Argentine Doctors Study the Effects of Altitude While on the Mountain

Two Argentine doctors have conducted a unique medical study to examine the effects of altitude on the human body by taking their test subjects to a unique laboratory, the 6739 meter (22,109 feet) tall volcano named Mount Llullaillaco located in the Atacama Desert along the border of Argentina and Chile.

Dr. Leandro Seoane and Dr. Rolando Nervi took a team of climbers to Llullaillaco on January 18th of this year and began their ascent of the mountain, conducting various tests at predetermined spots along the route to the summit. Over the next nine days, they took blood pressure, heart and respitory readings, as well as blood oxygen saturation measurements. They also examined the climbers vision, took blood tests, and assessed the team for Acute Mountain Sickness. The baseline tests were conducted at Tolar Grande town, a village located at 3500 meters on the mountain, and then again at Base Camp (4900 meters), Camp 1 (5500 meters), Camp 2 (6000 meters), and then one final time at 6400 meters.

The results showed the body’s remarkable ability to adapt to the changing conditions on the mountain as climbers acclimatized and adapted to the lower levels of oxygen as they moved higher on the mountain. As they became accustomed to the environment, the lack of oxygen became less of an issue, and the climbers worked more efficiently at higher alittudes.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is also known as altitude sickness, and it can effect just about anyone that climbs above 2400 meters (7875 feet). The exact causes are as of yet unknown, which is why tests like this one are so important. We do know that it does relate to exposure to low air pressure at altitude. Symptoms include loss of appetite, light-headedness, insomnia, headaches and more. In its most extreme forms it can result in pulmonary edema that can, at high altitudes, result in death. Generally the only way to treat the condition is to move back down the mountain to lower altitudes and richer oxygen levels.

Mount Llullaillaco is the fourth tallest volcano in the world, and a challenging climb, but it doesn’t compare to the larger peaks such as Everest. A similar study to the ones performed by the Argentines has been conducted on the worlds tallest mountain over the past couple of years, recording similar results at even higher altitudes. That research study is known as the Caudwell Xtreme Everest project.

AMS continues to be a great concern for all climbers at altitude, and even for travelers who visit remote locations that also happen to be thousands of feet above sea level. But with continued studies like these two, we can hope to understand the causes and develop more effective treatments.