Guest Post by David Roche — David Roche and his wife Megan are the coaches at Some Work, All Play, where they work with some of the top mountain, ultra, and trail runners in the world. SWAP team members have won many national championships and qualified for dozens of national teams, with a unifying trait of loving the trails and the mountains.
Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards are now two weeks into their Everest No Filter 2.0 expedition, an attempt to climb Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen. If Cory reaches the top, it will be his second Everest summit without oxygen. Adrian is in pursuit of his first summit without oxygen to go with his six previous Everest summits achieved with supplemental oxygen.
The lack of supplemental oxygen changes the game in high altitude mountaineering. At sea level, the effective oxygen concentration is 20.9%. At 23,000 feet, which they reached on May 4th and 5th, the concentration is 8.7%, and at the Death Zone above 8000 meters, that drops below 8%. In other words, there is around 60% less oxygen at the highest elevation they’ve reached on the mountain.
To compensate, they have to breathe faster, and the body naturally releases EPO to increase red blood cell production. This hypoxia is an added stress when Adrian and Cory have stopped climbing and enter a recovery cycle as well. The lack of oxygen slows down recovery since the body is working hard just to try to achieve homeostasis. Their bodies are stressed to the limit with activity but then can’t get back to the sea level baseline due to the ongoing hypoxic conditions. So up above 20,000 feet, it’s all about balancing stress with rest, keeping in mind that the body may never fully adapt and that it’s essential to get down off the high slopes of the mountains before the ongoing hypoxia takes too large a toll.
Their Strava files are a treasure trove of insights into how they’re performing on the climb. For instance, there are spikes in the data when grade-adjusted pace is faster for short periods of time, likely due to advantageous terrain. At certain points, their heart rate data at certain grade-adjusted paces is remarkable. On May 4, for example, they have a stretch at 7-minutes-per-mile (grade-adjusted pace) with sub-120 heart rate at 23,000 feet of elevation.
In other words, even with 60% less oxygen than at sea level, they are moving around 3-hour marathon pace for a quick spurt.
While that is not a sustainable push, these impressive spikes in the data indicate that they are not overly stressed and that they are adapting well. The varying duration of climbs shows that they are effectively using rest days to maximize output on certain key efforts. The largest day to date was a 12-mile, 5,000-vertical-foot effort on April 30 where they spent more than 90 minutes above zone 2 heart rate, nearly triple any other day. While that might not seem extreme at lower elevations, up above 20,000 feet, those efforts likely feel like their hearts are beating out of their chests and they are breathing out of a paper bag. Notably, they took two rest days before and after that key effort, letting their bodies adapt to the difficult stress of high performance on top of the world.
As they continue their climb to the summit, the pace should slow for clear reasons—there will be almost no oxygen and the terrain is intense. In addition, their heart rate curves will probably flatten out—they won’t be hitting high max heart rates, but they won’t have the respite of their heart rates going much lower during rest either. Their bodies are always working, whether in the tent or on the mountain. As the climb progresses and Adrian and Cory get closer to their ultimate objective, here are some key performance indicators you can look for in their activities:
1. Whether there are still peaks in the data with faster grade-adjusted paces.
2. Whether their heart rates stay under control.
3.The offset between moving time and elapsed time, which could serve as a proxy for brutality of the terrain and the number of rest breaks they have to take.
The toughest days still lay ahead.