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How skydiving military snipers harnessed top oxygen tech on Mount Everest

Photo by Jake Blick, Magpul Industries

Photo by Jake Blick, Magpul Industries

It looks like something superheroes would wear in a Marvel movie, and acts like a device that can make the impossible possible at extreme heights.

State-of-the-art breathing tech could be the key to US military personnel delivering maximum performance in extreme elevations—and fighting where others cannot. 

Humans are not made for operating at extreme altitude. As the mountain gets higher, oxygen becomes scarcer. Working in mountainous terrain means forces have to contend with this big challenge.

One of the most important tools for success in summiting Everest, for example, is oxygen. The same thing applies to maximum military performance at vey high altitudes.

The TopOutAero system is used widely throughout the Himalayas. It is often credited as the key to successfully scaling a peak, and recognized for dramatically reducing the number of deaths of those attempting to do so.

Defeating hypoxia opens new heights

The effects of less oxygen tend to be felt above 8,000 – that’s about 3,000 feet higher than Denver.

Factors like the speed of a climb to high altitude, climb difficulty, and increased physical activity translate into a greater chance altitude sickness will strike.

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In some scenarios lack of oxygen itself can be a killer, but so can the mistakes made due to becoming hypoxic. The impact on the brain can be dramatic and definitely impair performance in insidious ways.

In a military context, hypoxia can lead to potentially dangerous problems like diminished thought and reaction times, as well as reduced physical performance and early fatigue. It can also cause impaired eyesight, reduce night vision and lead to incorrect depth perception – all very important when trying to rapidly locate very small landing zones in dangerous conditions or executing grueling missions on the ground in very high altitude mountainous terrain.

Whether climbing a mountain for fun or for work, these factors caused by hypoxia can mean not just the difference between success and failure on a mission– but also life and death. That’s why carrying oxygen is so important.

The military advantage

The Multi-purpose Tactical Oxygen System, or MTOS, solves this problem for both high-altitude parachuting and high-elevation alpine trekking.

For military personnel, MTOS could maximize performance and allow operators to jump out of aircraft and land at extreme altitudes, then move directly on to execute the mission using the same system.

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Sniper teams could be flown straight up from sea level, insert in the battle space directly, and remain even above 20,000 feet elevations for weeks without any eyesight impairment from hypoxia—provided they were equipped with MTOS. 

The MTOS is made by TopOutAero, a company led by Ted Atkins and Dr. Ryan Jackson. Atkins built and designed the system, leveraging his expertise as a former Royal Air Force aero systems engineering officer and drawing upon his extensive mountaineering experience. Ryan brings deep aviation medicine knowledge and world-class skydiving expertise and insight to the team.

How does it work? On-demand breathing

Atkins started work tinkering with a Tornado fighter jet pilot mask, playing with novel ideas that would eventually lead to the best system available.

One of the keys to it is its success is its simplicity, which reduces the risk of problems. There are also no batteries required, so it’s lighter and the system is less likely to fail.

If extra breath is needed, there is reservoir capacity to cope with a bulk delivery. The system is “tunable.” Since the oxygen is on-demand, when your body needs more, the system adapts and provides it. Every oxygen molecule is harnessed by the lungs so that none of the oxygen carried is wasted.

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Atkins describes it as it will “fail safe,” meaning if a component like the valve or reservoir has a problem, then the system will still deliver as much oxygen as current systems and will only lose a percentage of efficiency.

In the mountaineer’s model, you can even visually verify that oxygen is being delivered.

Inadequate, old-fashioned, dangerous systems

Previous systems used to climb Mount Everest and other extremely tall mountains tended to be wasteful and can be dangerously inadequate.

A “full flow” system is wasteful because oxygen flows constantly and leads to approximately two thirds of the gas being wasted.

The other problem is that if oxygen demand spikes, say from a tough climb, then the flow does not increase with the need— instead you’re stuck at the set limited oxygen flow rate. You can increase the flow, but then you are wasting even more gas in the breathing out part of the cycle.

Demand systems are more efficient, but they are more complex and can be unreliable and thus dangerous. But TopOut's modern on-demand system is the best of both worlds, as it's both efficient and reliable. 

Testing

Recently, a skydiving expedition comprised of military veterans tested cutting-edge gear to the max to conduct solo and tandem jump records in the Himalayas. They relied on the TopOutAero MTOS and achieved four world records.

The team also rigorously tested it for military scenarios moving straight from world-record-breaking landings to rapid extreme ascents on foot using the MTOS and validated its enhanced performance. You can hear directly from the expedition team about the record breaking extreme military free falls and the dangerous mission scenarios where they used at MTOS at Tactical Talk available on iTunes. 

Allison Barrie consults at the highest levels of defense, has travelled to more than 70 countries, is a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees and now the author of the new book "Future Weapons: Access Granted"  covering invisible tanks through to thought-controlled fighter jets. You can click here for more information on FOX Firepower columnist and host Allison Barrie and you can follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie.