Researchers describe Everest trip

Members of a UBC  international research expedition experienced illness, language barriers and terrifying plane flights on their trip last spring to Mount Everest.

But the expedition, which focused on high altitude  impacts on human cardiovascular health, was more than worth it they told a crowd at Okanagan College on Thursday night.

"It was a whole different environment. Altitude and me are not the best of friends," said Jon Smirl, a student and research assistant. "But it was good for sharing knowledge with the scientific community and for the next step in our careers."

After flying from Kathmandu to Lukla, which is at a high enough elevation to cause some physical damage, the group trekked to Everest's Pyramid laboratory, a fully scientific lab at 5,050 metres, where they conducted eight experiments.

Using themselves as study subjects the researchers, including UBC students, measured their cerebrovascular, cardiopulmonary and neurocognitive health to gauge the effects of acute mountain sickness and sleep apnea. The  symptoms are characteristic of many chronic conditions including heart attack, stroke and respiratory failure.

"When you go up there, the body is receiving less oxygen, which is just like when you get certain types of heart and lung diseases,  so this allowed us to understand the early stages of those diseases," said Philip Ainslie,the expedition leader and UBC's Okanagan campus researcher of the year.

In addition to doing experiments on their own bodies, the researchers compared themselves to Sherpas, who have had a lifetime of exposure to high altitudes.

Among their findings were Sherpa adults have relatively healthy blood vessels.

As a result of the expedition, they are also close to discovering what causes sleep apnea, said Ainslie.

Nia Lewis, a post doctoral fellow, who served as lead researcher, made findings in measuring the human circulatory system.

"Despite the bouts of mountain sickness and sleep apnea we all suffered it became apparent that after two weeks, the human body was successfully adapting to high altitudes," she said . "Blood vessels among the expedition members were expanding like rubber tubes to accommodate higher flows of oxygen rich blood to the brain and vital organs."

It was the first time the human circulatory system was studied for changes in blood flow at high altitude.

Greg DuManoir, an Okanagan College professor of human kinesiology and expedition member, said the research projects he participated in will benefit his students for years to come. In addition, lifelong friends in the scientific community were made.

"Health and wellness are in good hands, if we can continue to do this sort of thing," he said.

Smirl, who said he got horribly sick after 3,500 metres, described the sleep studies as interesting along with the work he did with Sherpas, once he was healthy enough.

Doing a hike to see a sunrise behind Everest once the research was complete was also hands down the most amazing thing he had ever seen, he told the audience.

"I can't say enough about this and the connections we made across the world," he said.

Ryan Hoiland, an undergraduate student who served as a research assistant, said it was a way for him to build his skills from the ground up.

"I got to go to Mount Everest with world renowned researchers, so I knew I had big shoes to fill," he said. "It's  extremely important to say how fortunate I was."

The next phase of interpreting research data from the six week expedition will be presented in papers delivered to an international conference on hypoxia in Lake Louise in February, 2013.

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