Sunday, May 03, 2009

New Location

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Study: Pack straps cut blood flow and performance

Unless I'm using poles for skiing or hiking, I often get tingling in my finger tips while carrying a heavy pack. It turns out I'm not alone and the problem may be more than a minor nuisance, loss of fine motor control and increased fatigue may also be problems. Last month, a paper was presented at a meeting of the American Physiological Society that demonstrated how much even a moderate pack affects blood flow. 

Using ultrasound and a pulse oximeter, the scientists measured brachial artery pressure as well as capillary flow in the finger tips. After 10 minutes, only a 26 pound load was sufficient to reduce blood flow in the arm by about 43% and in the finger tips by about 54%. They blame this on the straps compressing the axillary vein. It's particularly noteworthy for mountaineers since this reduction could make us more prone to frostbite.
The study suggests that redesigning pack straps could improve blood flow. Unfortunately, the paper doesn't indicate which pack they tested on subjects but I'd guess it was a standard S-shape design. Nor does it mention whether a sternum strap was used, a common "feature" that tends to increase pressure on that axillary vein while impeding breathing efficiency. 
This study reminds me of the tumpline that Yvon Chouinard was selling in the early 1980's (for $5.50). Based on the design used by porters in Nepal, this simple strap put nearly all the weight on the head. Of course it never caught on because Westerners generally lack strong neck muscles. 
However, a study published in Nature in 1986 found that we were too quick dismiss this low-tech load carrying device. Normally there is a straight line increase in energy cost of carrying extra weight; e.g. add 20% of body weight, consume 20% more energy. The researchers found that this did not apply when the weight is carried on the head. Measurements of African tribe women walking on a treadmill showed that the could carry 20% of their weight without any increase in energy consumption versus unweighted. Beyond that, the increase was proportional with 30% of body weight increasing energy cost by 10% and 40% of body weight requiring 20% more energy. Yet another reason those Sherpas kick our butts at high altitude.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

CrossFit and Climbing

I've been asked a number of times about the value of CrossFit style training for climbers. For those unaware, this is one of the latest fads to emerge in the fitness world (every few years, there is always something "new and improved" to entice the public and media). I address this subject in the second edition of my book Climbing: Training for Peak Performance, which is now off to the printer. Here is the excerpt:

Training Cults
A recent trend in the past few years has been the emergence of training cults, with adherents that gush on and on about how their method is the “best” and anything else is garbage training. The best known of these is CrossFit, which is essentially a business franchise masquerading as new fitness program.

That is not to say CrossFit is all bad. Indeed, there are some very good aspects that the individual trainers, gyms and the web sites offer. Perhaps the most valuable part of the CrossFit program is motivation that comes from the camaraderie. The underlying principle of high-intensity cross training is also reasonably sound, though hardly new or innovative, and can lead to solid fitness gains if used wisely.

However, there is also a high risk of acute injury from many of the exercises, some of which are completely unnecessary. Due to the frequent high intensity of the workouts, there is a potential for chronic fatigue without a good athletic base. And no generic program will ever produce the results of a well-structured training program tailored to the needs and goals of the individual.

The forums, newsletters, and certification materials contain good information scattered with unscientific nonsense about physiology and nutrition. This misinformation may not cause harm but it certainly doesn’t help. The trainers only take a 2-day class with no written exam for certification, which is very weak comparatively (see “Trainers” in Chapter 6 for more details).

If you educate yourself about the pros and cons of CrossFit, or similar concepts, and need the motivation of that style of training, the workouts and gyms can be helpful. For those adopting a periodized training program, high-intensity cross training during the power endurance phase could lead to serious strength gains. However, drinking the Kool-Aid and joining a training cult on a year-round basis may not be in your best interests in the long run.
Note that although I mention CrossFit, I'm really talking about all of the heavily hyped training programs (kettlebells, Indian clubs, whatever comes out next year) that get discussed on the Net and in the general media. Elsewhere in my book I discuss how they all work, to some degree, if you keep with them. But the bigger question is what is the most time efficient training for you.

