Our mission of advocacy and community building continues at our little mountain clinic as the aspen leaves have just begun to turn, and our passion for high altitude research has brought us to a unique and timely junction between the Wilderness Medicine Society‘s conference in Crested Butte, Colorado that Dr. Chris attended, and a recent conversation with the founder of The Sustainable Hiker, Summit County resident and voice of the Wilderness, Tom Koehler.
As health care providers in the high country, we see patients experiencing all kinds of reactions to the extreme altitude, residents and visitors alike. Even those who aren’t out climbing fourteeners or skiing can often experience symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Needless to say, we also see our share of injuries in the more adventurous outdoor-inclined. We ourselves make a point of regularly venturing out into the celebrated Colorado forests to experience this demanding environment first-hand, and it is not always without incident, in spite of our expertise and careful planning, and these past Spring and Summer seasons have been no exception, between hut trips, fourteeners, camping, kayaking, stand up paddle-boarding, cycling, lifting, yoga, and running at 9000′ and above! It is our due diligence and life’s work to share our experiences and the valuable research being done across the globe with you.
Dr. Chris and her contemporaries have returned from the Wilderness Medicine conference this year with some good and bad news. First, the good news:
- There are no brown recluse spiders in Colorado, according to Kennon Heard, MD (although Dr. Chris’s sister-in-law disagreed with this expert’s statement).
- Most snake bites do not inject venom, so anti-venom treatment is only indicated if symptoms are noted. The anti-venom is very expensive, but treatment of the wound is important in order to control the cascade of events set off by the venom, starting with a diffuse reaction similar to a severe anaphylaxis, followed by neurotoxic fasciculations of muscles, along with a necrotizing wound causing pain and swelling at the site of the bite and ending in a full disruption of every clotting factor and cell in the body. The clotting disruption does not lead to hemorrhage. In layman’s terms, most snake bites aren’t shown to lead to symptoms, but should you experience any symptoms, things could escalate to life-and-death very quickly.
- Another useful talk was given by a specialist in foot care, Patrick Burns, MD, DiMM (Diploma in Mountain Medicine): He recommends wearing two pairs of acrylic socks and protecting areas of friction with paper tape. He rejected the ointments and gels as unproven. Don’t use duct tape, as it damages the skin, and moleskin tends to be too thick. Blisters should be left intact, although consider draining if pain is intense. Healing takes 120 hours.
- For accidents and injuries, studies show that irrigating wounds with water is as good as saline, and a well-filled Camel-bak makes an excellent splint for fractures. Pain was addressed by Alex Kranc, MD, FAWN (Fellow Academy of Wilderness Medicine): doses of acetaminophen 1000 mg and ibuprofen 400 mg or Naprosyn given together or alternately are as good as stronger prescription medicines in most cases. A system of acupuncture without needles that is light and compact has been shown to help with pain in combat situations (where, incidentally, many of these techniques and tools are developed). Think of a sticky patch that you apply to a pressure point behind your ears.
- Linda Keyes, MD discussed women at altitude, including some helpful tips for dealing with menstruation on wilderness treks: menstrual cups catch the flow and can be washed and used over again; taking the active birth control pills continuously will delay the onset of bleeding. Another piece of good news: bears (and sharks) are not attracted by menstrual blood.
- In a discussion about training for altitude events, Aaron Campbell, MD, MHS, DiMM, FAWM reviewed the role of sleeping in hyperbaric chambers or tents, which showed a mild improvement in adaptation. The best way to prepare for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, he said, is to climb a fourteener every week for 6 weeks!
The most exciting and spellbinding parts of the conference, according to Dr. Chris, were the descriptions of rescues from mountains, crevices, and ledges from Alaska to Boulder.
