Mar 14, 2015

The Mile High Club...

Crazy, vivid, trippy dreams. Over the past week I’ve dreamt that I lost my wallet in my wardrobe and got married in my living room wearing a beige-coloured veil made out of a shower curtain and that a tornado ripped through central London with all the drama of The Wizard of Oz… 

Yep, I’m sleeping high.

But training low.

Vivid dreams have been an entertaining side-effect of my move back into an unconventional yet recurring annual feature in my bedroom – a Hypoxico ‘altitude tent’. Sadly, I don’t live in the Swiss Alps and I don’t have a hot ski-instructor named Frans or Hans to house me in a luxurious high mountain chalet, feed me cheese fondue and take me skiing <sigh>. Regrettably I am restricted to finding more creative ways to prepare my body for another 2-month adventure to the higher altitudes of the Nepal Himalaya. No mountain to climb and no plane ticket required – yet!

Made of special grade nylon with 4 clear vinyl windows, the ‘altitude tent’ houses my mattress and is erected over my bed. By sleeping in this 'simulated altitude environment' I am able to benefit from some of the positive adaptations to altitude while continuing to go to 'carry on my normal life' – continuing to work, train, and socialise at an oxygen-rich lower altitude.  

What’s involved?
A small machine the size of a beer-fridge (the 'hypoxic air generator') which sounds like a low-decibel lawnmower is connected to the ‘tent’ by an 8 foot long umbilical-cord-like clear plastic hose which pumps the low oxygen controlled air into the tent. The resulting rhythmic ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh’ sound makes it seem a bit like I’m sharing a bed with Darth Vadar (now that would be a trippy dream…)

After crawling inside the plastic bubble, rearranging numerous throw pillows and then zipping up my contained environment, it doesn’t take long before you start feeling like you’re sitting at Everest Base Camp, on the summit of Kilimanjaro or atop the Grand Teton, minus the biting wind, bitter cold, mountain vistas, exhaustion, vertigo, and… the problem of getting down…

Understanding the Physiology
Besides the crazy vivid dreams associated with ‘sleeping high’, one of the most rewarding side effects of my high altitude experiences over the years has been the opportunity to better understand my own physiology and the changes that are taking place within my body as I 'go to altitude' – whether that’s on a mountain or in an altitude tent. 

In the past I’ve ‘moved into’ the tent between 6-8 weeks before an expedition but because I was on Kilimanjaro at 5895m just over a week ago I’m trying to ‘keep’ the positive physiological benefits derived from going to this altitude until I head to Nepal.

Understanding the Physics
It’s a common misconception to think that there is less oxygen at altitude - but this is false as the mix of gases in the air is the same. Instead the higher up you go the air pressure gets lower. Consequently the partial pressure of oxygen is reduced. An altitude tent does not copy this change in pressure. Instead it pumps refined air with a reduced oxygen content into a confined space – e.g. the tent.

The body responds to the reduced oxygen content in the space by increasing the efficiency of oxygen intake from the lungs and oxygen transport in the blood through the production of more red blood cells. This takes place mainly during rest. This is known as ‘acclimatisation’ and gives the blood better oxygen-carrying capacity – e.g. it makes it more efficient. 

It takes the body more than two weeks to produce new red-blood cells and the positive effects of acclimatisation generally lasts between 10 days to two weeks.

I must admit, I’d prefer pre-acclimatising high in the Swiss Alps but I’ve learned that in life (in this crazy world of high altitude mountaineering) you have to learn to make compromises… Until then it’s just me and my Darth Vadar sleeping sidekick preparing for the adventure ahead.

If you're interested in altitude training or have questions about how altitude training can boost your performance at altitude or for long-distance events (eg. marathons, cycling, etc.) give The Altitude Centre a call - or better yet, pay them a visit at one of their fantastic gyms.


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