- It normally takes months to summit Mount Everest, as climbers’ bodies slowly adjust to hiking at altitude.
- Roxanne Vogel, an athlete and nutrition scientist, finished her 2019 climb in 10 days.
- To train for the feat, she slept and worked in a special altitude-simulating chamber for years.
- She also completed grueling five-hour-plus workouts on no food and limited her carb intake, hoping her body would learn to reach for fat stores more easily when she was low on energy during her climb.
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Roxanne Vogel sleeps every night in a plastic-walled tent that is low on oxygen and high on nitrogen. After waking up, she heads to work at GU Energy Labs, a fitness company that sells energy gels, chews, and drinks for athletes, where yet another oxygen-starved chamber awaits.
“I actually do a lot of calls in the chamber, because it’s just an easy way to get some time in,” Vogel told Insider, stepping out of the oxygen-depleted environment and into the more breathable air of her office in Berkeley, California.
The oxygen level inside her chamber and bed tent can hover as low as 10%, a level similar to the thin mountain air at Everest base camp.
“You’ll notice shortness of breath; sometimes you just feel like you’re not thinking as clearly, or it’s harder to find the right word,” she said of the workspace.
But she still tries to get in at least two oxygen-starved hours every workday, and then another eight or so at home while she’s sleeping. This technique, along with grueling fasted workouts and a diet of low-carb, high-fat foods, is what Vogel says enabled her to ascend Mount Everest in May, traveling from her home in California to the top of the world’s highest peak and back again in just two weeks.
- Roxanne Vogel
Vogel is now planning a trek this winter in Antarctica, where she’d complete her goal of climbing the highest mountains on every continent (the “seven summits,” as they’re called) while still relying on the same eating and breathing tools that sent her racing through Tibet last spring.
Vogel is part of a growing tribe of athletes who use oxygen-starved chambers to improve performance
Vogel has been experimenting with the oxygen-deprived Hypoxico chamber at work since her office installed it in 2017.
First, she used it to scale four South American volcanoes, including the Ojos del Salado, the highest active volcano in the world. She climbed to that peak – over 22,600 feet – in five days, which she said was “like a third the amount of time that it would normally take,” because she’d been using the chamber.
That’s where she got the idea that the same technique might work for a “rapid ascent” on Everest, a peak that people typically spend at least a month getting acclimated to by taking short day hikes from base camp to get their brains and bodies used to high-altitude oxygen deprivation.
“I thought maybe it’s possible – and I am a researcher and a scientist at heart,” she said. “I really wanted to be able to collect data and see what happens to the body when you actually do something like this.”
The reason the chamber technique works has to do with how our bodies deal with being oxygen-deprived. We respond to oxygen starvation, or hypoxia, by triggering a hormone in the kidneys that sends a signal to the body to pump out more, larger red blood cells, which in turn cart more oxygen out from the lungs and into the muscles and organs, giving them a boost.
The oxygen-depriving high-altitude acclimatization technique she uses has also been dangerous at times. One night, Vogel turned the dial up too high, altitude-wise, on her sleeping chamber and ended up at about 50% oxygen saturation. That’s dangerous enough that a person could be hospitalized.
Her colleagues were not amused.
“I have coworkers who are like, ‘If you ever don’t show up by, like, 10 a.m., we’re coming to your house,'” she said.
Michael Phelps slept in an oxygen-deprived chamber to train for the Olympics
Vogel isn’t the only one who trains this way. The swimmer Michael Phelps also slept in a Hypoxico chamber when he was training for the Olympics.
- Harry How/Getty
“You know, at altitude, you produce more blood cells, so you recover faster,” Phelps told “Access Hollywood” at the time.
Though it’s still a somewhat controversial technique, many small studies have found that this kind of high-altitude training – where athletes “live high” by resting at altitude but “train low” by performing workouts around sea level – can provide a host of performance benefits, like helping runners use energy more efficiently and giving Nordic skiers a racing advantage, all with relatively low health risks.
Because Vogel’s altitude chamber is normobaric, she can move in and out of it safely and quickly, without worrying about any dangerous pressure changes (like divers with the bends).
- Roxanne Vogel
Vogel also uses carbs strategically and eats a lot of fat
Vogel also trained her stomach for Everest, teaching her body how to run on fat, a strategy that ultra-marathoners and endurance athletes increasingly adhere to in training.
A growing number of endurance athletes like Vogel love how the strategy makes them feel too.
“It makes you really bomb-proof,” she said.
In addition to limiting how many carbs Vogel ate while she got ready for Everest, her trainers also had her complete rigorous workouts while in a fasted state, hoping to improve her body’s ability to burn fat on demand, with no carbs on deck. At times, she trained up to 5 1/2 hours while fasting.
It’s an unexpected strategy for someone who works at a company that makes fast-acting energy gels for athletes.
“We do carbs for athletes. That’s what we make,” Vogel said.
While she does use GU’s products sometimes and says that carbs are “one of the greatest supplements known to mankind,” she believes this is most true when they’re used during and after races and long, high-intensity routines. She’ll often have some fruit or a carb-filled recovery drink after a workout.
Vogel’s fasting helped prepare her for a worst-case scenario on Everest
Vogel also fasted while training for Everest to prepare for worst-case scenarios. She approached the apex of Everest from the much quieter (and more technically challenging) Tibetan side of the summit, not the more popular Everest climbing route in neighboring Nepal.
She didn’t have to contend with the deadly traffic jams that were happening around the same time on the Nepalese side of the mountain.
Still, there was one part of the trek Vogel wasn’t prepared for.
“On the summit day, I had a total fueling malfunction,” Vogel said. “I was wearing the oxygen mask for the first time, and I wasn’t able, or willing, to expend the energy to take the mask away from my face to feed myself properly. So I ended up eating like 200 calories in 16 hours or whatever during summit day.”
She said it’s the kind of nightmare situation her trainers likely had in the back of their minds when they pushed her to train for hours at a time in a fasted state.
“I think because of all the fasted training I did, I was really able to draw energy from my own body stores, and that’s why I didn’t have a problem with it,” she said. (Near the summit, Vogel also drank small amounts of ketone esters, an energy source that isn’t a fat, carb, or protein. It was developed by the military to help improve troops’ performance and keep brain fog at bay.)
After spending years training her body to survive (and even thrive) at new heights, Vogel said that the one thing she had not prepared to deal with on the trek was removing an oxygen mask and feeding herself on top of the world.
“I was like, ‘Well, I know I’m not going to die, but this is just too much work,'” she said of eating on the peak. “I’d rather focus on putting one foot in front of the other.”