And before you point at Mark Twight and his Gym Jones program, notice that he has pulled the videos from his site and has come nearly full circle in his thinking on endurance training. Gym Jones was always more sophisticated than generic CrossFit and Mark is refining the programs even more. Also notice that Rob Shaul at Mountain Athlete goes far beyond basic CrossFit by addressing the needs of climbers, though I believe he is under-rating the value of endurance training. Both Mark and Rob realize that general physical preparedness can only get you part way to your goals.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Study: Birth Control for Brain Injury

Even though I've long been a helmet advocate for many outdoor sports (biking, climbing, skiing, etc.), I've also been vocal about how inadequate most helmet really are. For starters, most of the ones commonly worn do not prevent concussion, contrary to popular belief. Of course helmets can only withstand a certain amount of force too, often far less than many people realize. So the bottom line is, helmets or not, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are still going to happen.

This new study shows that injections of progestrone, an ingredient in birth control pills, can significantly reduce the effects of TBI. The randomized, double-blind trial found that 6 months after patients experience severe trauma, those who received the progesterone shots for five days after the accident were in much better shape.
Having witnessed the results of a nasty TBI in more than one friend, I wish this research had been done years ago. But should any of you in the future have friends or family with a TBI, it would be well worth checking with their doctors about this protocol.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Chinese on Everest - 1960

Now that the Chinese are in Base Camp on the North side for their attempt to get an Olympic torch to the summit, I thought some of you would be interested in the story of their first climb. For decades, Westerners doubted the claim that the Chinese had summited Everest in 1960. Eventually, enough convincing evidence was provided that they were grudgingly given credit but there have been few good accounts of that expedition.

The following is an excerpt from a book published in 1993 by Shu Ren, "Records of Exploration by the Chinese." The translation was provided by my friend Tuan Luong and I've cleaned it up a bit. If anything, it speaks to the determination of the can bet good money that they will get that torch to the top this season, no matter what it takes.



In 1958, 100 experienced mountaineers of the Soviet Union wrote letters to the head of the Soviet and PRC, proposing a joint assault on Mt Qomolungma (aka Everest). An agreement was made between the governments.

The Chinese assembled their team, which went to the Soviet Union to train in August 1958. 17 summitted Lenin Peak (7134 m) in Sept. At the end of 1958 a reconnaissance team reached 6,500 m.

According to agreement the Soviet was to provide equipment. The Chinese constructed a 300 km road from Shigatse to Rongbuk Monastery.

1959 March, uprising broke out Tibet. Climbing was postponed.

End of 1959, the two countries became hostile due to ideological disagreement. The Soviet withdrew form the expedition. The Chinese decided to do it alone. Team leader Shi Zhanchun went to Switzerland to buy equipment.

On March 19, 1960, the base camp was established at the end of the Rongbuk Glacier. Shi and vice leader Xu Jing had done five years of mountaineering and climbed quite a few peaks in China. The team members were from all walks of life — miners, forest workers, soldiers, peasants, scientists, and college students.

The weather was bad. Logistics support was a feat. Meteorology and high altitude medical data were collected.

A siege strategy was planned to carry out the climb in four acclimatizing climbs:
1) BC-> 6,400m ->BC
2) BC->7,600->BC
3) BC->8300->BC
4) BC-> 8,500 camp -> summit

March 25
The entire team started from BC.

March 26
Reached the 5,900m camp.

March 27
Found a mummified unrecognizable body in English made green down suit. Buried it. They reached 6,400m. Back to BC.

Xu, Liu Dayi, Peng Shuli, and other four reached the North Col (aka Bei’ao, 7,007 m) in a day. It was technically difficult. Xu later went up again with another team to fix ropes and ladders across crevasses.

April 11
The bulk of the team started from 6,400 m to reach the North Col. Attempt to reach further was stopped by very bad weather. Wang Ji died of mountain sickness.

April 29
The entire team started from the North Col. -37C. Soft snow. Frostbite. Zhao Ziqing died. Liu Lianman (a porter) chopped steps for the team with 30 kg pack on his back all the way. Reached 7,600 m.

May 2
Shi, Xu, Laba, and Myma went up to 8,100 m. In order to acclimatize they didn’t use their O2. Reached camp after dark. No food left. (Support team didn’t follow up.) Laba and Myma went back to 7,600 camp. Food was sent to the high camp over-night.

May 3
The team passed the First Step and the Yellow Band. Shi and Wang Fengtong went past the reconnaissance point and reached the Second Step. It was a 60 to 70 degree smooth rock face about 100 feet high, almost devoid of holds.

