NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico has had its fair share of athletes come to the state to train at its high altitude. Now, the altitude has piqued the interest of the U.S. Army, and it’s getting a little help from the University of New Mexico. In Taos Ski Valley, a team of U.S. Army soldiers and researchers and UNM personnel spent most of July 12,000 above sea level.
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The group spent three weeks studying acute mountain sickness when reaching high elevations quickly. “What we were trying to figure out is who’s going to have a hard time with it and who’s not,” said Dr. Jon Femling, associate professor UNM’s Department of Emergency Medicine.
The U.S. soldiers flew in from Missouri and were sent up near Kachina Peak. “So they’d go from 600 feet to almost 12,000 feet in about six hours some of them. And that is really really fast ascent,” said Femling. It’s also an elevation they could experience if deployed. Some were driven up the mountain while others hiked.
The UNM team of five, which included two doctors and two paramedics, drew the soldiers’ blood and tested oxygen levels.
“We feel comfortable if it’s above 88, 90% something like that. if you are in Iowa or Minnesota something like that, we’d want it to be above 93%…up on the mountain, we can lower that number a little bit, lower eighties and still feel comfortable that the person is doing ok,” said Femling. “Is it better to hike up or is it better to just go up there and be up there right away? Then we can actually measure with a specific number, how sick you’re going to be.”
They hope the evidence they gather on why some people are more at risk than others for altitude sickness will help everyone who lives or visits the mountains on how to make a safe climb to higher elevations.
“A lot of us like to go up and ski maybe we’ll be at altitude, maybe our families are going to come and visit us over Christmas and they’re going to come from somewhere with low altitude and then they’re going to go up high to Taos Ski Valley,” said Femling. “Not only do we want to keep people safe but we want to make sure they have a good time up there as well. and all of this contributes to that.”
For the UNM team, it’s also a way to give back. “Not all of us can serve the same way that our armed forces have, but if we can help out that in any other way, that’s a huge win for us as well.”
Those with UNM also taught wilderness medicine courses to the soldiers during their time in New Mexico. The research collaboration was supposed to happen last summer but was delayed due to the pandemic.