Pikes Peak laboratory: USARIEM's proud history of Army Medicine

By Ms. Mallory Roussel (USARIEM)August 15, 2016

Pikes Peak laboratory: USARIEM's proud history of Army Medicine
As part of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine's 2016 altitude field study, researchers Dr. Allen Cymerman, middle, and Janet Staab study how test volunteers' ventilation changes during acclimatization while living for 12 days ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

PIKES PEAK, Colo. (Aug. 15, 2016) -- The winding 14,115-foot ascent to the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine's Maher Memorial Altitude Laboratory at the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado is something USARIEM researchers have described as a "time warp."

As people swing past the newer souvenir shops and tourist areas down below, the buildings get progressively older the higher you go. At 50 years old, USARIEM's Pikes Peak lab is one of the oldest buildings on the summit.

With both USARIEM's Thermal and Mountain Medicine and Military Nutrition Divisions conducting studies from June to August 2016, it is one of the busiest years for the lab--and for good reason. This is the last year for researchers to use this Pikes Peak lab before its scheduled demolition in 2018.

According to TMMD division chief Dr. Stephen Muza, there is a plan to design a new, ecologically sensitive Visitors Center and Pikes Peak lab and to restore the summit to a more pristine condition. The new lab will be constructed on the opposite side and slightly below the summit, giving tourists an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the sweeping landscape surrounding the Peak.

This summer, while TMMD researchers conducted a study on sustaining acclimatization and preventing Acute Mountain Sickness, some could not help but reminisce over the many scientific accomplishments, challenges and people they have worked with in the historic lab.

According to Dr. Allen Cymerman, one of the first USARIEM researchers to conduct a study with the Army on the summit in 1970, the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center previously owned the lab and conducted studies in the 1960s. The 1962 Sino-Indian War between China and India led the U.S. Army to focus on altitude research.

"It was one of the first large-scale confrontations between military forces at such a high altitude," Cymerman said. "The war sparked the U.S. Army's interest in altitude research, which eventually led to USARIEM obtaining the Pikes Peak lab."

The technology and the lab itself started from humble beginnings. In USARIEM's first study conducted at the Peak in 1970, "Strive the Divide," during which Cymerman studied Fort Carson Soldiers' ventilation, only girders and exterior walls protected and supported the lab, which also had no bathroom or kitchen.

"USARIEM did not have the sophistication of analyzing ventilation breath by breath like we can today," Cymerman said. "We collected gas in big plastic bags. The test volunteers would inhale the outside air and then exhale into the bag. We would analyze the bags and look at how well the Soldiers acclimatized."

USARIEM's lab facilities, technology and research evolved in later years into what Cymerman called the "center of altitude research." Renovations to construct a bathroom and kitchen in the lab in the 1980s allowed USARIEM the unique advantage of being able to conduct decades of altitude studies where volunteers lived on the summit. In the study this year, the lab housed 18 volunteers for 12 days at the summit, allowing researchers to study how well they acclimatized to the altitude.

"The Pikes Peak lab is one of the few in the world where researchers can house people with sanitation and food to study them for long periods of time," Cymerman said.

Today, the lab stands as a relic of USARIEM's proud past of medical and altitude research, and USARIEM will continue to lead Army health and performance medical research in the future. Researchers this year have just finished their field study at Pikes Peak to find methods to sustain acclimatization in order to prevent Soldiers from experiencing debilitating decrements in physical and cognitive performance, as well as AMS symptoms on the battlefield.

"This study may help us better understand how to sustain altitude acclimatization upon return to sea level. Our goal is to optimize warfighter performance if the mission involves multiple deployments to mountainous terrain," said Janet Staab, a research associate from the ventilation team who has helped conduct Pikes Peak studies since 1990.

Unlike past Pikes Peak studies, this study also included a post-acclimatization treatment phase, in which the volunteers returned to USARIEM at sea level and spent three hours per day for 12 days in a low-oxygen hypoxia tent. Upon completion of the treatment, the volunteers were re-exposed for 24 hours in a hypobaric chamber, which simulated the conditions on Pikes Peak, to see if this treatment was effective in sustaining the acclimatization acquired while living on the summit. It takes a lot dedication for volunteers to commit nearly 30 days to a study, knowing they will likely experience symptoms of AMS, which include headache, nausea, vomiting, difficulty sleeping, fatigue and lassitude.

It is because of the ability to house researchers and volunteers under the same roof, which allows researchers to boost volunteers' morale during challenging points in the study, that generations of people have been able to form happy memories within the lab's walls. Although studying AMS can be difficult for both researchers and volunteers, Staab said there is a lot of "camaraderie."

"Besides the privilege of working with some of the most world-renowned experts in altitude physiology, it is impressive to observe the volunteers who have 'gutted it out' and dedicated their time while experiencing AMS, as well as difficulties in exercising and concentrating, for the sake of the study," Staab said. "We expect to see altitude illness and decrements in performance when lowlanders rapidly ascend to 14,115 feet, and that is what the volunteers are prepared for before ascent. Some volunteers struggle for the first few days, but as symptoms improve, they feel proud they stuck it out for a good cause: helping the warfighter and advancing Army Medicine."