From Sea Level to Summit
AT 3 A.M. ON A SWELTERING JULY NIGHT, I awake half-parboiled in a clear plastic tent. The tent is set atop my queen-size bed. On the floor, a 70-pound filtration pump siphons 12 liters of oxgyen per minute from the humid night air–then forces the thinned gas gruel inside the tent via a plastic hose.
Feeling headachy and a little nauseated, I fumble through the sweat-soaked sheets for a flashlight, reading glasses, and a pair of high-tech gizmos. According to the first of these–the HandiOxygen sensor–ambient oxygen levels have plummeted by more than 30 percent since I zipped myself in here four hours ago. My western Pennsylvania home is only 770 feet above sea level, but the simulated oxygen level inside the tent is equal to an altitude of 11,885 feet.
I quickly place gizmo No. 2–a SportsStat pulse oximeter–on my index finger. My nocturnal heart is thumping a resting 45 beats per minute, a reassuringly low number for a 54.9-year-old. My blood oxygen saturation, at 83 percent, is low as well–though few medical professionals would find this reading reassuring. Normal, healthy people under normal, healthy conditions boast "sat" levels from 97-100 percent. If I were to arrive at my local hospital with this 83, the ER docs would almost certainly put me in the ICU.
Excellent! The hypoxic crypt is working perfectly!
As Nietzsche once spake from his rarefied mountain cave, "Whatever gaseous deprivation does not destroy me only makes me stronger." Or something along those lines. It’s conceivable my grasp of college philosophy has slipped a little after weeks of sleeping nightly in my own oxygen-starved chamber.
For those tackling purely cerebral challenges–acing the S.A.T.’s, for instance, or passing a fourth-grade spelling test–I concede this high-tech contraption may be a less than ideal training tool. If, however, your goal, like mine, is literally loftier–to climb Colorado’s highest summit after a lifetime of sea-level habitation–well, that’s a different story. For quests of this sort, a few mild semi-hallucinations and magnified levels of whiny hypochondria are small prices to pay to make it to the top.
Over the course of my life, I’ve hiked–or more accurately, sauntered–over vast tracts–or at least parts–of the low-altitude East. But never in all my years have I aspired to climb so much as a foothill out West. Now, in just two months, I will face the highest peak in the Rocky Mountain range. As BACKPACKER’s human guinea pig in a train-for-altitude experiment, I’m using the latest technology to strengthen and pre-acclimatize myself while remaining here in Pittsburgh until the night before my summit attempt.
Chief among these high-tech aids is the hypoxic tent itself. Though invented nearly a century after Nietzsche’s time, I suspect he would have approved: Lots of would-be übermensch–mountain-oriented or not–swear by the philosophy of strength through semi-suffocation, also known as sleep high, train low. Lance does (or did) it. Ditto Shaq and Becks. A spokeswoman for Boulder-based Colorado Altitude Training, which manufacturers the $5,795 CAT 150 Tent System I’ve been using, boasts that her company’s roster of clients includes Tour de France cyclists, Ironman triathletes, and NFL wide receivers.
As far as an actual Nietzschian demise goes, tent life is unlikely to cause it. The CAT 150 features airtight zippers and proprietary membranes that allow exhaled CO2 to escape while effectively hampering the infiltration of outside air. Despite this, the spokeswoman has assured me, even in the event of power failure, there’s enough air inside the tent to keep me and a bed partner alive for 14 hours.
As if I could coax anyone into joining me inside this turkey-roasting bag. Last week, while dining with a pair of comely swimming teammates, one of them mentioned that her father-in-law owns a cabin in the Laurel Highlands. At 2,200 feet, she said, this is the highest spot in Pennsylvania.
"Actually," I corrected her, "my bed in Sewickley Heights is much higher. Perhaps you two would care to join me?" Sigh. Another lesson for the newbie: The mountaineer’s life is nothing if not ascetic. At 3:15 a.m., I switch into a dry T-shirt, turn off the flashlight, and attempt to find my way back to sleep–ménage à un.
The path leading me to this odd station began innocently enough in a Pittsburgh bar. I was trading boasts with a highly competitive triathlete friend, whom, incidentally, I can humiliate in all swimming events.
In an effort to regain the bragging advantage, he asked me if I’d ever climbed a "14er"–an abbreviation, he explained, used by trekkers to describe mountains 14,000 feet or higher. He claimed to have made it up a good dozen of them.