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Borgenicht and Kambis: High-altitude friendship

Kambis (l) and Borgenicht made five major climbs together. Courtesy of Ken Kambis.

Kambis (l) and Borgenicht made five major climbs together. Courtesy of Ken Kambis.


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The relationship that grew between Jack Borgenicht (1911-2005), a New Jersey businessman, and Ken Kambis, professor of kinesiology at the College, could inform an epic. Bob Kohl, chairman of the kinesiology department and associate professor of kinesiology, summed it up during brief remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Jack Borgenicht Altitude Physiology Research Facility held in Adair Hall on April 24.

“There were two people, Jack and Ken, who had this great friendship, who loved each other, who took trips together,” Kohl said. “They had adventures.”

Borgenicht was nearly an octogenarian who had decided to scale tall mountains, perhaps as a means of maintaining his youthful outlook, when he met Kambis. Kambis is a professor who was intent on understanding the effects of high-altitude exercise and how they can be controlled. Together, the two men inspired uncounted fellow adventurers with their physical exploits as well as helped to advance the science of aging and physiology. Through the establishment of the Borgenicht research facility, the legacy of their friendship will grow.

“That’s how I see what is going on today,” Kohl said during the dedication. “I see Jack here with you at this lab, so at some level, this relationship will continue, as we will have many undergraduates who will cut their teeth with Ken Kambis in this lab.”

Borgenicht came to William and Mary
in 1989 when he was 78 years old to determine whether he was fit enough to hike as a support-team member to the base camp at Mt. Everest, which is located at an altitude slightly higher than 17,000 feet. Kambis assembled a team of physicians, psychologists and exercise physiologists to evaluate Borgenicht’s fitness. “The end result was that we determined that he was in excellent physical condition for someone 75 years old, but it didn’t mean he was in good enough condition to go climb up to 17,000 feet in Nepal,” Kambis said. “We suggested that he not go on the climb.” Borgenicht thanked Kambis, then he informed him, “I’m going anyway.”

Kambis agreed to help Borgenicht prepare, as much as possible, for the climb to the base camp, which was only a month away. After an unexpected illness prevented Borgenicht from travelling to Nepal, Kambis suggested that he begin training in earnest for a climb to the Colorado timberline. Six months later, the two men ended up at the 14,433-foot-tall Mt. Elbert. Kambis watched his new friend adapt to the altitude. “It was apparent he adapted to high altitude very well,” Kambis recalled. They camped at 12,000 feet, where they had the chance to observe a full eclipse of the moon and thunderstorms in the valley beneath the climbers. Having finished his research, Kambis suggested that they “just walk up the hill until we get tired, then come back and break camp.” They began, stopping every hour to rest and to drink the special-formula beverage Kambis had prepared. After a couple of hours, a man who was descending the mountain told them, “You’re almost to the summit.” Newly motivated, they continued to the top. Kambis told Borgenicht, “Jack, this is the second highest point in the contiguous United States, and we’re standing on it this minute.”

Jack considered the statement, then asked, “Well, what is the highest point?”

Kambis replied, “It’s Mt. Whitney in California. We’ll climb it next year.”

During the next several years, Borgenicht and Kambis would make five major climbs, including a 1992 ascent of Mt. Ranier, which is 14,410 feet above sea level. He set the record as the oldest person to achieve that summit, a record Borgenicht held until 2004. “He was 81 years, 10 and one-half hours old when we got to the summit,” Kambis said. “That was his birthday.”

Nasty things happen when people climb to high altitudes. Nausea and splitting headaches are the classic symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Mood changes can be volatile. Loss of coordination and memory can occur, along with sleepless nights due to sleep apnea. “It is not unusual for climbers to wake up gasping for air, thinking that they’re suffocating,” Kambis said.

Currently Kambis and his students at the College are using the Borgenicht facility to investigate whether subjects between the ages of 18 and 35 years of age can be pre-acclimated to high altitudes in order to minimize some of the negative effects. The ages of those being tested correspond with others being tested by investigators with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, with which Kambis collaborates.

“The people who respond worst to going to high altitudes rapidly are young, healthy males,” Kambis explained. At present, there is no known reason for that. The army’s interest, Kambis said, involves the rapid deployment of platoons to high-altitude areas. “These soldiers may drop out of a helicopter at 12,000 feet with 100-pound backpacks and have to make life-or-death decisions,” he said.

At the center of the high-altitude research facility at the College is a normobaric hypoxic chamber. Essentially it is a $50,000 sealed space in which the interior oxygen level can be manipulated to mimic the oxygen pressure in the atmosphere up to 18,000 feet. In the research under way, subjects enter the chamber for four hours at 14,000 feet while student research assistants conduct cognitive tests that measure variables such as reaction times and short-term memory and also study mood changes. While subjects are in the chamber, the amount of oxygen in their bloodstreams is constantly being measured. Afterward, subjects are put in the chamber for three hours on three consecutive days. For one group of subjects, the oxygen level is set at 12,000 feet; for the control group, it is set at sea level. On the fifth day, all subjects are placed in the chamber for four hours at 14,000 feet while the tests are performed again.

“We’re finding that if they spent three days at 12,000 feet, they improve significantly in many of the categories we are looking at,” Kambis said. “Those in the control group are exactly the same on the fifth day as they were on the first day.”

Kambis and his students want to determine how long the adaptations persist. They will attempt to develop what Kambis called a “dose-response relationship to intermittent hypoxia” to ascertain how many hours at what altitude provides the quickest and best protection against subsequent exposure. Second, they will attempt to determine how long the gains persist.

Future studies using the chamber promise to have broader applications. As the population in the developed world ages, more and more older people are taking trips to high-altitude locations. “We need to know how they will respond,” Kambis said. Beyond that, however, results from high-altitude studies may cast light on other medical concerns.

“When you think about outcomes of various disease conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart insufficiency, these two broad categories result in the same thing that high altitude does—which is tissue hypoxia, or lack of oxygen to the tissues,” Kambis said. “If we can, through the study of hypoxia in normal, healthy people, come up with some clues as to how we might improve oxygen delivery to tissues, it would be very important for individuals suffering from these other chronic diseases.”

Kambis still cannot put into words
the nature of his friendship with Borgenicht. “We used to sit and talk about it and just shake our heads,” he said.

Borgenicht extended his friendships at William and Mary as he seemed to adopt the institution as his alma mater. Indeed, his generous $1 million gift offered in 1995 helped to endow the Borgenicht Peace Initiatives at the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies in addition to providing funding for kinesiology research. Two friends of particular note were Doug Morton and his wife, Marilyn Brown, whose interest in the pair included supporting the Borgenicht’s record-setting climb up Mt. Rainier.

Borgenicht considered Kambis his closest friend. During the dedication ceremony for the facility honoring her husband, Fran Borgenicht remarked, “Ken and Jack were great friends. I think Jack really loved Ken. I think their friendship was immediate and it was lasting.”

Commenting on the new altitude research center, she said, “This is something that Jack would have wanted. I am so proud to have been invited here; Jack would be so happy to know he continues to be a part of William and Mary.”

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