Shi and Wang climbed to somewhere near the top of the second step when it was getting dark (13 hours UT). Decided to bivy so they could see what it looked like to go to the summit from there the next day. They dug out a snow hole in a crack between rocks. The temperature was -40 C. No food. They didn’t use oxygen, saving it for the next day (a first time at that altitude).

May 4
Clear. The Summit was about 700 feet higher. They found a route and went down.

Many team members were sick or injured. Shi and Wang went back to Shigatse and Lhasa to recover. Time flew by. Spirit at the base camp was going down. Beijing sent instruction: Get the summit at any cost. Han Fudong, the head at the BC, talked to the team members and assembled a group, including Wang Fuzhou, Kongbu (with a sprained ankle), and Liu Lianman.

May 14
During a good weather spell, equipment and food was sent to 7,600 camp.

May 17
The team swore at the BC. Depart at 1 hour UT. With the national flag of China, they also carried a plaster statue of Mao Zhedong.

May 18
Reached Camp 4.

May 23
Porter Qu Yinhua carried oxygen and a movie camera to the 8,500 camp. He planned to go down after shooting some footage the next day. Food had run out that night.

May 24.
Good weather. Vice leader Xu collapsed at the camp. Wang, Liu, Qu, and Kongbu started the last 1,200 feet, carrying oxygen, the flag, Mao’s statue, paper, pencil, and the movie camera.

Two hours later they reached the Second Step exhausted. Tried to circumvent. Didn’t work. Zigzagged to the middle of it, where they found a crack. Decided to climb it.

Liu climbed to about 10 feet from the top. The face became vertical and smooth. He hand jammed, with boot tips smearing on the face. Fell four times.

Liu, who used to be fire fighter from the city of Harbin, proposed Qu to stand on his shoulder so that he can push Qu up. Qu took off his boots to get up, and nailed in a piton in the crack. He lost his toes and heel to frostbite during the feat. (The same piton was used 15 years later to hang a rope ladder.) Then Liu pushed Kongbu up and went up himself with Wang on rope.

It had taken them 3 hours to do the last 10 feet of the Second Step. Not much oxygen was left. It was getting late. Liu fell down continuously, and stayed on the lee side of a rock, semi-conscious. The other three pushed on. Liu used some oxygen, savoring warmth, and became sober. Proceeded to turn off the oxygen and wrote a note for the three - “There is still some oxygen in the canister. You three can use it when you come back. It may be helpful.” And fell asleep.

The other three went on 60° slopes in the dark, on all fours to avoid accident, navigating using starlight reflected on the snow.

150 feet from the summit, all three had run out of oxygen. Ditched the canisters. Inched their way to the summit.

At some place where rock bordered snow, Kongbu, who was in front, suddenly shouted, ``It’s downhill to go on.’’

Quietly, in darkness and surrounded by silhouette of the mountains, they crawled to the top of the world. It was 4:20 am, May 25, Beijing time (UT+8), 19 hours after they had started. 15 minutes later, they left the flag, the status of Mao, and a note at the summit and went down with some rock samples (gift for Chairman Mao). Liu was waiting for them with his oxygen at 8,700 meters, saved their lives.

May 30
They were back to BC. Wang and Qu were 176 lb and 170 lb before they had climbed. And 111 lb and 110 lb after.


After the PR China was founded in 1949, there have been two Extras from the official newspaper People’s Daily: one was the first Chinese ascent of Mt Qomolungma, the other was the successful A-bomb test made by China during the heydays of the Cold War.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Study: Rock climb for aerobic fitness

When they hear the term "aerobic conditioning," most people think of things like running and cycling. Indeed, rock climbing probably doesn't occur to many as a way to improve heart and lung function. But researchers in Italy put climbing to the test and found that it's actually very aerobic according to a report just published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.

The scientists enlisted 13 recreational rock climbers (8 men and 5 women) and tested their aerobic fitness (VO2max, etc) in a lab. Then the subjects strapped on a portable system for measuring oxygen uptake and climbed easy routes on an 80-foot high wall. After the climb, blood lactate samples were taken.

What they discovered was that climbers of both genders naturally choose a speed that puts us near our performance/anaerobic threshold (I don't use the term lactate threshold because it's obsolete) and maintain this level of exertion. Of course, this makes sense because we generally want to get up a route quickly without going so hard that we flame out.

This level of exertion (about 73% of VO2max) is what the ACSM considers a good level for maintaining cardio fitness. Not surprisingly, they also found that rock climbers tend to have superior aerobic fitness (VO2 max around 40), roughly in the 85th percentile of the normal population.

