Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Suffocating Machine

Eszter & I were very interested in the hypoxic testing and training that Andrew's been doing. However, as don't live in London, using The Third Space's hypoxic chamber wasn't really an option. We did explore the possibility of using the chamber at TeamBath - a £30 million sports facility at Bath University, including a Sports Training Village used as a training base by Olympic and world-level athletes. Whilst they were very helpful, it just wasn't practical, partly because of their opening hours, and also because of the travelling time.

So, we bit the bullet and hired a hypoxicator - a machine that sucks oxygen out of the air and feeds it to you via a mask - from
The Altitiude Centre (run by the very helpful Richard Pullen, who knows a thing or three about endurance events). Eszter's mum, who's a doctor, took to referring to it - somewhat disturbingly - as The Suffocating Machine, and the label stuck. It wasn't a cheap option (we've had entire holidays for less), but if it means we could enjoy climbing Kilimanjaro a bit more, and minimize the risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) then - in the context of the overall cost of the trip - it doesn't seem quite so bad.

The hypoxicator is used to perform Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT). So what's that all about then? To quote from the website of GO2Altitude (manufacturers of the machine we hired) -

IHT exposes the recipient to "hypoxic air" containing 16 - 9% oxygen (equating to an altitude exposure of 2,000 to 6,500 metres above sea level) intermittently at 4-6 minute intervals alternated with breathing normal (sea-level). The 45-90 minute session is conducted once or twice a day while the participant sits comfortably, perhaps while reading or watching television. A course of acclimatisation requires 15 – 20 sessions.

Exposure to altitude in the aforementioned manner stimulates the various biochemical and physiological adaptations necessary to ensure an increased oxygen carrying capacity within the body, ensuring the user is adapted to the altitude of the proposed destination before even leaving sea-level.

Watching TV whilst doing it is more of a challenge than it sounds. For one thing you're having to clamp a large face mask to your head, and support an air reservoir the size of a rugby ball. For another the machine is loud, so the TV has to be at an anti-socially high volume. And you're having to keep an eye on the display, so you know how your pulse and oxygen saturation levels are doing, and can see when to start or stop using the mask.

We started off at 13% oxygen - equivalent to being at about 3,900m, which is already into the region where AMS can start to strike. You could definitely feel the lack of oxygen, and you could see the effect on little graphical read-out on the machine, as the oxygen saturation of your blood fell from its usual ~100%, to around 85%. Every few days the oxygen was reduced by 1%, until it was down to a mere 9% - as if we were at 6,500, or about 600 metres higher than Kilimanjaro. The first few times at 9% were decidedly soporific - rather like when you're trying to read before going to sleep, but you just can't keep your eyes open. But as the days passed, it got easier, presumably as our bodies adjusted to the rarified air.

Anyway, personal experience of breathing air with 9% oxygen for just 5 minutes at a time makes me very glad that we're only going up to a mere 5895m, where there's a whopping 10.1% oxygen. (That's 12.2% more actual oxygen, so is more significant than it might seem.) But it does make me marvel people who have climbed Himalayan peaks without oxygen - at the top of Everest there's less than 7% oxygen! Nuff respect to
Reinhold Messner.

Will it work? We hope so. However, we obviously won't know how we'd have performed if we hadn't done IHT. But if we can get to the top without feeling too dreadful, we think it will have been worth it.

And in just over a week we'll be able to let you know...


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