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Study Abroad

Tracking High Altitude Effects at Everest Base Camp

An intrepid group of students joined in a Syracuse Abroad journey to the top of the world in May.

Abroad students trekking up Everest with Himalayan mountains in the background
Photos by Andrew Burton, ©2018

They are participants in the Mount Everest Base Camp Trek: The Human Response to High Altitude , a three-week, three-credit course and full-fledged research expedition in Nepal led by School of Education exercise science professor Tom Brutsaert and Falk College sport management professor Rick Burton ’80. Designed for undergraduate and graduate students interested in human environmental physiology, mountaineering, and adventure, the course brings together the Syracuse contingent with high-altitude experts and research teams from Mount Royal University in Canada, Mid Sweden University, and the University of Michigan. “The trek up to Everest Base Camp is an amazing experience,” Brutsaert says. “Our goal was to blend academic content with real research in order to provide students with the opportunity to learn directly from experts in the field of altitude physiology and to participate as volunteers in the research process that builds new knowledge in this area.”

The Syracuse study, one of four conducted during the trip, explores cognitive function at altitude. “One principal impairment at altitude is a decline in cognitive function prior to acclimatization,” Brutsaert says. “This may have something to do with alterations in brain blood-flow and hypoxia.” The study is led by Wes Lefferts G’18, an exercise science doctoral graduate, and Ph.D. candidates Jacob Deblois and Taylor Harman, who measured all of the Syracuse team members pre-departure via a battery of hypoxia-sensitivity and cognitive function tests. Cognitive function and brain-blood flow measurements, as well as measurements for projects led by the other research groups, continued all the way to base camp.

In total, the expedition, held May 16 to June 8, comprises a group of 29 trekkers, 10 guides and porters, and several yaks—all moving upward together toward the base of the world’s highest peak. Throughout their adventure, participants have posted a daily blog to keep family members—and envious friends and well-wishers—informed about their progress. Here a few excerpts from their reflections along the way.

Chad Althiser

Chad Althiser ’20 is a School of Education health and exercise science major from Worcester, New York. He is also a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer with a master’s degree in military studies who is married and has three young children. These excerpts come from his post on day three of the expedition.

Chad Althiser portrait

My Favorite Part so Far:

The completely majestic views of the Himalayan Mountains—first from the air on our flight into Lukla, and then while we were trekking.

Interesting Things:

Certainly, the flight into Lukla—which includes landing on a runway that is approximately one-quarter mile in length—was “interesting.” It was interesting to witness stone masons, chipping raw granite into blocks and constructing immaculate structures. The close-up view of the monkey playing on the power lines was also very interesting.

Daily Recap:

We started trekking at about 11 a.m. and the first two hours flew by. We were all completely distracted from the trek itself because we were overwhelmed by the landscape and views, and so energized to be in the presence of these incredible mountains. After a stop for lunch we continued up the Khumbu valley. We ultimately spent about 6.5 hours navigating the rocky route. We were in awe of the Sherpas carrying three times their body weight in equipment and gear.

Mackenzie Bronson

Mackenzie Bronson ’20 is a College of Arts and Sciences religion and modern foreign language major from Binghamton, New York. These excerpts come from her post on day four of the expedition.

Mackenzie Bronson portrait

My Favorite Part so Far:

The ability to take part in this trek alongside such a motivated and supportive group of people. It’s truly a special experience to be surrounded by individuals who are deeply moved by their passion. It seems as though one passion or another has brought us all here to Nepal. Whether it’s scientific research, religion, culture, or the simple pleasure the mountains provide, we all seem to be chasing after something on this trek. For me, I am here in pursuit of a passion for nature and the mountains, in addition to a curiosity for religion and foreign cultures.

Interesting Things:

One thing I’ve found interesting is the rule to always move left around large religious objects on the trail. Generally, these religious objects are giant rocks with ancient Tibetan scripture written or painted on them. Often the path diverges around these religious symbols, with one path to the left and the right. I’m not sure exactly why one has to pass around the left, but it might have something to do with respect for tradition.

Daily Recap:

Everyone knew that today’s hike was going to be strenuous, with 600 meters of elevation gain. The first hour of the trek wasn’t too demanding, but soon after the trail quickly became very steep. We took several brief rests here and there along our trek. These breaks served as blessings to catch a breather and conjure up more will to continue further. With our steep incline through the mountains today, came absolutely gorgeous views.

Taylor Harman

Taylor Harman is an exercise science Ph.D. candidate from Rocklin, California, whose research focuses on high altitude physiology and genetics. These excerpts come from her post on day eight of the expedition.

Taylor Harman portrait

My Favorite Part so Far:

The trek from Namche to Debuche has been my favorite. The rhododendron forest was absolutely beautiful. White, light pink, and bright pink bunches of flowers hung from the trees over the trail as we hiked.

Interesting Things:

Among the most interesting things I’ve seen so far are the interactions between our Sherpa guides and other locals we’ve passed while trekking. Many times I’ve seen them recognize each other, call out each other’s names, and reach out to each other to briefly hold hands. I never expected that there would be so many people they were familiar with, and I think it’s really neat that they seem to have a tightknit community of people, even when most of them are traveling from city to city guiding trekkers, carrying goods, or herding cows or yaks.

Daily Recap:

Today we had our rest day in Pheriche. We’re being put up in a beautiful lodge owned and run by the family of our Sherpa guide Nima. Bright and early this morning we started data collection for several of the research projects. We were sprawled all over the common room, measuring breathing and blood pressures, as well as collecting saliva, blood, and urine. Our hosts have been gracious to let us use their lodge as our lab space. The mornings of measurements are always hectic. Researchers double as participants, and the morning turns into a tornado of activity. Somehow, we manage to get it all done in about two hours (with a few spills here and there). After the morning measurements, everyone sits down to eat breakfast on the very same tables we were using for research. Everyone seemed quite happy to get a tortilla and egg this morning; yay breakfast burritos!

To learn more about the Everest expedition, watch for the summer issue of Syracuse University Magazine .

Amy Speach

This story was published on .

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