U.S. Scientists Head to Mount Everest to Study High-Altitude Effects

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On Friday a team of American scientists began a weeklong trek to the base of Mt. Everest where they will remain for at least a month to study the effects of high altitudes on humans. The researchers, from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, will monitor nine climbers at altitude in hopes of gaining insight into human ailments like heart disease.

The researchers say Everest’s altitude puts climbers under the same conditions experienced by patients suffering from heart disease, the Associated Press reports. The scientists plan to look closely at a variety of effects of extreme altitude — on the heart, the lungs, muscle loss and sleep — and will focus specifically on lung congestion during heart failure. Lung congestion often kills climbers.

“We are interested in some of the parallels between high altitude physiology and heart failure physiology,” lead researcher Dr. Bruce Johnson told the AP before leaving Nepal’s capital, Katmandu, for the mountain. “What we are doing here will help us with our work that we have been doing in the [Mayo Clinic] laboratory.”

(MORE: Ibuprofen Can Prevent Altitude Sickness)

The research team is carrying 1,500 pounds of medical equipment, with the help of porters and yaks, to their lab at the base camp — located at 17,380 ft. (5,300 m) — of the world’s tallest mountain. The nine climbers will be monitored as they ascend toward Everest’s peak at 29,035 ft. (8,850 m). Reuters reports:

Johnson said each of the nine climbers, who are already at the mountain acclimatizing, will be fitted with equipment including a special wrist watch and an arm band that will allow their body to be monitored at a base camp laboratory.

The watch will measure the blood oxygen level and the specially designed arm band will show their energy expenditure and how many calories they burn.

Climbers will also be wearing the “Mayo platform,” an instrument devised by the clinic that fits in a tiny pocket on the climber’s clothing and will measure their cardiovascular activity, Johnson said.

Specially developed video games will also be used to test the cognitive performance of climbers, such as their ability to think at high altitude, where oxygen levels are low.

(MORE: Study: High Altitudes Linked to Suicide)

Hundreds of climbers and guides attempt to reach Everest’s peak each year, and thousands of others climb to base camp. Many suffer from high altitude sickness and complications due to the low oxygen levels. On Wednesday, a Sherpa guide — who has climbed Everest at least 10 times — was the first person of the spring season to die of altitude sickness, the AP reports.

On Friday, the Mayo team departs from the Sherpa village of Lukla to begin their climb to base camp. In their blog, they write: “We’re holding here for a little bit yet and then start our first day of trekking. Flight in was gorgeous, not scary at all, as long as you overlooked the condition of the plane.”

You can follow the Mayo Clinic team’s blog and see updated photos on the National Geographic adventure blog.

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