Breathless Heights

If you want to get high, there's still a price to be paid for invading the towering ranges—despite some newfangled shortcuts

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
MY WIFE, SUE, is accustomed to my departures, but not to my leaving before I'm gone. In this case, I quit sleeping with her and moved into the spare bedroom upstairs.

"Honey," I said, "this is all in the name of science."

"You brave guinea pig, you," she said, adding that altitude must have already killed too many of my brain cells.

Nevertheless, she helped me duct-tape opaque plastic sheets over the room's windows, closet doorjambs, light fixtures, and electrical outlets.

Once the spare bedroom was swathed in plastic, two "oxygen concentrators," dishwasher-size machines that separate oxygen from nitrogen, were placed outside the door. Each machine had two hoses that were plugged into the room via holes drilled through the door. One hose sucked normal air out, the other pumped nitrogen-enriched air in. A computerized control panel with an LED screen that reported the room's oxygen content was bolted onto the inside of the door. Just below it, an eight-inch hole was bored through the door and a ventilation fan installed. Two small oxygen sensors and one carbon-dioxide sensor were taped to the walls. A carbon-dioxide scrubber—a large metal box filled with a kitty-litterlike gravel that would absorb the excess carbon dioxide I would be exhaling—was set up inside the room.

Because I was the first mountaineer willing to try out the mountain room, and because the computer controlling the machines was a new, untested prototype, Kutt insisted that Hackett plan my altitude protocol, which he did. If everything went smoothly, I was to spend two nights at 10,000 feet, two nights at 12,000 feet, three nights at 14,000 feet, three nights at 16,000 feet, and six nights at 18,000 feet.

The first two nights I set the oxygen meter at 18.69 percent, which translates to 10,000 feet above sea level. Since I already live at 7,200 feet, I slept fine, although the computer-controlled fan kicked on and off erratically, bumping the oxygen level in the room up and down. The third night I staggered in after downing a few too many beers, dialed the meter to 17.3 percent oxygen (12,000 feet), and woke in the middle of the night with nothing less than what I deserved—a screaming headache and a sketchy stomach. But it wasn't all my fault; the computer had again malfunctioned, and I was actually up at almost 15,000 feet.

Night four went fine at 12,000 feet, but on nights five, six, and seven I slept little. The computer was acting up again, and to compensate I started manually overriding the system by simply opening and shutting the door to attain the desired oxygen concentration in the room—a procedure that meant waking up about every hour.

Night eight I should have been at 14.89 percent oxygen—16,000 feet—but I couldn't get the level above 15,000 feet, and the overheating machines made the room as hot as a brothel in Bangkok. Sometime after midnight I bailed, tiptoeing downstairs and slipping into bed with my wife. ("So," she murmured, "the boy in the bubble returneth!")

Thereafter I missed three nights because my "mountain room" was too hot. (CAT now sells an air-conditioner to supplement its $14,500 setup.)

On night 12 I fell asleep at 10,000 feet and woke at 17,000, choking for air in a room stiflingly hot. On night 13 I zoomed from 7,200 to 18,200 feet and had some fine hallucinations. Nights 14 and 15, more heat and more hallucinations. On night 16, my last, I shot up to 18,500 feet, got myself good and sick for a few hours, and then escaped to sleep with my wife before leaving for the mountain in the morning.