Athletes vs. Amateurs: Observations of an Altitude Expert

Ski America is a company that has organized accommodations and itinerary for international athletes and vacationers at ski areas around Colorado since 1988. The Omori family, Ski America’s founders, lead their clients on tours of Colorado’s most renowned mountains, including Aspen (8,040 ft.), Vail (8,120 ft.), Beaver Creek (8,100 ft.), Copper (9,712 ft.), Keystone (9,280 ft.), Breckenridge (9,600 ft.) and Arapahoe Basin (10,780 ft.).

Ryoko and Jimi Omori

Jimi Omori started Ski America as a tour operator for Japanese skiers and snowboarders. Ryoko joined in 2005, and now Ski America’s service is more than tour operating, assisting from first-time skiers of age 3 to professional racers. With over 30 years of experience guiding amateur skiers and international athletes alike, the Omori’s have made some fascinating observations of how people adjust to the high altitude environment of the Rocky Mountains.

The other day, Ryoko shared some of their valuable insight and experience with me over a cup of tea:

How long do your clients typically stay at altitude?

So we have two different kinds of customers. In November until early December, we have a lot of Japanese racers from Japan. They are high school kids, college students. They stay two to four weeks here, in Frisco or Copper Mountain. Then, from December to April, we have clients from Japan who stay in Vail or Aspen. Most of them are senior skiers, over 60 years old. They stay about a week in Vail or Aspen. Six nights is very average.

How often do you get repeat customers?

Quite a lot. Not all of them come back every year, but more than once. I would say, 70%.

Do you see new customers every year?

Yes.

How do you advertise in Japan?

Word of mouth.

How do you prepare your customers for the altitude?

When I set up the reservation for them, I send them the lodging confirmation and shuttle confirmation, how to get to the Colorado Mountain Express counter at Denver International Airport. With that information, I also send how to get ready for this altitude by e-mail to every customer: Don’t stay up all night before coming over here, don’t overwork before coming here, most importantly, don’t catch a cold before coming over here. That’s the most important thing. And keep yourself hydrated on the flight and on the shuttle. You can always stop at a restroom on the way from the airport to get here. Do not drink a lot [of alcohol] on the flight, and especially on the first night staying here. I encourage them to drink two liters of water a day.

They are so excited to be here, so they tend to forget about the altitude, because there are all the trees, it’s not above the tree line here. In Japan, [this elevation] is way over the tree line. So I always remind them, “You are going to be almost [at the elevation of] Mt. Fuji. So, move slow the first and second day of staying here.”

What about conditioning, physical exercise to prepare? Are they athletic?

They’re pretty much athletic. They’re avid skiers. They ski in Japan regularly. So I do not give them any athletic advice in Japan.

Do they come straight from Denver up to elevation, or do they stay in Denver a certain amount of time?

No. The flight arrives at 12:30 or 1 pm, so it’s very convenient for them to get on the shuttle in the afternoon, and they will be here before 5 or 6.

Do they ski the next day?

Most of them, yes.

What about oxygen or medication? Do you ever tell them to bring ibuprofen or anti-nausea medication?

No. But if anything happens here, I recommend taking [something] for a headache, like Advil.

What is the earliest sign that something might be wrong or that they need medical attention?

Headache. Or sometimes nausea. We had 150 racers last November, and out of 150, I took 5 kids to the clinic for altitude sickness symptoms.

Is it at the beginning of their stay?

Very beginning. [Typically] the second day of skiing. They are okay on the first day. They do not notice anything on the first morning, so they feel, “It’s okay, let’s go skiing!” and spend the day on the mountain, and they have jet-lag, and they can’t sleep well on the second night. And on the second morning most of them notice the symptoms. Those are the Copper clients. And I have 350 guests from Japan staying in Vail and Aspen. Last year, I didn’t see anyone get sick. So it’s only in Summit County, because it’s much higher.

Do you think there are any other correlating factors, like their age or where they’re from?

