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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Altitude: It's More Dangerous Than You Thought

A number of years ago, I climbed from the 14,000-foot camp on Denali to the Football Field at 19,500 feet in six or seven hours. I was very well acclimatized to 14,000 feet, and I didn't feel any symptoms of acute mountain sickness other than being very tired. Yet, according to an article in the October Outside, I likely experienced some brain damage during this ascent.

Douglas Fields, a climber and neuroscientist, reported on the work of Spanish neuroradiologist Nichol├ís Fayed, who has studied brain scans of mountaineers returning from relatively low peaks around the world. It's long been known that high-altitude mountaineers may experience some permanent changes in their brains—and resulting loss of function—after climbing over 8,000 meters without supplementary oxygen. But Fayed and colleagues are documenting abnormalities in the brains of climbers on peaks as low as Mont Blanc (15,771 feet).

The good news? Doctors believe that proper acclimatization—averaging no more than 1,000 to 2,000 feet per day of ascent during a big climb—can prevent this kind of damage. The bad news? Few climbers have the time or patience to go that slow.


Haliku said...

Ughh. Not news I like to hear. Thanks for the heads up so I can go pick up that issue. Cheers!

Clyde said...

Read the article last night. Nothing new, all of it had been reported before. But the tabloid spin will scare folks and sell mags.

Anonymous said...

Can we see a detailed comparison of brain damage due to chronic binge drinking as well as climbing high fast... And throw "effects of daily marijuana use on the brain" in as well.

Might be interesting.

usery said...

Like Clyde said, Outside has re-hashed old news - in fact same author had virtually the same article published in April 2008 issue of Scientific American:

Dougald MacDonald said...

Maybe it's old news, but this article presents the information in a way that's accessible to the average mountaineer. Sometimes the "tabloid spin" is necessary to get research results into public consciousness. Question for the experts: Has anyone (scientifically) contradicted these researchers' conclusions in the last couple of years since their studies were done?

Anonymous said...

These studies showing brain damage from high altitude aren't new aren't new but good to let more know. I know several surgeons that climb including Everest. I certain won't let my friend or family see any of these brain damage folks.