The biggest challenge of attempting to summit Mt Kilimanjaro apart from the physicality side of things is how the body reacts to being at altitude. As human beings we were not designed to function at the levels of altitude that it takes to scale the biggest mountains in the World whether that is Mt Everest in Asia, Mt Blanc in Europe or Aconcagua in South America; however, this doesn’t stop people from trying and frequently succeeding. Ever since I signed up to trying to complete one of my oldest childhood ambitions the whole altitude factor has been preoccupying my mind. There is so much information out there concerning this topic and yet no concrete answer as to how a person can prepare for it. The fact that it can affect each individual person differently and on different days really baffles the life out of me. For instance, I can trek/climb the same mountain twice on two separate occasions and be affected by altitude only during one of those times even though nothing has changed between the two attempts. It just doesn’t seem to make much sense to a layman such as me. I’m sure that there are scientists/research fellows out there who could offer up a theory but that doesn’t help my preparation for possibly one of the hardest challenges I’ve set myself to date.
Being at altitude essentially means that the air is thinner and there is less oxygen for your heart to pump around the body in order to carry out the tasks that it’s being faced with. As a climber/high altitude trekker you’re not only asking your body to do this but also giving it the extra pressure of some immense physical activity. Your body is working harder with less in the tank. There is research to show that by exercising at artificial high altitude (i.e. in a reduced oxygen chamber or with a face mask connected to a controlled oxygen tank) that your body will someway become acclimatised to functioning at those reduced levels. It can become more efficient with using less oxygen to perform the tasks at hand. There must be some truth in this otherwise why would Olympic-level athletes and sports teams the World over migrate to areas of higher altitude to train for their pinnacle events? The argument is that by returning to sea level after training at higher altitude means that the abundance of oxygen should give their performance an extra boost.
Altitude: the height of an object or point in relation to sea level or ground level.
Being that I currently live in London where the idea of high altitude is Box Hill in Surrey (224 metres) then training at altitude is not an option. Also, being that this is the most expensive city in the country to be in the idea of training in an oxygen chamber far outstrips my bank balance. By reading that you would be wrong to think that I was out of options; I may not be able to train at altitude (artificial or real) but I can get tested for my current susceptibility and feel how the body reacts to functioning with less oxygen. There is a company located near Mansion House in London aptly named: “The Altitude Centre” that provides a service called: “Mountain Consultation”, this is an hour-long session of tests including blood pressure, heart rate, lung functionality, AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) susceptibility and finally low oxygen level tests that are meant to simulate being at altitude.
On arriving at the location of my consultation I was welcomed by a modern style building, clinical in appearance and sparsely populated inside. Being that I arrived early for my appointment I took a seat in the waiting area, which felt more like the depiction of Langley’s CIA headquarters in the film: ‘The Recruit’ starring Colin Farrell then somewhere of exercise. There were no large posters depicting the ‘perfect’ physique but there was the familiar sound of a lone treadmill reverberating through the adjoining glass divide. The entire room was decorated in a light colour that was illuminated by a blue daylight hue coming from the sunlight shining in through the large tinted windows. In the centre of the room was a large circular table that was occupied by what looked like the company’s receptionist who was typing away in an unobtrusive way. Before I became too comfortable I was approached by a guy introducing himself as my consultant for the session; confident in his demeanour and eager to get started. I was led off to a consultation room not far from the reception area that was equally as clinical and devoid of any distraction. It was at this point that we had a discussion as to why I made the appointment and what to expect. By chance the consultant had himself within the last 12-months successfully completed Mt Kilimanjaro. This was the perfect opportunity to discuss any concerns I had with regards to tackling the highest peak in Africa. After a pretty in depth conversation it was time for the tests to begin. We started with the standard blood pressure test to determine my systolic blood pressure, that’s the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats; and, diastolic blood pressure, the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart rests in between beats. This was then followed by the resting heart rate and body composition/BMI tests to give the consultant an overall picture of my basic health. There was nothing different here that I haven’t done umpteen times in the past. My results showed the following:
