of Mount Everest. The team spent three years preparing for the expedition, training at Leeds Beckett University and were forced to turn back by avalanche conditions on summit day. 2006 team member, Captain Rab Black, has returned to the campus as he prepares to be part of the 2015 North Ridge expedition.
Dave commented: “Following the huge success of the partnership between the University’s Carnegie Faculty and the Everest West Ridge 2006 expedition I am delighted to see the Army return to our University to undergo preparation for their 2015 Everest attempt. Ten years ago, as we prepared for our attempt, we found the focussed support given by the dedicated team of experts gave us the extra edge which helped us to overcome the punishing challenges of climbing at such extreme altitudes. I am sure this same support will offer the 2015 team the edge they need and give them the very best chance of having a memorable experience and having success. I wish the team the very best for a successful climb to the summit of Everest and look forward to hearing about their experiences on their safe return to the UK.”
Warrant Officer (2) Simon Naylor, Expedition Leader of the Army team and Chief Instructor at the Soldier Development Wing which exposes Army recruits to the development opportunities of mountaineering, said: “We feel like we’ve been getting a really good robust testing here at the University and we’re proud to be a part of the wider research.
“You can just about hear it in my breath – at the moment we are at the equivalent altitude of Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps at 4,800 metres and the equivalent in air pressure. What does that mean? It is extremely hard to breathe and this is just less than half the height of Everest so acclimatisation, the body adapting at altitude, is pretty difficult.
“It’s been really nice as this is just before we go next Monday so it’s the last physical and psychological preparation before we go. We’re feeling good and morale is high.”
During the training, the Army team is spending prolonged periods of time each day in the University’s environmental chamber, which simulates extreme altitude conditions through the manipulation of the fraction of inspired oxygen at sea level. The scientists will be testing the team both before and after the training to measure effectiveness of the pre-acclimation protocol, as well as assessing the effectiveness of the training on the expedition.
Photos courtesy of Corporal Michael Strachan RLC, British Army.