Category Archives: Athletic Training

Backcountry & Avalanche Safety: Insight from Backcountry Athlete Dan Beerman

Another Spring season in Colorado. The ski resorts have closed early per the COVID-19 protocol, along with most other establishments. Even on the normal schedule, most ski resorts would have been closed for the season by now, bringing more people to the backcountry. But this year seems to have seen an upswing in backcountry activity, where many people are going to stay active while limiting exposure to others. Just over a week ago, a team of 20 search and rescue volunteers rescued a 26-year-old man who had fallen hiking on steep terrain around St. Mary’s Glacier, Colorado. Last year, a total of 10 snowmobilers were killed in the backcountry in avalanche slides. Only one was wearing a beacon.

Backcountry and Avalanche Safety resources, thankfully, are growing more plentiful and accessible, and last winter, we published an article on the basics. Earlier this winter, I spoke with backcountry athlete and web development colleague Dan Beerman, whose experience in the backcountry really broadened as a backpacking guide in New Mexico during the summers 12 years ago, followed by a position as a climbing instructor.

Dan Beerman on the Pacific Crest Trail

When I was a backpacking guide, I was on the search and rescue if I didn’t have a crew … We had a radio, so we were the point of contact for finding and doing extraction. That’s when I learned the most and was exposed to the most. I took my Wilderness First Responder course in 2014, and that was through the Wilderness Medical Institute.

Dan’s also a fellow hut tripper, and we’ve been talking about doing one together (when we’re on the other side of the current pandemic). He’s spent the last two New Year’s in huts, backcountry skiing or snowshoeing tours. This past year, he skied Buffalo Mountain’s Silver Couloir, in the Gore Range, and made an attempt at a couloir on Mt. Torrey’s. And there have got to be some good “couloir” puns out there.

Beerman on Buffalo, Summit County, CO.

I have aspirations to do the Colorado trail quickly, but I don’t know if I wanna do that in a competitive way or just recreationally backpack it. It’s hard to balance summer objectives, or climbing objectives vs. winter backcountry goals vs. alpine mountaineering objectives.

And he makes a great point:

In Colorado, your recreation is so close to becoming high-consequence all of the time! If the weather changes from the trailhead, that could be a really big problem.

I’m familiar. Nothing really teaches you as much or as quickly as getting caught in Colorado’s extreme weather patterns.

Avalanche Safety

Dan took an Avalanche Awareness and Safety class through Colorado Mountain School, held up in Rocky Mountain National Park over two field days after two nights of class in Boulder. His main takeaway:

Check an avalanche conditions snow report daily. Observing the snowpack over the season is going to make your confidence on the day of your excursion a lot higher. I’d had no context for why avalanches were happening, where and why it’s dangerous. Having that lens through which to view weather events in terms of avalanche conditions is so valuable. It’s an intuitive thing about paying attention to the weather.

This is my first season getting out at Copper, for example, and they all have that double-black diamond terrain in the back bowls that are labeled ‘EX’ on it. There’s a sign that says, ‘Ski with a partner,’ and I just thought, ‘Oh, shit, that sign should probably be much bigger!’

Beacon, shovel, probe are the mandatory avalanche terrain items — you’re putting other people at risk if you don’t have [them], because even if you observe a slide, you can’t do anything about it. Additionally, if you don’t have a beacon in a slide, others can’t find you. You’re not contributing to a rescue, nor can you be rescued. In Colorado, there’s an increasing awareness for that. I typically will bring that with me all the time, it’s just always in my ski bag. Having some snacks, having some water, those are the kinds of things: you should never not have them.

Beerman in his beacon.

Training

I’ll take the goals of the expedition and plan accordingly. If I’m doing a ski trip, I’ll wanna get out and do hikes with weight or runs where I’m doing elevation several times. I like to do six weeks out, of four weeks of training and two weeks of tapering down.

Nutrition

I tend to be in a constant attempt to gain weight. On the Pacific Crest Trail I tried to gain weight prior, eating a lot of fatty foods, that kind of thing. Jonathan and I came up with this metric: calorie-per-dollar-per-ounce. Lightweight food that’s affordable, easy to ingest, easy to prepare, and you aren’t having to burn a lot to carry that with you to the backcountry.

[On the trail], peanut butter is always a winner. Olive oil is one of the highest calorie-per-ounce [food]. I have literally drank it before, but just add it to everything. I do eat a lot of standard trailmix, it’s easy and accessible. I’m a big fan of pumpkin seed mix or stuff with chocolate in it. I like CLIF bars. I do not like Luna bars because I’ve eaten so many of them. I can’t eat pop tarts anymore because they used to be in the meals that were issued when I was a guide. Snickers bars are a great calorie-per-dollar-per-ounce deal. I eat a Snickers bar or two before bed when I’m sleeping at altitude so my body has calories to stay warm.