Now for the bad news:
Michael Loso, PhD gave a fascinating talk on the science of glaciology and water acquisition research in Alaska. Poo on the glacier gets buried and frozen, and lasts for years, if not decades, and they have even found traces of E. coli around certain base camps too high for drinking standards. This obviously can significantly compromise water quality, even at higher elevations, where we imagine the water from snowmelt is of the most pristine quality, a subject I also speculated about with Tom Koehler. This is why you should carry a proven filtration system. Tom’s preference, when possible, is an 8-minute boil.
But what about the Wilderness itself? Colorado’s Continental Divide plays a major role in where our water goes, how it gets there, and in what condition. Sixty-eight percent of Colorado’s forests are federally owned and protected, one of the highest in the nation. With the continuing rise in residence and tourism, increased traffic through our precious forests is a double-edged sword.
“Summit County is really a microcosm, but an example of a larger issue facing Colorado: exponential growth, both in permanent population, as well as increase in guests to our land. So that, on a high level, has water managers scratching their heads, wondering, ‘How are we going to deliver the water we need for businesses and human health?’,” explains Koehler. “Summit is unique, particularly in the water issue, because we supply a significant amount of runoff into the Colorado River at the headwaters in Kremmling. And that arguably touches an estimated 40 million people all the way to California,” giving a rough estimate.
“A lot of Colorado is struggling to maintain their trails. We have about 430 miles of trails of all uses. In this county, we have a lot of trails to maintain, and arguably, that’s our first line of defense against erosion into our streams. It’s just a cascading effect (pardon the pun),” he says. “Most every park and forest in the West is under strain for maintenance. We just happen to be the most recreated, visited in the country, with 4.4 million recreational visits per year.”
Koehler’s passion for conservation and preservation of our forests and watershed was fostered in natural forests of Shenandoah Park, where he frequently escaped to while working as a research director for a wealth management firm in Washington, DC, while also dreaming of a career as a competitive skier in Park City, Utah.
“Once the opportunity arose to head out West with a couple of pennies in my pocket, I took it, and my move to Summit County was transformational in that I saw nature first-hand, right outside my door.” It transformed his outlook on how it benefits us all, even economically. He started volunteering with the Summit Huts Association, which provided him with “tremendous opportunity to really be in the backcountry”, the High Country Conservation Center, where he “really carved out an ethos for [himself] of stewardship”, and was even named the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District Volunteer Recruiter of the Year for 2015.
The Sustainable Hiker was founded as a response to recognizing that the efforts on a lot of fronts being made by organizations wasn’t as widely broadcast to both locals and guests. It’s mission: to be the leading voice for protecting Nature.
“I see the Sustainable Hiker as part of a number of organizations from the stewardship to the climate change advocacy groups to the local conservation groups, where you can find out what’s going on with your land and water here in Summit County.
“A healthier forest provides me with cleaner air and cleaner, more reliable water. It’s taken for granted. Kind of like a factory that turns out profits, it has to be maintained to continue yielding as high a profit.” Spoken like a true financier.
So what is one thing Colorado residents can do, immediately, to forward this movement of sustainability?
“Immediately, wherever you reside or are visiting, look at a nature or forest stewardship project, or educational events related to our forest or nature, and sign up.”
What is one thing we can stop doing that will contribute to the preservation and conservation of our forests and water?
“Stop, right now, taking nature for granted. Because we need it.
“Stop relying on your car for everything.
“Stop talking. In Nature … our time in Nature is a time to slow down everything, including our conversations. For two reasons: for the joy and peace we experience listening to the birds, and it gives the wildlife a break, too.”
I understand his point. While living in Japan, I learned a word, “shin-rin-yoku” (森林浴), literally translating to “forest bath”. The idea revolving around the practice is that by walking through the trees and water in the forest, you exchange ions with it, providing your body with a balancing recalibration. I believe this is also a vital part of high-altitude health.
The Sustainable Hiker provides insight into Koehler’s mission, at sustainablehiker.com, where you will also find information on organizations, events, and his newsletter, Nature’s Beacon, drawing attention to conservation projects you can get involved in.
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.