In a nutshell, your advice was not only spot on, it saved us. I believe that if your words about “Headache+1” had not gone through my head on that first night, I would have toughed it out, and in Dougie’s (professional guide) words, I would have lost. How seriously? Doesn’t bear thinking about.” (John Suchet, 2018)

The Environmental Extremes Lab (EEL) hosted the Suchet family, including John (newsreader and musical host on Classic FM) and David (Hercule Poirot) Suchet, on the Saturday 17th March ahead of their trek two weeks later to the iconic and breath-taking Inca city of Machu Picchu. In collaboration with local altitude awareness charity, Para-Monte, Dr Neil Maxwell, Gregor Eichhorn (PhD student), Mel Stemper (recent MSc graduate) and Josh Pennick (current MSc student) carried out altitude screening on the six members of the Suchet family, before Neil provided education around altitude illness and ways to prepare for the trek to make it enjoyable but also safer.

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Neil, members of EEL (Alan Richardson, Mark Hayes, Oli Gibson and Ben Duncan) and 24 students completed the trek themselves five years earlier as part of the Peru 2013 – Learning Through Adventure expedition during which time they carried out research into screening for altitude illness susceptibility. This data and subsequent data from research funded by Para-Monte, has contributed to the use of physiological performance profiling to complement the education members of the public can receive ahead of sorties to altitude.Therefore, the Suchet family were able to receive fist hand experience of what to expect and how to increase their chances of success while reducing the likelihood of altitude illness from their visit to the University of Brighton.

The Trek

It was certainly no walk in the park for the Suchets, with all experiencing symptoms of altitude illness to different degrees.  John recounted,

“On the first night under canvas in zero degrees with freezing rain dripping onto our sleeping bags, I awoke in the small hours with a splitting headache and feeling nauseous. I thought I was going to be sick. I had not felt like that since drinking too much at university. Your (Dr Maxwell’s) words rang in my head: Headache is normal. Headache+1 is dangerous. Take action.”

“So at around 2:30 in the morning I woke up the two doctors who were accompanying us. They took my oxygen reading with that finger thingy (pulse oximeter). I expected it to be dangerously low. It was normal! Around 86% or a bit higher [NB. At sea-level your oxygen saturation would be ~97-98%, but at 3200 m a saturation of 86% is normal]. My blood pressure, though, was racing, and I have never had high blood pressure in my life. They gave me tablets for the oxygen, and also tablets for the nausea.”

“I never entirely got over it. The nausea was largely under control, but I had a headache — mild or not so mild — for the rest of the trip. I was never actually sick. The two docs were marvellous. They stayed by my side, and kept taking readings. The biggest problem was breathlessness. Even putting a jacket on took effort.”

“Nula (John’s Wife) had a nasty turn at the beginning of Day Two. It began — after a difficult night under canvas in bitter cold — with a very steep climb. At the top she thought she was going to faint. She was white as a sheet, not a pinprick of pink in her face. Dougie took one look at her and ordered her straight back down and into the car. He insisted on her taking the rest of the day off. She sat in the car with an oxygen mask, and I sat with her. To the surprise of both of us, she recovered remarkably quickly, and was fine for the rest of the trip. Dougie’s advice had been spot on: Take the day off so you’ll make it to the end. Fight it and you’ll lose. You won’t trek again.”

The Suchets were raising money for Global’s Make Some Noise to give a voice to brilliant small projects across the UK, which help youngsters and their families living with illness, disability or lack of opportunity. They raised a staggering £40,000 so that they can continue their life-changing work.

This was great exposure for Para-Monte and the university, with a mention of the altitude awareness day by John Suchet on his morning Classic FM Radio Show.

John Suchet promoting Para-Monte

The Suchet brothers made it onto Good morning Britain’s sofa with Ben Shepherd and Kate Garraway to talk about the trek and our testing of them in the lab was featured.

The support was also picked up by the local Argus news.

John recounted that right at the start of the trek, Dougie echoed the words you (Dr Maxwell) had mentioned during the Para-Monte Altitude Awareness Day,

“Walk slowly” and “Fight altitude sickness — you lose”.

Sometimes there is no telling who will be affected by Acute Mountain Sickness or how badly. Altitude screening in a laboratory environment can give some indication on how well an individual might cope within a hypoxic environment, but this needs to be combined with education to help individuals be successful and safe while visiting popular places like Machu Picchu, Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas.

John concluded by saying:

“So, once again, thank you a thousand times for taking the time to teach us so much that Saturday. My advice to anyone undertaking a trip is to prepare seriously. Do a fitness regime, and speak to the professionals. Had we not attended your lab, I honestly believe we might have been dealing with possible disaster.”

“As for Machu Picchu, that first sight of it from the Sun Gate made it all worthwhile. We have an enormous sense of achievement. However, I can state with some confidence that at the age of 74 I have worn climbing boots for the last time!”

The University of Brighton’s Environmental Extremes Lab and Para-Monte continue to work very closely together in their pursuit to raise awareness about the perils of altitude and illnesses that can result when ascending into thin air.