Colorado's cutting-edge research aims to lower the risk of altitude sickness.
In an unassuming white building on Aurora's Anschutz Medical Campus, researchers toil away in front of computers and charts and vials of unrecognizable substances, but these scientists look more like the high school soccer team than the math club. That's no coincidence: The researchers who work at the University of Colorado's Altitude Research Center (ARC) labor over their experiments because it's their job, but also because many of them have a personal interest in the results.
"Most of us are here because we figured out a way to combine our interests in science and outdoor recreation," says Jason Chapman, a former research associate at ARC and a regular marathoner. "Plus, we get to use the information we learn here to help us perform better at altitude." The center, which has been around in various incarnations for more than 15 years, is one of the few research organizations
of its kind in the world. With a mission to improve life through research on how hypoxia affects health and performance, ARC strives to generate science that will help both an experienced mountaineer climb higher without consequence and an oxygen-starved ICU patient heal more quickly.
Dr. Robert Roach, ARC's research director and an avid mountain climber, has been consumed with the desire to allow people to have more fun at altitude for three decades. "We want to be a place where people can bring their problems with altitude and hypoxia," he says, adding that the center offers workshops and seminars for the public as well as for health-care providers. "But we also want to radically advance the field of high-altitude biology." That means conducting groundbreaking experiments—things like determining whether intracranial pressure causes altitude headache, figuring out if there's a genetic susceptibility for altitude illness, and sussing out the basic mechanism behind acute mountain sickness. On any given day at ARC you'll see research subjects furiously exercising in the hypobaric chamber, scientists peering at brain scans,
and Roach and company pounding out grant proposals. Of course, ARC's crack team of scientists isn't
the only Colorado-based group interested in altitude medicine.
"We're dedicated to research at ARC," says Roach, "but Peter Hackett is the best person in the world for clinical work." So if you're in good shape but you still suck serious wind trying to climb Mt. Massive, your best bet for figuring out why you can't summit is Hackett. Considered one of the planet's foremost experts on altitude medicine, Hackett operates the Institute for Altitude Medicine (IFAM) in Telluride. IFAM, founded in 2007, has an affiliation with ARC but exists for a very different reason: Effective clinical consultations and treatment for altitude-related illness are not widely available. "People come to me for a variety of reasons," says Hackett, "but mostly it's, 'I had a problem on Everest last time and need to know why,' or 'My blood pressure is simply too high at altitude,' or 'I just can't catch my breath past a certain elevation.' And, fortunately, almost all of these issues can be dealt with."
It may not be surprising that Colorado fields a rather large brain trust of high-altitude researchers. After all, the state's mountainous backbone serves as a natural laboratory and a vast reservoir for anecdotal evidence. What is surprising, though, is how far-reaching the results of this clinical and laboratory research could one day be. "If we can figure out what causes high-altitude headache," says Roach, "we might be able to expand that research and help figure out what causes the common, everyday headache. Furthermore, if we can determine the basic mechanisms of hypoxia, we may come to a better understanding of diseases like stroke, which affect millions of Americans."