March 1, 2014

Doing Teacher Burpees on Machu Picchu!


What does a biology teacher do on her year off to travel the world in 2013?   BURPEES!  As well as meeting the challenges of a low oxygen environment.

These celebrational burpees were done after 5 days of high altitude hiking to the amazing ruins of Machu Picchu.  Our little group was one of the first up the mountain to arrive at the ruins that last morning - start the climb at 5am!  It was worth it.  As you can see, the place looks deserted and it's like we have it to ourselves...

Though the air was thin, I still managed the burpees!  My form is a bit off....I give myself a 3.5 out of 5 for burpees stylin.

(Psst!...don't be alarmed at my lack of a's just the way it is.  Turns out you can do burpees without one.)

We didn't do the "Classic" Inca Trail because it was way too touristy.  We decided to take the Salkantay Inca Trail because it didn't require a licence and it was much less traveled.  It was also a much harder trek because we went to higher altitudes (I thought I was going to pass out on the day up to the alpine glacier). But the higher you go...the more beautiful your vistas.  Totally worth it.

This final summit was optional - I was so tired, but I wanted to see Machu Picchu from above.  It was worth it!

Hiking through alpine glaciers to get to Machu Picchu.

We took a detour to a different peak along our hike and found a glacial lagoon!  So beautiful.

The day before we started our trek, we were told by our guide that one of the other trekkers had dropped out due to serious altitude sickness.  He started to develop water in his lungs several days before (high altitude pulmonary edema) and they had to fly him out to get treated.  He would have died otherwise.

Calvin and I had already known that high altitude was a factor on this trek.  In Toronto, we live at a measly 105 m above sea level.  At the highest part of our trek we'd be reaching over 4600 m.  Whoa!  It is highly recommended that you spend several days acclimatizing at a higher altitude than you are used to before embarking on this trek.  So we stayed in Cusco for several days (the city where most people get their Inca trail tour) which is located at 3400 m.  Breathing seemed fairly normal in Cusco until you tried to exert yourself in any way...then it was difficult.  Oh boy.  Luckily for us, we'd been travelling around in high altitudes for several weeks...around 2000 m + so the effect of 3400 m wasn't as severe on us as it would have been on others.  I didn't know what the effect of even higher altitude would be on us so I was a little worried.

If you look closely, you can see us hitting the different altitude markers on our trek.  There was a bit of gasping at 3800m, but way more  at 4600m.

Some of us had altitude sickness pills but our guide Silvario (a local guide) told us not to take them.  He said if we began getting mild symptoms of altitude sickness (headaches being one of the first signs) that we should just tell him and he would give us a natural remedy.

As a prophylatic against high altitude sickness he gave us coca leaf tea (coca leaves...yup...the stuff you make cocaine with) drink every morning.  He would wake us every morning with a "knock" on our tent, unzip the flap and hand us a cup of the tea before we were even half awake.  (I wanted to buy some of the tea to take back home but people said I might have a bit of trouble getting it through customs...even the coca candy I had been sucking on for days might be a hard sell.)

One day while trekking alongside Silvario, I asked him what his "natural remedy" for high altitude sickness was.  He said he didn't want to tell me in case he had to use it on me.  After saying that...what was he expecting me to do?  Leave it at that?  Of course not...I HAD to know.  I kept on pressing him and he told me this story of another trek he had led several months ago.  One of his trekkers had begun to experience constant and extreme headaches.  It was getting worse despite taking altitude sickness pills.  He was saying he wanted to go back.  So Silvario gave him a "natural remedy" to drink before bed.  The trekker experienced a miraculous recovery and finished the trek while taking the "natural remedy" for the next two days.  What was it?!!!!  I wanted to know.  He said it was urine mixed in with the coca tea.  His own urine.  I am not even kidding you.  This is what he said.  After that I drank the coca tea he gave me every morning very reluctantly.   I never developed even one headache.  Hmmm....

On a slightly different note.  I had to give props to Silvario.  He was an awesome guide.  He picked up over 50 plastic bottles that we found strewn along our trek (probably thrown there by other tourists) crushed them and then carried them all the way to our destination where he was able to dispose of them.  He loved his country and the natural landscape and was really saddened to see such a beautiful place treated like a garbage heap.


