World Record Mountaineer Gelje Sherpa Visits The Altitude Centre

In August we were delighted to be joined by world record holding mountaineers Gelje Sherpa and Adriana Brownlee. For those who don’t know Gelje, the man is a living legend…

At just 30,the Mountain Tiger has summitted 13 of the 8000 m peaks, including the formidable K2 in winter, and was part of Nimsdai’s record breaking Project Possible. He visited us with  Brownlee, a regular at The Altitude Centre, ahead of their first joint guiding venture for their newexpedition company AGA Adventures.

We decided to put Gelje to the test, and took him through our Advanced Mountaineering Consultation to understand how he can do what he does in the high mountains.

What We Did

The Advanced Mountaineering Consultation is the ultimate test of high altitude ability. We began with important health checks, recording Gelje’s blood pressure, lung function and carbon dioxide tolerance, before moving onto a 3 part testing process at high altitude.

Phase 1

Dedicated to understanding a climber’s response to hypoxia. Through two tests, Gelje was exposed to high altitude whilst seated, to gain insight into how his body deals with a lack of oxygen. No exercise, no fatigue, just altitude. This allows us to eliminate all other factors and understand how the body deals with hypoxia in isolation; an important first step in the testing process.

Phase 2

This sees us get a little more specific. Following testing hypoxic response in isolation, we can then begin to layer on additional tasks, and this this phase tests a climber’s response to 3 progressively higher altitudes whilst hiking. Ultimately, we want to understand what happens when a climber is performing trek specific activity at high altitude, and this is the most specific way to do exactly that.

Phase 3

We have a good understanding of the physiological reaction to high altitude. Now, we want to understand how a climber can function effectively whilst exposed to hypoxia. For this phase, we again test at 3 progressively higher altitudes, but this time the focus is on ability to make decisions quickly and accurately whilst exercising at altitude. We use the Stroop test to determine reaction time and accuracy whilst exercising.

From the data collected, we can form a picture of any individual’s strengths and weaknesses at high altitude, and crucially understand how they can function in the mountains, or where we need to focus training ahead of a climb.

What We Found

Unsurprisingly, Gelje’s numbers were very good. For his size, we saw exceptional lung function, and a very good tolerance to carbon dioxide, both important when dealing with low oxygen environments.

Through the first phase of testing, Gelje performed very well. The amount of oxygen in his blood (spO2, or blood oxygen saturation) was hardly altered by breathing air equivalent to 3800 m and 5100 m, nor did his heart rate change from resting levels.

Moving to the treadmill for the active phase of testing, Gelje’s spO2 again remained very high throughout each test, showing an impressive ability to ferry oxygen from the air to the working muscle to meet the demands of high altitude climbing. Interestingly, spO2 was perhaps a touch lower than we may have expected at 3800 m, however research has shown that Sherpas are especially efficient with oxygen and can make do with less oxygen in the blood than other high altitude natives and lowlanders.

Importantly for a high altitude guide, Gelje’s functional capacity results were very good. His speed and accuracy of decision making on the Stroop test were maintained very well as altitude increased, explaining how he can work effectively in high pressure environments found in the big mountains.

What This Means

The data we collected explain clearly how Gelje can operate so effectively in the mountains.

His body was seeing high altitude as though he were at sea level, and his ability to function cognitively at those altitudes was excellent as a result. All told, we were studying a man who was unphased by the altitudes at which he was tested.

Gelje’s data is an excellent example of where we want our high altitude climbers to get to prior to expedition. Of course, most are starting with a slightly lower baseline, but that in itself is something we can identify through our Mountaineering or Advanced Mountaineering Consultations, and build a strategy that works on specific weaknesses ahead of the climb. We can’t all be Gelje, but when it comes to altitude we can.

To find out more about the testing conducted in our Mountaineering Consultation, or training options, please get in touch with the team below.

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