Space | 26. August 2016 | posted by Manuela Braun

Study routines with ice axe and crampon training

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Storing samples in the ice: first the test subjects use ice axes to create a shelf.

It is 04:00, and outside Margherita Hut the world is pitch black. The clocks of the test subjects in the altitude sickness study sound their alarms. As the first group of mountaineers leave their lodgings for climbing tours in the Valais Alps, the study participants are already busy delivering the first set of data: headaches, quality of sleep, nausea, dizziness. All of these are noted in a daily journal, graded on a scale according to severity. Then they reach for the blood pressure monitor and attach the clip that measures oxygen saturation in the blood to a fingertip. “We’ve all gotten used to it by now,” says DLR investigator Ulrich Limper. The same applies to the subsequent hop onto the scales. Each morning, test subjects record their bodyweight.

The first samples are collected at 04:30. The participants are asked to give blood, saliva and urine. When the samples are analysed at the DLR laboratory in Cologne, it will be important to determine whether protein molecules from the lungs have entered the bloodstream, and whether other protein molecules are present in the urine. These factors would indicate that the hypothesis of the study is accurate: when the body is exposed to reduced atmospheric pressure and a lack of oxygen, inflammation will form in the body that causes the blood vessels to become permeable, hence allowing fluid and proteins to seep from the vessels and into the surrounding tissue.##markend##

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Measured breathing: the values are recorded every morning.

The participants are free to spend the time until breakfast at 06:30 as they please. After breakfast the experiments start up again and include a daily ultrasound examination of the forehead, hands, feet and lungs of each test subject. The carbon monoxide content of the exhaled breath is recorded. Everyone is asked to help out, assisting in the examination or noting the values in tables.

Some of the test subjects find the occupation a welcome pass time: “I suffer the altitude sickness more in the morning, with headaches, a bit of nausea and a lack of appetite," one of them reports. "But it tends to improve when I get up and my metabolism picks up pace."

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Investigator Ulrich Limper uses the ultrasound device to examine the lungs of a test subject

Laboratory work with an additional job

The multi-bed dorm where an improvised laboratory has been set up is cramped. Although known as a site for high-altitude physiological research, the Hut also offers accommodation for mountaineers. The ultrasound device, the centrifuge for the blood samples and the material all travelled with the team from Cologne and is now used as a laboratory to collect, analyse and ultimately to freeze samples. A large quantity of dry ice to cool the samples was included in the provisions as well, along with a necessary tool to store the material in dry ice: an ice axe. The container and the samples are deposited in the ice in front of the hut to keep the dry ice cool and protected from sunlight. So the first task, before anything is returned to its frosty storage space, is to cut away the ice to bury the precious cargo deep in the frozen environment.

Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
The DLR team has set up a laboratory in the mountaineer’s hut

Early return for one of the test subjects

By now, the use of painkillers for the headaches and other remedies for nausea that the test subjects are entitled to take ease the symptoms of altitude sickness has subsided. “All of the participants are showing positive development,” says the investigator Limper, with one exception. One of the test subjects experienced significant symptoms of altitude sickness even during the ascent. And there was no improvement in the combination of severe nausea, vomiting, headaches and fluid deposits once she arrived at the Hut at an altitude of 4554 metres. “Unjustifiable,” decided the investigator, calling for a helicopter to take the test subject back to a member of the DLR team down in the valley. Her health improved at an altitude of 1200 metres in the Italian town of Alagna. And even her data remains useful for study: her first MRI was taken by the German Armed Forces at Fürstenfeldbruck, and she will also be present at the follow-up examinations in September and December.

For the other test subjects, the daily routine continues: alarm clock, journal, blood sample, breakfast and examinations until the afternoon. Afterwards, they train with the mountain guides, using crampons, ice axes and ropes to climb the adjacent Zumsteinspitze and other peaks. The team will descend to the Valley on Monday. The evenings themselves are short in the Margherita Hut: lights out occurs at 22:00, and it stays dark until the alarm clocks start ringing again at 04:00.

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About the author

Manuela Braun is editor for space. As a qualified journalist for both print and online media, she loves nothing more than asking questions. Her favourite thing of all is being there, in the midst of the action. to authorpage