Who are sherpas
Helpers in the Himalayas
Even experienced mountaineers rely on the help and experience of mountain guides in the Himalayas. Not only do they know their way around better, they also cope much better with the extreme conditions on site, and are less prone to altitude sickness and lack of oxygen. But where do these supposed superpowers come from? According to a new study by Cambridge University in England, Sherpas use the oxygen they breathe far more efficiently than the common flat country, which comes from areas at sea level.
Physiologist Andrew Murray found out that this ability has developed over the millennia since humans settled at extreme altitudes. This lead cannot be made up overnight: although the body gradually adapts to the conditions of the altitude, it can never reach the stamina of Sherpas who have lived in the mountains for generations.
On the research expedition "Xtreme Everest 2", the scientists examined two different groups that ascended to the base camp of Mount Everest. They took samples before the ascent and after two months in the mountains. They compared the body values of the ten mostly European climbers with those of 15 Sherpas who grew up in the area.
It turned out that the Sherpas manage the oxygen much more efficiently. They produced more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which the cells use as an energy carrier. In this context, the lower utilization of fats was astonishing. Sherpas seem to get their nutrients more from sugar - a normally less efficient process, but one that requires significantly less oxygen. "Fat is a decent source of energy, but good sugar utilization has advantages at high altitude," summarizes James Horscroft.
This process hardly changed for the Sherpas on ascension. The values of the other group adapted somewhat to the conditions, but were still well below the level of the locals, who show a genetic difference in energy burn. "Of course, this cannot be broken down into a single gene. Sherpas, for example, also have a better network of the finest blood vessels," says Murray. The findings of the study are not only interesting for mountaineers, but could also generally help in the treatment of oxygen deficiency in emergencies.
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