I’ll make these mass-gainer complex food supplements. It’s like protein powder, but it also has carbs, like a workout and performance powder. And I would add that to water with coffee, and that would be a breakfast while hiking. There’s a lot of different kinds of powders and mixes you can add, but when you’re in calorie-burning mode, I do recommend this. If you’re hiking 20+ miles in a day or 4000+ feet of elevation in a day, you’re burning greater than 4000 calories, so you really have to eat more than you think you can.

Acclimatization

I wouldn’t say that I had HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) … Definitely, especially when I was younger … I would travel from 4000′ to 10,000′ in a 24-hour period. I’ve actually had search and rescues where someone was having night-terrors or hallucinations [due to HAPE or HACE]. I was a backountry professional for the Boy Scouts at a camp at 10,800′ (one of the first backcountry camps, in New Mexico). I’ve experienced dizziness, nausea, insomnia, weakness of the knees, elevated heart rate … and I’m a runner, I’m in decent shape. But you should acclimatize before setting out on a trip.

Skiing down the Silver Couloir.

One last piece of advice,

Learn the Leave No Trace principles. We live in a state where impact is so concentrated that the more that everybody knows, the more likely it will be there for the next generation.

Dan and his backpacking, backcountry cohorts keep a blog full of breathtaking landscapes and telling captions on CaptainsofUs.com.

There will be plenty of time to escape to the backcountry again after the risks of COVID-19 have subsided. The current time is a good time to start preparing mentally. Know before you go.

robert-ebert-santos

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.

Aconcagua: an Athlete/Medical Scientist’s Narrative in Symptoms

“Day 10: I walked for maybe an hour up to Camp 3 (19,258’/5870 m) from Camp 2 (18,200’/5547 m). I became the slowest person. I had tunnel vision. It was bad. It took a lot of willpower. I do a good job of not telling people how bad I really feel. After about a mile, I told them I had to stop, and me and Logan turned around. We had that conversation,

‘I don’t think I should go up anymore. It’s not safe for me, and it’s not safe for the group.’

Barely able to move, about an hour above Camp 2.

“The others didn’t go all the way to Camp 3, but continue on a bit more. Angela said she got a headache really bad and couldn’t see out of her right eye. I had already pretty much decided — I was devastated — after two nights and two days of not acclimating. Alejo had a stethoscope and said my left lung was crackling. We thought I might develop some really serious pulmonary edema.”

Keshari Thakali, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, AR. She is a cardiovascular pharmacologist by training and her research laboratory studies how maternal obesity during pregnancy programs cardiovascular disease in offspring. When not at work, you can find her mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking or paddling somewhere in The Natural State. She has a long-term career goal of merging her interests in mountaineering with studying cardiovascular adaptations at high altitude. She has climbed to some of the most extreme elevations in the Rocky Mountains, Andes and Himalayas. Last December, she flew down to Mendoza in Argentina for an ascent up Aconcagua.

Sacred in ancient and contemporary Incan culture, and the highest peak in the Americas, Aconcagua summits at 22,837′ (6960 m). Current statistics show only 30 – 40% of attempted climbs reach the top of this massive mountain in the Andes, in Principal Cordillera in the Mendoza Province of Argentina.

Sunset on Aconcagua from Base Camp.

The day following Keshari’s decision not to summit, she hiked back down to Plaza de Mulas (14,337’/4370 m) from Camp 2, carrying some of her colleague’s gear that he didn’t want to take up to the summit as he continued to ascend. Plaza de Mulas is a large base camp area with plenty of room for tents, available water, and large rocks that provide some protection from the wind as climbers take time to acclimate before continuing their ascent.

“Even though my oxygen [saturation] was low, I was functional. As you go down, everything gets better. The others continued up to Camp 3. They spent one night there, then summited the next day. It took them 12 hours.

“The day the others came back to Plaza de Mulas, I think that’s when everything hit me. I felt like a zombie. I did some bouldering and got so tired I had to sit down and catch my breath often, probably because I had been hypoxic and we were at over 14,000′.

“[The next day] we did the really long hike from Plaza de Mulas all the way to the entrance of the park. It probably took about 8 hours to walk all the way to the park entrance.

“We drove to Mendoza that night. I felt like my body was tired, but my muscles were functioning just fine. It’s hard to describe.”

