Work Overload! What I learned on the slopes of Aconcagua

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Daniel Loveless
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron commander
Breathe, breathe, breathe. Step. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Step. It's about 4 a.m. on a cool February morning, and I'm presently at 19,200 feet on Aconcagua, Argentina, the highest point in the Southern and Western Hemispheres. I'm part of a team of 13 climbers. Today is our summit day.

There are now 11 of us as 2 members fell out earlier in the climb. I have been doing quite well, but the altitude is taking a bit of a toll on me.

I have lost my appetite, something that afflicts me whenever I am at high altitudes. I have eaten poorly over the last two days and started the day's climb on an empty stomach.

We are only beginning our ascent to 22,841 feet, and I am already falling behind the majority of the party.

At 20,000 feet, an average person will have somewhere between five and 12 minutes of useful consciousness.

How is it that a person can climb higher than 29,000 feet without supplemental oxygen?

The reason is the process of acclimatization. Acclimatization in this instance is a physiological adaption caused by the decreased barometric pressure.

The body adapts initially by increasing the heart rate and breaths per minute.

After reaching around 10,000 feet, the body will start the process of diuresis, or fluid loss. This process increases the number of red blood cells in a given quantity of blood.

Finally, the decrease in barometric pressure causes the kidneys to produce erythropoietin which will increase the production of red blood cells. This process takes about a month before the body has reached maximum red blood cell production.

How does this example relate to you and your mission? Well, the Air Force has a fairly high tempo and as we progress in rank, we have to take on more responsibility.

If you have a lot on your plate now, how much more will you have as you progress in rank and position?

At times it may seem like you have reached your limit, but as acclimatization shows, our bodies can do more than what we think they are capable of. Believe it or not, it was once thought a person would die, or at the very least have brain damage, if they were to climb over 8,000 meters (26,240 feet) without supplemental oxygen.

Don't let the belief that you have hit your limit hold you back. You can adapt both mentally and physically to go further than you may think.

In acclimatization, you are getting to adapt in a passive manner. Meaning you don't necessarily need to do any work to adapt. Your body will do it for you.

We can certainly adapt and do well given this scenario, but what if you do more than your body is ready for?

If you raise your sleeping altitude by more than 1,000 feet a night when over 10,000 feet, you run the risk of high altitude pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) or high altitude cerebral edema (fluid in the brain) - both of which are very serious and life threatening.

The important point to take from this is that for much of what we do, we can actively adapt so that we will be prepared for future mentally or physically taxing scenarios.

We can do this by studying and gaining knowledge or skills. We can also do this by regularly increasing our workload when training at the gym, running or cycling.

By letting our minds and bodies adapt we gain resilience, and when we do this we may find ourselves doing more than we thought was possible.

We hit our first break at 20,600 feet. I was the second to last to come in. The party was already getting prepared to move on. I downed a couple energy gels and got behind the team leader cutting my rest time even further.

I needed a rhythmic pace to get to the top. The further back you get from the person in the front, the more energy you waste speeding up and slowing down.

Those gels really did the trick.

At about noon, 10 of us made it to the summit. Had it not been for adaption, both passive and active in this case, I would not have been able to push myself further than what my body is normally capable of.

Use adaption to your advantage and see just how far you can go.