As many of us know, climbing in an indoor gym is a form of moderate- to high-intensity interval training (something that gets a lot of buzz in the fitness world these days). The typical length of each bout, including recovery, is 9 minutes and this is repeated 10 to 15 times per session, with two to three sessions per week. In this study, they found that climbing burned 1000 - 1500 calories per week.

The bottom line is rock climbing is both good resistance training, which we already knew, and also decent aerobic training. Of course, if you have higher goals such as mountaineering, you still have to do endurance aerobic workouts and serious resistance training (read: lifting weights).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More Great Climbing Books

Following up on my post Top Ten Climbing Books of All Time, here are 40 more titles that are well worth seeking out. These books offer good reading as well as historical perspectives. Some are out of print so it will take some effort to track them down. If you have more suggestions, please leave comments.

Barker, Ralph. The Last Blue Mountain. The 1957 Harmosh expedition.

Bates, Robert G. Five Miles High. First American K2 expedition in 1938.

Bechtold, Fritz: Nanga Parbat Adventure. Ten fatalities in 1934.

Boardman, Peter. The Shining Mountain. Two men on Changabang.

Bonatti, Walter. The Great Days. A more recent autobiography with more epic ascents.

Bonington, Chris. Annapurna: South Face. An epic ascent.

Brown, Joe. The Hard Years. One of the hardest of the hard.

Browne, Belmore. The Conquest of Mount McKinley. Written in 1913.

Burdsall, Richard. Men Against the Clouds. Americans on Minya Konka in 1932.

Clinch, Nicholas. A Walk in the Sky. Only American first ascent of an 8000 m peak, in 1958.

Davidson, Art. Minus 148º. Denali in winter, say no more.

Diemberger, Kurt. K2: The Endless Knot. The tragic summer of 1986.

Ferlet, René. Aconcagua: South Face. Epic first ascent in 1955.

Harding, Warren. Downward Bound. A humorous perspective of Yosemite and climbing in the early 1970’s.

Hargreaves, Alison. A Hard Day's Summer. Six classic north faces, solo.

Harrer, Heinrich. Seven Years in Tibet. A fantastic true story.

Heckmair, Anderl, My Life As a Mountaineer. Much more than the Eiger.

Herzog. Maurice. Annapurna. First conquest of an 8000 m peak, in 1950.

Hunt, John. The Ascent of Everest. The official account of the 1954 first ascent.

King, Clarence. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. What they were doing in 1872 will surprise you.

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. One perspective of the 1996 Everest fiasco.

Languepin, Jean-Jaques. To Kiss High Heaven. Missing climbers on Nanda Devi in 1951.

Maraini, Fosco. Karakoram: The Ascent of Gasherbrum IV. Incredibly difficult climb in 1958.

Messner, Reinhold. The Seventh Grade. Postulations on the future of climbing from a 1973 perspective.

Messner, Reinhold. Solo Nanga Parbat. Probably the best from the best.

Murray, William. Mountaineering In Scotland. Hard routes in the 1930’s.

Newby, Eric. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Afghanistan adventure in 1956.

Patey, Tom. One Man's Mountains. Wry Scottish humor and hardcore climbs.

Rebufatt, Gaston. Starlight and Storm. Six of the greatest north faces in the Alps.

Ridgeway, Rick. The Last Step. Americans on K2 in 1978.

Robinson, Doug. A Night On the Ground. Sierra Nevada climbing tales.

Roper, Steve. Camp 4. A controversial history of Yosemite’s Golden Age.

Rowell, Galen. The Vertical World of Yosemite. A classic about the Valley’s in the early 1970’s.

Shipton, Eric. Blank On The Map. One of the great explorers in the Karakoram.

Smythe, Frank. Camp Six. The 1933 Everest expedition.

Tasker Joe. Savage Arena. Hard climbs in the great ranges.

Tichy, Herbert. Cho Oyu. A successful small expedition in 1954.

Tilman, Bill. The Ascent of Nanda Devi. Brits and Americans join forces in 1936.

Whillans, Don. Portrait of a Mountaineer. The hardman’s hardman.

Whymper, Edward. Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69. One of the most famous mountaineering books ever published.

