By Ms. Mallory Roussel (USARIEM)June 22, 2018
NATICK, Mass. (June 25, 2018) -- After standing on the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado for more than 50 years, the walls of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, High Altitude Research Laboratory are finally coming down this summer.
The city of Colorado Springs, in partnership with USARIEM, the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Springs Utilities, is building a new Summit Complex and Visitors Center, which officially broke ground on June 4. The new, ecologically sensitive Pikes Peak Summit Complex will offer sweeping views and feature digitally interactive displays focused on the history, significance and geology of Pikes Peak.
As part of this massive construction effort, the site will consolidate USARIEM's high-altitude research lab, a facility support building and Colorado Springs Utilities Communications Facility. The new Pikes Peak lab will be constructed on the west side of the new complex and slightly below the summit, giving tourists an unobstructed 360-degree view of the sweeping landscape surrounding the Peak. The excavation of the new site began last week, and construction of the new complex and the USARIEM lab is anticipated to be complete by the fall of 2020.
High altitude and mountainous terrains are militarily relevant operational environments where our warfighters must adapt and fight. No one knows this better than Dr. Stephen Muza, USARIEM's deputy director of science and technology, who has contributed to numerous USARIEM Pikes Peak studies over the past 26 years. According to Muza, the new lab will help USARIEM fulfill its mission to optimize warfighter health and physical and cognitive readiness during high-altitude missions.
"The new Army High Altitude Research Lab will enhance our nation's ability to continue conducting high-altitude medical research to provide America's military with warfighters who are ready and capable of overmatching our adversaries in future high-altitude mountain operations," Muza said at the groundbreaking celebration on June 4.
Muza explained that U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force researchers, along with many academic scientists, have partnered with USARIEM to use the Pikes Peak lab to research ways to optimize Soldier health and performance readiness in high-altitude environments. He added that medical research conducted on Pikes Peak contributed to the success of U.S. military operations in the mountains of Afghanistan after September 11.
Yet, the USARIEM researchers also learned from these Afghanistan mountain operations that much more research needs to be conducted in order to optimize and sustain warfighter health and performance in high altitude.
"In support of the Army Modernization Priorities, specifically increasing Soldier lethality, our goal is to understand how altitude affects Soldiers physiologically in order to mitigate altitude illness and optimize physical and cognitive performance," Muza said. "Our understanding of how the human body can adapt to a high-altitude environment and how altitude illness, otherwise known as Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS, happens is incomplete and requires further studies."
Soldiers who are abruptly exposed to the lower oxygen pressure levels at moderate to high altitudes (4,000 to 14,000 feet) can face unique, debilitating changes in performance and overall health. When Soldiers ascend above 4,000 feet, their physical performance can progressively decrease, limiting their ability to perform missions. At above 8,000 feet, AMS is common, with Soldiers experiencing symptoms like headaches, vomiting, fatigue, lassitude or trouble sleeping. Severe cases of AMS could even require medical evacuation.
The symptoms can be so debilitating that adversaries who are already acclimatized to high altitude could use the terrain to their advantage. The 1962 Sino-Indian War between China and India, one of the first large-scale confrontations between military forces at high altitude, was a great example of this. That war sparked the U.S. Army's interest in altitude research, which eventually led the Army to establish the first Pikes Peak Lab in 1969.
From its humble beginning in the 1960s, USARIEM's Pikes Peak lab facilities, technology and research evolved in later years into what Muza described as the "center of altitude research." The lab's unique facilities, including living accommodations for researchers and study volunteers, allowed USARIEM the unique advantage of being able to conduct decades of altitude studies where volunteers lived on the summit.
Some of the medical breakthroughs from previous research on the Peak have led to the Food and Drug Administration's only approved altitude sickness prevention medicine, a better understanding of Soldiers' nutrition and hydration needs at high altitude, as well as guidance to optimally help Soldiers acclimatize to a high-altitude environment.
While this information was primarily discovered and developed to help warfighters, Muza noted that it also has benefited all Americans through improved health and quality of life.
For more than 50 years, the Pikes Peak lab has stood as a symbol of USARIEM's proud record of mountain medicine research, and USARIEM will continue to lead Army health and performance research in the future.
"The U.S. Army has been sharing the summit of Pikes Peak since the 1960s to advance medical research for the benefit of our military and all Americans," Muza said. "The current lab has been on the summit since 1969, and on a personal note, I have conducted research studies in that lab since 1992. The Army has enjoyed a great working relationship with the management team of America's Mountain, and we look forward to many more decades of collaborative work."