(By Nick Boudreau) Since the early Everest attempts when the first oxygen systems were used to fight the thin air of the death zone mountaineers and scientists have worked to develop technologies to improve the chance of summit success. It’s doubtful, though, that Mallory and Irvine would have imagined a system that would have allowed them to acclimatize while sleeping at night, sitting on their couch or running through the woods.
Companies like Hypoxico, Training Mask and AltiPower offer a variety of altitude training methods from tents used while you sleep or work to masks used during exercise or when simply sitting on the couch. I caught up with Hypoxico’s CEO Brian Oestrike to get his take on these systems and what is in store for the future of acclimatization technology.
ExplorersWeb: Some climbers, like Adrian Ballinger and his team at Alpenglow Expeditions, used Hypoxico or similar acclimatization systems prior to their Everest and other Himalaya attempts this year. Even though the technology has been out for more than a decade you don't hear much about its use widely. Why isn't its use more common?
Brian: Throughout the last decade, we have seen more and more people learn about the technology and utilize it prior to their high-altitude adventures. As a company, we have supported hundreds of climbers and thousands of successful ascents to the world’s tallest peaks, including the youngest Everest Summiteer, Jordan Romero, as well as Portuguese Ultra-runner Carlos Sa during his recent speed record of Aconcagua. Guides, like Vern Tejas, Adrian Ballinger and Garrett Madison have employed hypoxic technology for their own use and the benefit of their clients. While it is certainly not yet a standard, we believe that the increased safety our systems will convince more people to consider this training option before their next expedition.
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In the mountaineering market specifically, one of the biggest factors is the "old-school" approach that many climbers and guiding companies take to expedition climbing and mountaineering. This is especially the case with Himalayan expeditions, where itineraries have remained essentially unchanged for decades. The industry itself has been built around these acclimatization schedules and so many of the guiding companies have not considered alternative acclimatization options or strategies. It might be the mentality of “if it’s not broken, then why fix it.”
Another reason the technology is not more well known in the mountaineering community is that the vast majority of scientific inquiry using low-oxygen equipment has been centered around the question of sports performance enhancement for endurance athletes, specifically “live-high, train-low”, and more recently for exercising at altitude “train high-sleep low.” Almost no formal studies have been published that consider whether or how low-oxygen equipment can be used for pre-acclimatization for mountaineers.
ExplorersWeb: Acclimatization technology has been around since the 1990's. What are some of the key changes in this technology since then?
Brian: Yes, the technology was first developed and patented by Hypoxico back in 1995, and pro-cycling teams were the company's first clients. Improvements to the technology include the addition of digital controls, higher flow-rates from the generators, more comfortable tents and masks, as well as, more accurate pulse oximeters. We also have developed and patented a high-flow compressor system called the K2-Series designed for large exercise training rooms or chambers.
The most important improvements have come in the form of training knowledge, specifically the duration and intensity of altitude training sessions to sufficiently acclimatize individuals for high-altitiude ascents. This led to the development of specialized training protocols, as well as, specific training programs designed to meet the needs of our clients based on their goals and itineraries.
We have also recently developed pulse-oximeter software that monitors and logs the blood-oxygen saturation (Spo2) during hypoxic training, sleeping or intermittent breathing. This information can be exported, allowing for “remote guiding” during the preparation phase before a high-altitude climb.
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ExplorersWeb: I think it’s a safe assumption that people would be concerned about the safety of using a system that reduces the amount of oxygen you breathe. Is this technology safe?
Brian: Much like other exercise/training equipment, our altitude simulation systems are absolutely safe as long as they are used as intended; in over 15 years, we have never had any issues related to the safety and well-being of our clients. Our equipment has several built-in safety mechanisms including fail-safe alarms in the event of a power-failure, permeable tents, oxygen monitors and pulse-oximetery to ensure proper blood oxygen levels during sleeping or training.
We provide sleep, exercise, and IHT protocols that provide specific altitudes, time schedules and target blood-oxygen saturation (Spo2) ranges during each training session. Our protocols developed for mountaineers are designed to simulate the work-loads and blood-oxygen levels that mimic true mountain conditions.
In our opinion, normobaric hypoxic technology is the only practical way for sea-level residents to expose their bodies to hypoxia prior to going up to high-altitudes. We certainly understand the concern with breathing low-oxygen air, but we also maintain the perspective that it is better to do all one can to pre-acclimate before going to altitude, rather than suffering the consequences of getting AMS (Accute Mountain Sickness) during a high-altitude expedition.
However, hypoxic training — or mountaineering for that matter — is not safe for everyone (just like flying on a plane). International Mountain Guides performed an analysis of normobaric hypoxic equipment and concluded that altitude training is not recommended for those with certain health issues, particularly of the heart and lung (see IMG chart image left).
For example, we suggest that our clients start at 4,000 ft. and increase the elevation by approximately 500 ft. per night. Most of your readers know that this is very conservative compared to the typical on-mountain acclimatization schedule of 1000 ft. per night with a rest day every 4th day.
Many of our clients are now utilizing our technology to complete accelerated ascents, and for this type of goal, we do stress extreme caution. However, rather than completing speed ascents, we encourage the average climber to pre-acclimatize to improve their safety margin, comfort, and likelihood of success on a mountain, but not necessarily to shorten expeditions.
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ExplorersWeb: There are a wide variety of pre-climb acclimatization products from sealed chambers to tents to portable masks. What are the key differences in their usage and functional success?
Brian:You are correct, there are quite a few different products on the market claiming to simulate high altitudes or provide the benefits of altitude training. Hypoxico, Inc. provides normobaric hypoxic training equipment, which essentially changes the molecular composition (by reducing the oxygen) of the air but does not change the pressure. Our sleeping tents and sleep-mask systems include a generator that provides low-oxygen air to the tent or mask. We also provide exercise systems which include enclosed chambers and mask-systems that connect directly to the generator.
There are other products such as the masks that claim to "simulate altitude," which is actually an air-restrictor or asphyxiation mask that in no way simulates altitude conditions. Other products such as pills/vitamins/drinks promise to deliver the benefits of altitude training (production of red blood cells) without being exposed to low-oxygen air. These products have been tested by the military and other scientific organizations, and contrary to what they promote on the Internet, there is simply no evidence backing up their claims that their products "simulate altitude" or provide the benefits of altitude training.
The major difference between our systems and these other products is that our equipment provides low-oxygen air to the user and the body responds to low-oxygen by making many of the same adaptations that occur at altitude; in order for altitude training and pre-acclimatization to be effective, the body must experience low-oxygen levels in the blood.
ExplorersWeb: What do you see are the top challenges in acclimatization technology in the next decade?
Brian: The biggest challenge we see in acclimatization technology is not the technology per se, but rather the process of educating mountaineers, guides, and research organizations about the training methods used to pre-acclimate the body to altitude. As mentioned earlier, the industry has been built on specific time frames for acclimatization as well as ascent/descent, so we hope to educate both individuals and guides about how they can both enhance their own safety, as well of that of their clients, and achieve more successful summits in the future.
Every individual will have a different response to altitude. We, therefore, look to continue to develop training protocols for different individuals based on their specific genetic makeup and current fitness levels.
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