At sea level, there is roughly 21% oxygen in the air (the rest is mostly nitrogen gas which has no effect on us). Oxygen is at its most abundant at sea level (mostly because the effect of gravity is the greatest here and pulls all the gas particles of air towards the earth - the higher the altitude, the weaker the effects of gravity).  As you increase altitude, the air, and hence oxygen, gets thinner.

At around 1500 m, people start being affected by altitude.
At around 2400 m, people can start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness like:
- headaches
- loss of appetite
- nausea, vomiting
- water in the lungs (high altitude pulmonary edema)
- water in the brain (high altitude cerebral edema)
No one has lived over 5000 m for more than 2 years.

How do you Adapt to Lower Levels of Oxygen?

The common idea that most people have is that when you live in higher elevations, you compensate for the decrease in oxygen by developing more hemoglobin and red blood cells.  It is true that almost all people living in lower elevations will develop more red blood cells if they move on up.  This is the basis of a lot of high altitude training for athletes.  However, for people who have evolved in high altitudes for thousands of years, the effects vary depending on the ethnic group, habitat and the occurrence of mutations in the population.  These differences are a great way of demonstrating natural selection in humans.

Tibetan Highlanders - High Altitude Mutants!

They hold the record for living permanently in the highest altitudes.  There are over half a million Tibetan people living at over 4500 m in the Chantong-Qingnan area of the Tibetan Plateau (also called the "Roof of the World"). Here there is only 60% of the oxygen that is available at sea level.

Tibetan Highlanders
Tibetan Highlander Adaptations:
- no elevated hemoglobin (this is quite remarkable)
- they have higher lung capacity (larger lungs) and more rapid ventilation
- better oxygen circulation at birth
- better sustained cerebral blood flow throughout life
- better capacity for exercise
- over double the amount of nitric oxide in their blood which sustains vasodilation and increased blood flow throughout their body

Notice they don't have the typical altitude response that even I or you would have.  No elevated hemoglobin?!

The Tibetans genetically broke away from the Mainland Chinese Han population less than 3000 years ago.  Recently there has been a study to determine the differences in the genetics of these two groups in regards to their response to high altitude.  The findings show the fastest observable (to date) example of natural selection in humans.  In less than 3000 years,  a 78% frequency difference in one of the alleles (a variation of a gene) that contributes to coping with low oxygen environments has divided the two populations.  This is extremely fast evolutionary change.  The mutant allele popped up in the Tibetan population around the time of the split between the Han and the Tibetans and it was extremely adaptive and spread like wild fire throughout the population.  The gene is called EPAS-1, also known as a type of "Super Athlete Gene". Here's the kicker....the mutant gene codes for a decrease in hemoglobin concentrations!

Cooking with Hemoglobin
What are we to make of this?  This is my speculation.  They can't produce as much hemoglobin as even lowlanders, so when living in high altitudes, they had to develop different methods of coping with decrease oxygen content, and perhaps these methods are better than the body's knee jerk reaction of increasing hemoglobin when there is a decrease in oxygen content.

This would be my analogy.  Cooking with garlic makes a dish delicious.  Garlic is a cheap and easy fix.  But if you remove the ability to use garlic (panic time) you have to use other more complicated ingredients and methods of cooking to make your cooking taste better, but in the end, maybe the dish will be even better than the garlic laden one.

So the Tibetans can't make more, hemoglobin in response to decreased oxygen.  What do they do then?  Basically everything else in the book to make up for it, and it seems as if everything in the book is better than mean hemoglobin.

(The other two great highlander populations of the world are the Andean peoples and the Ethiopian highlanders.  Neither populations exhibit this gene variation. Their main response to low oxygen levels is to increase hemoglobin and in some cases lung capacity.  In other words...they use plenty of garlic.)

Wishing I was a high altitude mutant,

p.s. Note to self - next trip...Tibet!


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  2. Love it! We went two summers ago and we didn't hike the trail, but we did hike Huayna Picchu too! It was totally worth it, and you really feel for those bus drivers when you see the road from that far up! We went on from there to the Amazon. We stayed at Tambopata Research Center! It was fantastic and I just know you would love it. They study macaws, and you can even volunteer! We got up before the sun to see the parrots at the clay licks, and the hikes through the forest were amazing! Thanks for sharing your pictures, it is truly a beautiful place!