Tom Brutsaert is taking the Exercise Science program to new heights


Study Abroad students will ascend to new heights—18,000 feet—next spring when Tom Brutsaert, professor and chair of the Department of Exercise Science, leads a three-week trek to Base Camp Everest in Nepal.

Brutsaert calls the course, to begin after the 2018 Commencement, an “expedition” combining classroom experience and cutting-edge research in altitude physiology by physiology faculty and graduate students, along with an ascent covering nearly 11,000 feet in 10 days. The three-credit course is called Mount Everest Base Camp Trek: the Human Response to High Altitude.

Brutsaert and Rick Burton, David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, are planning the course.

The trek to Base Camp Everest takes 10 days over about 60 kilometers of hiking, with three rest days scheduled in guesthouse lodges at increasing altitudes to allow for acclimatization. The trek starts at 3,440 meters (11,300 feet), ascends to 3,820 meters, (12,500 feet), and then to 4,370 meters (14,300 feet).

Base Camp Everest is at 5,360 meters (nearly 17,600 feet). An optional climb to the summit of Kala Patthar, a notable Himalayan landmark overlooking Base Camp with views of the Everest summit, reaches 5,550 meters (18,000 feet).

On rest days, students will spend half their time in classes and half as optional research subjects. The research studies, being developed with other faculty and needing University approval, are likely to cover three topics, Brutsaert says.

One is the epigenetics of exposure to high altitude. Tissue, blood, and saliva samples will be taken from students on rest days, stored, and returned to Syracuse for study. A second topic is testing brain blood flow and cognitive functions, using a noninvasive method of Doppler echocardiography to measure cerebral blood flow. A third would involve retinal imaging.

Brutsaert specializes in exercise performance of high-altitude natives in the Andes, conducting research there for 25 years. He led a similar Study Abroad in March 2016 to Peru with a five-day hike to Machu Picchu (2,430 meters, or 7,970 feet). In May, he observed a similar Base Camp Everest trek run by Mount Royal University of Calgary, Alberta.

“We need to be clear about the challenges,” he says. “There are no five-star hotels. There will be traveler’s diarrhea and altitude sickness. But almost any motivated student can do it. It’s an ascent with an easy-does-it philosophy. Modest fitness is required.”

Has he thought about reaching the top of Mount Everest at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet)?

Brutsaert laughs: “I have no desire or ambition to summit Everest. I’m happy to stare up at the other 12,000 feet above me at Base Camp.”