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Into Thin Air

A Case Study in Physiology


Jennifer Lundmark
Department of Biological Sciences
California State University Sacramento


As an exhausted climbing expedition ascends a steep cliff, one climber in particular experiences severe difficulty breathing and quickly becomes the focus of this case study in which students are asked to assess the physiological changes that occur at high altitudes. The case is designed for upper division physiology students, most of who are interested in pursuing a career in the health sciences. Students are expected to have a basic knowledge of physiology of the respiratory system and some idea of how homeostatic mechanisms operate in a normal human.


  • Explain the physiological changes (respiratory, cardiovascular, and otherwise) that humans encounter at high altitudes.
  • Understand the pathophysiology of pulmonary edema.
  • Evaluate physiological data in a “clinical” setting to make a diagnosis.
  • Understand the integration of the cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems in regulating homeostatic variables such as blood gas levels, pH, etc.
  • Recognize the multiple influences on blood pH.


High altitude sickness; pulmonary edema; mountain climbing; Mt. Denali; Alaska

Topical Areas


Educational Level

Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Physiology  |   Sports Science  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Answer Key

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Colleen Parsons
Hagerstown Community College
Hagerstown, Maryland
I used this case study for an introductory, non-lab biology course called Human Biology. Needless to say, my students are typical "science-phobes" and generally have a minimal background in biology. I used this case after completing the respiratory and circulatory systems. They did not understand all of the terminology that was used; however, they did their best using what they did know to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation. I feel that this helps them to prepare for my tests because I use a great deal of critical thinking type questions. They find these challenging, but it is great exercise and it also makes for a much more alert class!

Nicole Benenati
Ithaca High School
Ithaca, NY
I like the concept of analyzing data in this case. However, I was unable to use the case because the key was more teaching notes, not answers to the questions or helpful background information.