As I reported on Twitter on April 1, 2011, there appear to be more benefits to beards in high altitude climbing than just the extra layer of fur between us and the snow and ice. According to the Wisconsin Institute of Physiological Performance Science, beard growth increases oxygen flow to some degree in the body at altitude where oxygen is scarce.
The Institute studied several Everest climbers on the same expedition; about half were encouraged to grow a beard while the others were encouraged to shave. At various levels on the mountain, the Institute’s scientists recorded the climbers respiratory index (RI) levels — an indication of oxygen in the body. Guess who had more O2? The climbers with the beards were able to process up to 15 percent more oxygen, according to the study.
The results in this study were probably accurate, but I wonder about several things: 1) was the sample size of the group sufficient to make this determination — all the reports thus far have not stated the size of the pool; 2) the experiment has yet to be replicated; and 3) more importantly, is the 15 percent higher RI noticeably a superior experience (reflexes, alertness) in high altitude climbing.
The theories being tried for why climbers with beards have a higher RI range from the idea that oxygen clings to the beard in higher concentrations than in open air, to the beard hairs increase air flow around the nose and mouth.
In regards to replication, the scientists at the Institute appear to be trying to do so in a pressure chamber. We’ll see what results come. For now, I am a little skeptical, but that’s the scientific process, I think.