When Dawes Eddy stands atop the world’s highest peak, his euphoria will be brief.
As he lingers, his muscles will begin to shrink as his body consumes the last cache of energy. His heart will labor to pump blood the consistency of maple syrup. And his oxygen-deprived brain will begin to fail him – abandoning the ambition and judgment that ushered him to the pinnacle of Mount Everest.
What’s in store for Eddy is no surprise: Researchers have long known about the rigors and medical risks of high altitude.
What they don’t know is if such exposure is especially hard on older bodies, or if traveling to high places has consequences upon return to the comforts of low-elevation living. So a group of scientists, physicians, psychologists and athletic consultants are using Eddy as a research subject to test their theories on aging and altitude.
Eddy, 66, leaves today on a plane bound for Nepal, where he’ll spend the next two months climbing Mount Everest. For the first several weeks, he’ll prepare for the climb by living on the flanks of the mountain, acclimating by climbing higher and higher before he makes his final ascent to the world’s highest summit. Eddy, though, is no ordinary senior citizen. He is built like a Nepalese Sherpa, says research coordinator Don Winant. He is 5 feet 6 inches tall and, at 130 pounds, weighs less than he did in high school.
He runs 8 miles three days a week. He can carry a 35-pound backpack with minimal effort, and his resting heart rate is 46 beats per minute.
“What Dawes tells us is that life doesn’t end at 65,” Winant said. “You can still remain an elite athlete and do extraordinary physical feats.”
Many aging baby boomers, with their money and penchant for personal achievement, are pursuing activities that traditionally have been embraced by those much younger. It makes the research more than an academic exercise by potentially awarding new insight and information that can be used to help aspiring older climbers better understand the risks of high altitude.
For the past two months, Eddy has undergone a battery of tests that established his baseline health and fitness.
After his climb, the researchers will conduct another series of tests to measure the physiological changes.
‘Picture perfect’ heart
At Spokane Cardiology, registered cardiology technician Marlee Griffith performed an ultrasound on Eddy’s heart. She checked for valve leakage, proper function and strong pulmonary artery pressure.
“He has an incredible heart. Picture perfect,” she said.
Cardiologist Dr. Harold Goldberg reviewed the test results, shook Eddy’s hand and said the tests show his heart should serve him well on Everest.
Altitude presents the heart with double jeopardy.
First, the amount of oxygen molecules in the air diminishes the higher a person climbs. In addition, the air thins out and the pressure drops. This makes it difficult for the heart to push blood throughout the body even if the lungs are able to capture sufficient oxygen and infuse it into the blood.
At Champions Sports Medicine, clinic director Dr. P.Z. Pearce helped arrange vigorous treadmill testing designed to accurately measure what is called VO2 level – or the body’s ability to deliver oxygen into the bloodstream.
As climbers ascend to high altitude, their bodies begin to atrophy.
Yet at the same time the body is succumbing to oxygen deprivation, it begins to adapt through angiogenesis – the creation of new blood vessels, which, in the case of climbers, serve more oxygen to the shrinking muscles.
Dr. Sam Joseph, at Spokane Respiratory Consultants, found that Eddy has strong lungs and above-normal ability to bring oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream. This process, called oxygen diffusion capacity, will decline on Everest, but Eddy’s condition bodes well for high altitude.
15 percent body fat
At Champions Sports Medicine, triathlete and sports performance director Ben Greenfield said Eddy had 15 percent body fat and burned 1,850 calories a day just resting. The average 24-hour resting metabolic rate for a 65-year-old man is 1,265 calories burned per day.
At high altitude, he will be burning upwards of 2,500 calories a day even if he did little else but sit in a tent.
“Of course, they will be working hard, and I suspect Dawes will be burning through more than 5,000 calories on some of those days,” Greenfield said.
The testing Eddy endured in recent weeks also showed that his conditioning has trained his body to first use fats for primary fuel rather than burning through carbohydrates and protein. His body’s preference for first using this deep well of fat reserves should benefit him on Everest.
Strain on the brain
Researchers also are interested in measuring the long-term effects of high altitude on brain function.
Scott Mabee, a psychologist at NW Behavioral Clinic, performed a series of psycho-neurological tests on Eddy. He suspects that high altitude will present some dangers, including difficulty with problem-solving.
“When the brain is starved of oxygen, it is the large frontal cortex that begins to shut down first,” Mabee said. “That’s the part of our brain that makes us human.”
Upon return to lower elevations, when adequate pulmonary pressure resumes amid oxygen-rich air, the brain may not recover immediately.
Mabee will rerun the tests, including finger-tapping exercises and problem-solving skills, to assess the long-term neurological effects and specifically how it affects older people exposed to high altitude.
Prior studies of climbers going to Mount Everest reveal brain function deficits.
One was the American Medical Research Expedition to Everest in 1981.
Renowned Spokane mountaineer Chris Kopczynski was among the climbers who participated, according to newspaper clippings from 28 years ago and research papers written since.
The study found a decline in finger-tapping speed up to a year after the climb, and the losses of concentration, short-term memory and complex problem-solving 10 months after returning to sea level.
Dr. Art Watanabe at Spinal Diagnostics performed magnetic resonance imaging on Eddy’s brain that showed everything was normal. Upon return from Everest they will compare post-climb images to look for gray-matter swelling and possible constriction of blood vessels feeding the brain.
One study showed that 92 percent of climbers ascending above 18,000 feet – more than two vertical miles lower than the top of Everest – experience frontal lobe injuries and atrophy of the outer layers of the brain.
Eddy also underwent positron emission tomography, or PET, scans of his brain and heart, and an MRI of his heart by Dr. Ken McCabe, a radiologist at Inland Imaging.
At Holy Family Hospital’s multiple sclerosis center, Dr. Roger Cooke oversaw a neurological screening.
‘There’s nothing to do but try’
Eddy has used Mount Rainier as his backyard training ground. He has stood on the 14,410 foot summit 37 times – often climbing solo. He has turned back 23 times and once – 10 years ago this weekend – fell 2,000 feet, breaking his leg as he tumbled down a steep section of ice called the Gibraltar Chute. He thought he was dead, but another climbing party found him and summoned an emergency helicopter.
Despite his exploits – which include dozens of other climbs in the Cascades, Canadian Rockies and the Andes – Eddy is reserved. Like so many serious climbers who trek the Himalayas and other ice-clad places, he exhibits none of the bravado often associated with thrill-seekers.
He and his wife, Mary Kay, have four daughters.
Eddy has simply led a life of exercise and adventure and now wants to beat the daunting odds and leave boot prints at 29,035 feet.
Factoring in weather, his ability to acclimate and the strength of his 17-member International Mountain Guides climbing team, he has a 13 percent chance of summiting.
“We’ll see about that,” he said of the odds. “There’s nothing to do but try.”