Study: Bear spray really works

Kind of reassuring for folks who travel in grizzly country. This study was just published in the Journal of Wildlife Management:

We present a comprehensive look at a sample of bear spray incidents that occurred in Alaska, USA, from 1985 to 2006. We analyzed 83 bear spray incidents involving brown bears (Ursus arctos; 61 cases, 74%), black bears (Ursus americanus; 20 cases, 24%), and polar bears (Ursus maritimus; 2 cases, 2%). Of the 72 cases where persons sprayed bears to defend themselves, 50 (69%) involved brown bears, 20 (28%) black bears, and 2 (3%) polar bears. Red pepper spray stopped bears' undesirable behavior 92% of the time when used on brown bears, 90% for black bears, and 100% for polar bears. Of all persons carrying sprays, 98% were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters. All bear-inflicted injuries (n = 3) associated with defensive spraying involved brown bears and were relatively minor (i.e., no hospitalization required). In 7% (5 of 71) of bear spray incidents, wind was reported to have interfered with spray accuracy, although it reached the bear in all cases. In 14% (10 of 71) of bear spray incidents, users reported the spray having had negative side effects upon themselves, ranging from minor irritation (11%, 8 of 71) to near incapacitation (3%, 2 of 71). Bear spray represents an effective alternative to lethal force and should be considered as an option for personal safety for those recreating and working in bear country.
Bottomline: you are safer using pepper spray than a gun if attacked by a bear. Not convinced? Read this report by one of the top bear researchers in Alaska. He strongly advocates pepper spray as the primary defense.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Study: Geezers on Everest

Now that the mad dash to the South side of Everest has begun, it looks to be a banner year for accidents and fatalities. With the North side closed because of the Chinese publicity stunt, the South Col route will be more crowded than ever.
What makes this the perfect storm for death is the new stipulation that nobody can go above Camp 2 until May 11. At only 21,500 feet, that is still a long ways from the top (29,028 feet). Then the sheep, er I mean climbers, will be corralled in base camp for 10 days from May 1st to the 10th so they lose even some of that acclimatization.
Assuming the fake Olympic flame actually reaches the summit on schedule for the evening news—a big IF—the climbers in Nepal then have 20 days to get to the top. By June 1st, the Khumbu icefall (photo) is so dangerous only those with a death wish will still be going through. So there will be lots of poorly acclimatized wealthy clients popping Diamox like candy and quietly shooting up dexamethasone all ready to rush up in the small window of opportunity.
As if that combination wasn't bad enough, a study published last Fall in the journal Biology Letters makes the prognosis even grimmer for those over 60. Entitled "Effects of age and gender on success and death of mountaineers on Mount Everest," it presents a statistical analysis for 15 years (1990 - 2005) of people making their first attempt.
The results indicate that your odds of summitting diminish past the age of 40, which kinda sucks. From about age 25 to 40, the odds of reaching the top are about 1 in 3. After that, it's a linear drop off to about a 1 in 8 chance of success at age 60.
But the odds of dying also go up past the age of 60, which really sucks. Until that age, the odds of your becoming a corpse are about 1.5%. The newbie sexagenarians face a 5% chance of kicking the bucket while on the mountain (Everest veterans have better odds). If the geezers do make it to the top, there's roughly a 25% chance they won't make it home alive!
This research is brought to us by the same scientist, Raymond Huey (who really knows his fruit flies and lizards), that showed using oxygen on Everest and K2 greatly increases the chance of survival and that Everest was only climbable less than one third of the past 570 million years due to low oxygen levels on the planet.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New Frostbite Procedure

File this one under: Good to know, hope I never need it.

I've never had frostbite though I've certainly had plenty of cases of "screaming meanies" (ask any ice climber if you don't know what that is). But as a mountaineer, frostbite is something that I need to be prepared for--quite a few of my friends have lost bits of fingers and toes.
This week, a paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Interventional Radiology about a breakthrough treatment for frostbite that has the potential to prevent amputations. The technique involves using an IV to infuse the affected limb with a drug (Tenectaplase) through arteries upstream of the injured area so this likely isn't something that will be done in the field. The results appear to be a dramatic improvement over the standard protocols, which often resulted in small blood clots that wreak havoc on thawing tissue.
Since this research is so new, if you end up in the hospital with frostbite, it's likely that you may have to inform your doctor about the procedure. The press release gives a nice summary of the research. Here is the PowerPoint presentation if you want full details and the typical gory photos.