His brain began to atrophy.
His blood thickened and his muscles shrank. And then his heart began to fail.
Dawes Eddy’s response to all of this?
“A dream come true.”
Eddy’s climb of Mount Everest is now in the annals of great achievements. Although the record fell within days, he gained acclaim in May as the oldest American to stand atop the world’s highest peak, where the 66-year-old watched the sunrise.
It was among the most beautiful things he’d ever seen, he told a standing-room-only crowd gathered Wednesday night at Gonzaga University.
While his trek into the Himalayas overwhelmed his senses, a team of physicians and researchers in Spokane were eagerly awaiting his return. They had turned to Eddy to help them better understand how extreme altitude affects older bodies.
Physiologist Don Winant believes it’s important knowledge, as greater numbers of older people engage in high-altitude pursuits.
He predicted that Eddy’s climb would show that altitude is harder on aging bodies and that recovery is more difficult.
While some of his hypotheses were manifested in the follow-up medical exams, he came away in awe of Eddy.
He knew Eddy was in terrific shape – not just for his age, but for anybody. But when the imaging machines at clinics, the tough sessions on the treadmill and the trick questions designed to measure brain activity were completed, Winant knew he was studying somebody built a little differently than most of the rest of us.
Eddy, he said, is built like a Nepalese Sherpa.
In a nod to Eddy’s abilities, Winant settled on this apt name for his research findings: “Built to Scale: Dawes Eddy at Extreme Altitude.”
The great climbers, including Spokane’s Chris Kopczynski and John Roskelley, are diminutive in size but giant in strength and ability, said Winant, who has studied them, too.
Eddy weighed 131 pounds when he left Spokane. He lost about 16 pounds on the climb, Winant calculated, although he wasn’t able to put Eddy on a scale until nine days later and after plenty of food and drink.
Winant said Eddy’s body fat fell to 4 percent. The circumference of his upper arms dropped from 28 centimeters to 24 centimeters as his biceps lost mass.
He also lost some of what psychologists call “executive skills.” While Eddy did not have a reduction in finger-tapping speed, he did struggle more when it came to solving puzzles.
Something good did happen to Eddy’s body at high altitude, Winant said with a smirk: His level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol, fell.
Also, his calorie-burn rate rose. After he returned from his climb Eddy’s resting metabolic rate was 2,054 calories per day.
Yet the exposure could have longer-lasting negative effects.
For example, Winant said, Eddy suffered ultraviolet radiation damage to his eyes, increasing the need for cataract surgery.
The overall research confirmed that extreme altitude is dangerous and deadly, even for those seemingly suited to visit the world’s highest places.
And it could be especially so for people who don’t share Eddy’s physiology, including a rich ability to deliver oxygen into the bloodstream. Called the VO2 level, Eddy’s is 137 percent of normal.
It’s among the reasons Eddy has enjoyed climbing success and how he made a relatively rapid ascent.
If a person were to fly from Spokane and be dropped at the summit of Everest, the individual would lose consciousness in less than two minutes and die shortly afterward. It took Eddy more than 60 days to travel and acclimatize from the comforts of about 1,900 feet elevation to 29,035 feet.
Eddy was part of Spokane’s season of extraordinary senior achievement.
Shortly after Eddy – briefly – held the title of the oldest American to climb Mount Everest, local mountaineer Kay LeClaire reached the summit. At 60, she was among the oldest U.S. women to do so. “What they have achieved is amazing,” Winant said.