Reaching new heights

Spring 2014 issue

You Belong Here

Inspiring faculty member nominated for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year 2013

Words by Stacey Smith
Photos courtesy of Raphael Slawinski

Raphael Slawinski literally reached new heights last summer when he and his climbing partner became the first to summit K6 West in Pakistan.

The associate professor in the Faculty of Science and Technology who has taught at Mount Royal for the past decade, and his climbing partner, Ian Welsted, made history in July 2013. They became the first team to ascend the north side of K6 West, a challenging and treacherous peak in Pakistan.

The two men completed the 7,000-metre climb without the use of high-altitude porters or fixed camps. K6 West is a complex piece of terrain, known for its dangerous slopes as well as intimidating icefall and avalanche conditions. The summit has been attempted and abandoned by many of the world’s most accomplished climbers.

Slawinski and Welsted’s tremendous achievement earned them a win for the Piolet d’Or award 2014, which represents recognition by some of the most respected names in alpinism, as well as a nomination for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2014, people’s choice vote. Those recognized are honoured for their remarkable achievements in exploration, adventure sports, conservation and humanitarianism. Other nominees for the National Geographic award include the likes of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, big-wave surfer Greg Long, and a handful of others.

Climbing is a passion for Slawinski. He believes that it is more than just a sport.

“Once you have committed to a big climb you have exposed yourself to considerable risk. You can’t just step off the court,” he explains. “All of the elements combine to create a place where I feel alive like nowhere else. It’s the intangible reward that mountain climbers keep chasing and very few experiences come close.”

The 46-year-old was born in Poland and immigrated to Western Canada as teenager. He credits his parents, climbers themselves, for igniting his passion for the summit. Hiking and camping were always incorporated into family activities in the Slawinski family.

From small crags in the Midwest, to ice climbing around Lake Superior, Slawinski has scaled the world-renowned Stanley Headwall in the Canadian Rockies as well as peaks in Alaska and Asia.

His imagination was first captured by K6 West during a trip to Pakistan in 2005, where he and another climbing partner spent time trekking in the Charkusa Valley.

Slawinski and Welstead arrived in Pakistan in 2013, ready to take on the mountain. While mentally and physically prepared to tackle the defiant terrain, the two men couldn’t have predicted the one factor that nearly derailed their plans. Soon after arriving in Islamabad, Slawinski and Welsted heard reports that the Taliban had massacred 10 foreign climbers, as well as their cook at another base camp near the foot of Nanga Parbat. Shaken by the news, yet confident that their objective lay within a safe zone, Slawinski and Welsted continued on with their expedition.

Slawinski credits much of their success to proper planning and a bit of good luck.

For the first month, their objectives were trying to stay healthy in a foreign country and acclimatizing to the high altitude. Through training and preparation, some of these risks can be mitigated, but alpinists are always at the mercy of the weather.

“One of a climber’s greatest fears is to be trapped up high in bad weather,” says Slawinski, adding that the team had the help of a friend in the Pakistan meteorological department who supplied them with up-to-date weather information.

Six days of rock and ice climbing had Slawinski and Welsted pushing past their limits both mentally and physically, returning to base camp on July 30, victorious, and ready to celebrate with a single malt.

Slawinski is committed to returning to Pakistan and may also include some ascents in South America over the next few years. But for the near future he will be fulfilling a promise to his wife and staying close to home and climbing his beloved Rocky Mountains.

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

Words by Bryan Weismiller

Trevor Day, PhD

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

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 (May 2015).

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.”

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 and 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 and 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.

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 (trekking to basecamp, 5360 metres) which is well-travelled by recreational hikers.

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.”