Age. The racers are from middle school to college, so they’re young. Their hormone level is not stable. And they are staying with their other teammates, apart from their parents, so it could have some emotional factors affecting them, too. But at the same time, the racers have a lot of muscle that needs a lot of oxygen. The higher metabolism that younger kids have [make them] more prone to high altitude sickness. The clients who stay in Vail or Aspen, they are much older, like, 40s, 50s, 60s. And they’re not as athletic as the racers. They do not do any training. So their basic metabolism is low, so I believe they do not need as much oxygen.

Does anyone come from a high elevation in Japan, or is it mostly sea level?

Mostly sea level. Only some of them are from Nozawa, it’s about 1000 m (3,280 ft.), so it’s much lower than Denver.

Nozawa, Japan

Is there a difference between the guests that come from Nozawa and the guests that come from sea level?

No. Whenever I see the doctor in the ER, or the Copper clinic, they always say it’s dehydration. No matter how much we tell them to keep hydrated, it’s not enough.

So what does the ER or clinic often give them besides fluids?

Oxygen. And they say it’s okay to take over-the-counter headache medication.

How long is their visit to the hospital? Is it just a couple hours, or do they stay overnight?

Just a couple of hours, or less than that.

Do they ski the next day?

Most of the time, the doctors say not to ski the next day. We carry a pulse oximeter in our office. We have 20 of them. We do not do this for the Vail clients, because they don’t get altitude sickness. So we only do this for the guests staying in Summit County. When we [check them in], we distribute pulse oximeters, one per room. We encourage them to measure [their oxygen level] every morning. Then, after the doctor’s visit, the doctors say it’s okay if your oxygen level is over 90%, 20 minutes after getting off oxygen.

What’s the lowest you’ve seen the oxygen level on any of your skiers?

38. [He was] 15. He was at the ER. He was transferred to Denver by ambulance. He was there about three nights, and he went back to Japan.

Was that the only time somebody had to go back to sea level?

Yes. But it sounds like he had a heart issue, which we didn’t know [about].

Have you witnessed any other factors that help them acclimate more effectively?

I encourage them to eat carbohydrates instead of getting a lot of oily foods. If you have a lot of french fries, it’s very oily, it will take more time and blood to get to the stomach. So the blood flow doesn’t go through the brain [well].

What about caffeine or other holistic remedies?

No. We have some repeating guests who had … symptoms in past years, and we encourage them to visit a doctor in Japan [who] can prescribe … Diamox. One of the ski coaches [from Japan] … has to be here with his team. He has no choice. And he’s [had] a lot of altitude sickness in the past. So we told him, “You should see a doctor and get Diamox prescribed, and start taking it before leaving Japan,” and it’s been working great.

A young skier shreds her way down a snowy back bowl on a powder day.

Is there a routine that your clients do to prevent feeling this sickness?

Just check blood oxygen level every morning.

Of the clients that come here regularly, do they acclimate quicker each time?

They learn. We always see lower numbers of altitude sickness patients, because they learn what they need to do, like drinking a lot of water and checking their blood oxygen level. And only the numbers can tell. Even if they feel good, if the numbers are bad, if they go skiing, they will have a problem. Especially for the young kids. They [don’t] trust what you say. As the years go by, the coaches will learn, and the kids will learn what they can and what they cannot do.

Is there anything different about the philosophy of treatment in Japan vs. the US?

You know what, we do not have altitude sickness in Japan. Only if you climb up Mt. Fuji, in one day, it could happen, but not everyone does that. The highest elevation of one ski area in Japan is about 2000 m (6,561 ft.). No one has experienced high altitude sickness in Japan.

When I climbed Mt. Fuji, I saw a lot of people with cans of oxygen that you can spray. Do you ever use or recommend that?

No. I don’t think it works. If you breathe it for five minutes, it will work for five minutes. So I guess it’s very effective if a ski racer uses it right before the start [of a race]. I believe some of our Vail clients [have seen] the bottle and have purchased it, but I’ve never heard anything about it, good or bad.

Smiles and high spirits all around

In closing, I asked Ryoko if she’d noticed a change in her own physiology since living at high altitude, to which she replied that she is always impressed by her increased stamina and speed when she steps on a treadmill back at sea level. I asked her if she ever experiences symptoms upon coming back to a high altitude from sea level. “No,” she says, laughing. She doesn’t typically engage in any strenuous activity the first day or two after travelling, “because I’m lazy,” she says.  

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

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