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Do cardiopulmonary exercise tests predict summit success and acute mountain sickness? A prospective observational field study at extreme altitude


Objective During a high-altitude expedition, the association of cardiopulmonary exercise testing (CPET) parameters with the risk of developing acute mountain sickness (AMS) and the chance of reaching the summit were investigated.

Methods Thirty-nine subjects underwent maximal CPET at lowlands and during ascent to Mount Himlung Himal (7126 m) at 4844 m, before and after 12 days of acclimatisation, and at 6022 m. Daily records of Lake-Louise-Score (LLS) determined AMS. Participants were categorised as AMS+ if moderate to severe AMS occurred.

Results Maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max) decreased by 40.5%±13.7% at 6022 m and improved after acclimatisation (all p<0.001). Ventilation at maximal exercise (VEmax) was reduced at 6022 m, but higher VEmax was related to summit success (p=0.031). In the 23 AMS+ subjects (mean LLS 7.4±2.4), a pronounced exercise-induced oxygen desaturation (ΔSpO2exercise) was found after arrival at 4844 m (p=0.005). ΔSpO2exercise >-14.0% identified 74% of participants correctly with a sensitivity of 70% and specificity of 81% for predicting moderate to severe AMS. All 15 summiteers showed higher V̇O2max (p<0.001), and a higher risk of AMS in non-summiteers was suggested but did not reach statistical significance (OR: 3.64 (95% CI: 0.78 to 17.58), p=0.057). V̇O2max ≥49.0 mL/min/kg at lowlands and ≥35.0 mL/min/kg at 4844 m predicted summit success with a sensitivity of 46.7% and 53.3%, and specificity of 83.3% and 91.3%, respectively.

Conclusion Summiteers were able to sustain higher VEmax throughout the expedition. Baseline V̇O2max below 49.0 mL/min/kg was associated with a high chance of 83.3% for summit failure, when climbing without supplemental oxygen. A pronounced drop of SpO2exercise at 4844 m may identify climbers at higher risk of AMS.

  • Altitude
  • Exercise Test

Data availability statement

All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information. Not applicable.

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