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Everest-bound team taking a breather in the name of science

Update: In light of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25, and the disaster that has followed both in Kathmandu and at Everest Base Camp, organizers decided to postpone the research expedition. At the time of this writing, several media reports confirm that more than 5,000 people were killed and another 11,000 were injured.

After following the disaster closely, communicating with his team both here and in Nepal, and offering condolences for those directly involved in the tragedy, professor Trevor Day was thankful that he and his team weren’t caught in the disaster zone. “I am incredibly grateful that we were still at home and not there, keeping us out of harm’s way and allowing us the time and the means to make a rational, careful and informed decision about whether we can and should go forward,” said Day, PhD. “It would be irresponsible to go in the wake of this disaster. Nepal needs donations and aid now, not tourists”.

Professor Raphael Slawinski, PhD, who was on the north side of Everest in Tibet when the earthquake happened, has since blogged about his experience.

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Associate professor Trevor Day and students further explore low-oxygen environments

 Raphael Slawinski Everest
 Accomplished mountaineer and physics professor Raphael Slawinski is hooked up to a metabolic cart, which measures how his body responds to changes in inspired oxygen. ~Photo by Bryan Weismiller

When a group of Mount Royal University students stop to catch their breath near the world’s tallest mountain next month (May 2015), they will be adding to scientific research that could benefit generations of alpine enthusiasts someday.

In the latest phase of Mount Royal-based research on low-oxygen environments, six Mount Royal students and Associate Professor of Physiology Trevor Day will embark on a three-week footslog to the southern face of Everest’s base camp.

Day, PhD, described his objective as “multifaceted,” with a focus on developing portable diagnostic tools that would help identify acute mountain sickness resulting from oxygen deficiency in the body.

“I want our team to be able to travel fast and light,” says Day, adding that more portable tools would help enable this.

He hopes to use the preliminary data gathered on the upcoming trip for a future study on how “lowlander” children adapt to high-altitude environments in comparison to their parents — an area of study not yet forged.

“Very little work has been done on children who have a genetic background around sea-level,” Day said. “Further study could be useful for Calgarians with an adventurous streak and the means of experiencing the thin mountain air in places such as the Everest region.”

 Raphael Slawinski and Rachelle Brandt
 Rachelle Brandt, right, recently presented at Student Research Day on the effects of CO2 on the cardiovascular and brain blood flow responses to lower-body negative pressure. Brandt is pictured here helping out with baseline testing. ~Photo by Bryan Weismiller

This spring, the participants will soon undergo a series of baseline tests inside a specialized laboratory classroom to prepare for the trek to 5,400-metres above sea level. Once hooked up to a metabolic cart, Day can see how his subjects respond to changes in inspired oxygen. Once they land in Nepal, they will be making measurements all the way up to base camp.

One of the research outcomes may entail who gets sick as the air thins.

"Right now there's no way to know who will get sick before going to altitude," he said. "Age, gender, fitness level are not accurate indicators of susceptibility to mountain sickness."

Day specializes in integrative cardiorespiratory and cerebrovascular physiology, which means he studies how the heart, lungs and brain talk to each other. He last visited Nepal in 2012 as part of an international research team. His innovative on-campus work has involved flipping subjects upside down on a tilt table to measure their brain blood flow or monitoring respiratory responses to low oxygen.

As an expert in human physiology, Day said there's no better model of studying the dangerous medical condition of hypoxia (oxygen starvation) than exposing young, healthy people to low-oxygen air for a sustained period. And there’s no shortage of eager test subjects around campus — including one of the world’s most accomplished alpinists, Associate Professor Raphael Slawinski from the Department of Physics.

 Trevor Day Everest Research
 Associate Professor of Physiology Trevor Day studies the impact of high altitude hypoxia on the physiology of the heart, lungs and brain during rest, exercise and sleep. ~Photo by Bryan Weismiller

Slawinski, who is well-known for being the first climber to summit Pakistan’s grueling K6 West mountain, volunteered to be a guinea pig for some of Day’s experiments leading up to the Everest trip. He recognizes the value in conducting preliminary testing, having experienced high-altitude headaches and other general unpleasantness associated with climbing great heights. Slawinski, PhD, supported his colleague’s interest in finding better ways to detect acute mountain sickness — before the symptoms kick in.

“Sometimes it’s not obvious whether you have the green light to climb higher or you should just hang out until you get better acclimatized,” he said. “It would be very helpful to have more portable diagnostic tools.”

By chance, Slawinski will be midway through his ascent of the seldom-climbed north face of Mount Everest while the student group will be heading up the opposite side, which is well-travelled by recreational trekkers.

For fourth-year Bachelor of Science student Kristi Wynnyk, the upcoming trip to Everest is an opportunity to apply her coursework in a real-world environment. In addition to the learning outcomes, Wynnyk is keen to soak up the culture of the Nepalese people they encounter along the way.

“It’s an opportunity of lifetime,” she said. “I never imagined being able to apply my knowledge on an expedition such as this.”

April 7, 2015 — Bryan Weismiller