Blood Pressure: Systolic 124 (Normal) / Diastolic 74 (Optimal)
Resting Heart Rate: 75 beats per minute (Normal)
Body Composition: 23.72 (Normal)
The next round of tests would be the most interesting to me because these would measure my lung capacity, hypoxia and AMS susceptibility. The lung capacity test was similar to the breath test utilised by the Police on the side of the road to test for alcohol. It involved blowing into a large tube attached to a machine that would measure the amount of air (in litres) that was expelled. I was instructed to take a long, deep breath in order to fill my lungs completely before blowing as hard as I could on the tube attached to the machine. This was a new experience for me having never been stopped and breathalysed by the authorities before. I took an almighty deep breath and started to expel the air through the tube, repeating this process 3 times, in order to get an average reading giving a more accurate idea of what my lungs are capable of. During this test the consultant was taking two readings and a percentage between those two figures in order to ascertain my actual lung capacity. These were:
The results, although not perfect, are not a cause for worry. Yes, there is some mild restriction in the lungs capacity but nothing so drastic that it would affect me at altitude. The advice that was given to improve this was to practice breathing with the diaphragm. A test to see if you are in fact doing this is to sit on an upright chair and place one hand on the chest with the other hand on the stomach. The hand on the stomach should be moving in and out with every breath whilst the hand on your chest should stay put. Each breath should be taken through the nose and not the mouth to avoid a dry cough materialising during exercise.
...You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you've climbed a mountain...
Once these tests were complete I was led into an oxygen-controlled exercise space that was accessed through a double door ‘air lock’. It felt like we were entering a scene from Star Trek moving between compartments on the USS Enterprise. The room was large but not massive and was home to ten treadmills and five bikes. This is the room that hosts low oxygen exercise classes. In the far corner of the room was a white bucket seat that looked like it had been modelled on an eggshell with one third removed to create a bucket-type seat. Next to this strange egg-like seat was a computer screen complete with oxygen mask and pulse oximetry instrument. This was where I would experience what it would be like to breath at altitude. As I sat in this somewhat comfortable seat with an oxygen mask attached to my face I watched as the numbers on the screen in front of me started changing. At sea level the oxygen level in the blood usually rests around the 95% mark. The test was to see how quickly the oxygen level in my body dropped to 85% at 5093 metres (16,709 feet). The result showed that it took 100 seconds in order to do this, which is deemed as a very good result. This was depicted on the screen as a gradual curved decline that signifies that the body is adapting well. As the oxidation in my body decreased there was a distinct physical change to my breathing, I would take deeper breaths to compensate for the thinner air and my heart rate was noticeably faster in order to push that oxygen around the body to the muscles that needed it. The feeling wasn’t uncomfortable and I didn’t feel like I was short of breath but there was a noticeable difference in how my body was reacting. The second test was the time it takes for the body to recover when the mask was removed. As with exercise, the quicker the body recovers the better. My body took 60 seconds to recover, which is deemed as an average recovery time. The longer it takes to recover the more affected by fatigue the body is over time. The great news is that my heart reacted well to the affects of low oxygen (hypoxia) even at 74% oxidation. To put these oxygen levels into perspective it is said that if the body was reading levels of 85% or below at sea level then you would be admitted to hospital and kept under stringent observation and medical care. After multiple tests at different simulated altitudes it was reported that I do not seem to be susceptible to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). However, this doesn’t mean that I should become complacent on the mountain and care is still needed to continually monitor how I’m feeling to make sure that AMS does not take hold. As stated previously, I may not have been affected by it today but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be tomorrow.
This process has been interesting to find out a little bit more about altitude and how low oxygen levels affects the body in a controlled environment. I do believe that by feeling these affects that I am already a lot more prepared than I would have been if I had not taken part in this consultation. This has given me a good base to build upon with plenty more preparation still yet to do in order to get fitter, stronger and mountain ready. With only 8.5 weeks to go until I am looking up at the steep slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro I am more eager than ever to take my training up a gear.