FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Forty-nine Soldiers from the 5th Engineer Battalion here spent four days at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, this past summer, hiking on and around Kachina Peak. While this might sound like an ideal summer vacation, the Soldiers were there for a more scientific reason.
The Soldiers were taking part in an altitude study conducted by the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.
Dr. Beth Beidleman, a research physiologist with USARIEM and the principal investigator of the study, said the altitude study in Taos Ski Valley is part of the lab’s effort to identify what physiologic and genomic factors put some individuals at higher risk of getting acute mountain sickness, or AMS.
“Anyone who rapidly ascends to high altitude can experience AMS symptoms which can include headache, nausea, fatigue, poor sleep and loss of appetite,” Beidleman said.
AMS is an additional challenge for warfighters who are already facing life-and-death situations during missions, Beidleman added.
“Symptoms can impact every aspect of a warfighter’s performance,” she said. “They won’t be able to physically or mentally perform well.”
The data collected during the study is also being used to finalize an algorithm that can predict AMS in individuals prior to occurrence.
“AMS-alert would be the first algorithm to predict individuals’ AMS risk in real-time using physiologic monitoring,” Beidleman said. “When implemented into a smartwatch or smart fabric, military leaders could use AMS-alert to identify warfighters at high risk of experiencing AMS at least four hours prior to occurrence.”
Beidleman said this would allow military leaders to intervene and prevent casualties and costly evacuations among Soldiers deployed to high altitudes.
“Soldiers would be able to get the personalized care they need to perform to their full potential when deployed to high altitude,” she said.
While the time spent at Taos Ski Valley might have been the highlight of the study for the Soldiers involved, the journey began much earlier here.
1st Lt. Kyle Summers, a medical operations officer with the 5th Engineer Battalion, said the study started back in June when researchers collected baseline physiologic, cognitive, body fluid and sleep data.
“For three days I had to wear a pulse oximeter. We would do blood draws, provide saliva and urine samples as well as take environmental and nutrition surveys,” Summers said.
Once the Soldiers reached Taos the same data was collected while the Soldiers stayed on the mountain for four days at an altitude of 12,000 feet.
“The Soldiers wore physiological monitors on their ankle, chest, wrist and index finger. These monitors can track vital data like breathing, heart rate, physical activity and sleep disturbances,” Beidleman said.
The data collected will be used to increase the accuracy of the AMS-alert algorithm.
“Currently, AMS-alert can identify a high-risk person with 83 percent accuracy. This study in Taos with a large group of Soldiers will help us improve that,” Beidleman said.
For the Soldiers who participated in the study there was an opportunity to do more than provide data. They were able to participate in alpine first aid and survival training.
“There were two doctors from the University of New Mexico’s International Mountain Medicine Center who taught us how to pack for alpine trips and how to perform alpine evacuations. They really shared their knowledge with us,” Summers said.
The study also gave the Soldiers a chance to meet new faces from around the unit.
“We were in groups of Soldiers combined from the different companies across the battalion. It was an opportunity to work with people you don’t normally get to work with on a daily basis so it did enhance comradery,” Summers said. “We even did a reenlistment ceremony for one of our Soldiers when we were there. We figured it would be as good a place as any to do it.”