They had done everything right and had taken every precaution. Each of Keshari’s colleagues boasted significant backgrounds in climbing and mountaineering, their cumulative accomplishments including Mt. Elbrus (18,510’/5642 m), Cotopaxi (19,347’/5897 m) and Denali (20,335’/6198 m), their ages 30 to 65. They weren’t initially planning to hire porters, “but they ended up carrying a lot of our stuff. In the end, it just makes sense to hire these porters to increase your chance of success.”

They gave themselves about two weeks to make the ascent and return. There was ample time for them to stop at each camp and spend time acclimatizing, including day hikes to the nearby peaks of Bonete and Mirador.

“Day 4 [we did an] acclimatization hike to Bonete (16,647’/5074 m), pretty much the same elevation of Camp 1. You look at the mountain and it looks pretty close, but … in mountaineering, you don’t do distances, you do time. Did the hike in mountaineering boots, which were heavy and clunky, but I learned how my boots actually work. You walk differently in these than a shoe with a flexible sole. The last part of the mountain is pretty rocky and it looks like you’re almost to the top, but you still have to walk an hour to the summit. It took about five hours to go up. We were walking slow, I felt fine. From the top of that mountain, looking away from Aconcagua, you can really see Chile and the Chilean Andes.”

Summit of Bonete.

All the way through their first week of climbing, including a day of resting and eating after their hike up Bonete, Keshari was feeling fine.

“Day 8, we made the push to Camp 2 (18,200’/5547 m). None of these hikes made me tired. I was plenty trained. We were carrying packs, but they were still pretty light, packed with stuff for the day. We spent the night at Camp 2, took oxygen mostly at night. [My] first reading at Camp 2 was low. We were at over 18,000′. I thought maybe I’ll just go to sleep and it’ll get better.

Looking down on Camp 2 covered in snow.

“Day 9 was a rest day at Camp 2 because the weather was really bad. All I did was sleep that day. If you’re gonna go to Camp 3, that means you’re gonna do a summit push the next day, because Camp 3 is so high. You’re just struggling to stay healthy. I felt really bad in the tent, but if I went outside to pee or walk around, I felt better. My pulse ox was still pretty low that day. That night, a snow storm blew in and it snowed a lot.” And it was the following day of their ascent to Camp 3 that Keshari made the decision not to summit.

Since returning from her expedition, she’s reflected on some other variables. “I swear I was hyponatremic (an abnormally low concentration of sodium in the blood). We went through four liters of water a day with no salt in the food. I was having these crazy cramps in my abs and my lats and places I don’t typically get them. To me, that has to do with electrolyte imbalance. Next time, I’m taking electrolyte tablets, not just stuff to mix in my water.

“I’m not very structured in my diet. In general I eat pretty clean, but I don’t count calories. I eat vegetables, but I also hate going grocery shopping. I feel like I eat a pretty balanced diet. If I buy meat, I’ll buy a pack of chicken and that’s my meat for a week or two.

“On the mountain, in general, I felt like they fed us way more fiber. In Argentina, they eat a lot of meat. They’re meat-eaters. They didn’t feed us steak on the mountain, but … at Base Camp, I felt like they were overfeeding us. We had pork chops one night, but on the mountain, I felt like it was mainly lentils and noodles. Even though you’re burning calories, how your body absorbs them is different. They really try to limit your salt intake because they’re concerned about having too high blood pressure. At Base Camp, breakfast was always scrambled eggs with bacon and toast. Lunch and dinner were always three course meals starting with a veggie broth soup. They fed us like kings … I brought Clif blocks with caffeine in them for hiking snacks, Lara bars.”

I ask about her main takeaway from it all:

“I think I need more time to acclimate. I don’t know how much more time, but maybe more time at about 16,000′. Maybe take Diamox. Someone suggested I should have been on an inhaled steroid, especially because my asthma is worse in the cold. If I were to go next time, I would want a couple more days at 15,000 – 16,000′. Maybe the Diamox is something I would need to use next time.

“The nerd in me wants to measure pulmonary wedge pressures (via very invasive catheters; you could go through the jugular), nothing practical,” she laughs. “The pulse oximeter is the easiest tool.”

One last thing she’d do differently? One of her colleagues bought a hypoxic generating system from Hypoxico, “which I think puts CO2 back into your system; sleeping high, training low. That might have been the best thing.”

Keshari went sky-diving back in Mendoza the day after returning from their descent. “I was expecting a lot of adrenaline jumping out of an airplane, but there was none. I enjoyed the freefall, but when the parachute went up, I got really nauseous. Maybe I had just been stressed for so long, there was no more adrenaline left. I was like, ‘Where’s the risk involved in this?'”

An illustrated oxy-journey.

Keshari also summited Cotopaxi earlier the same year. Read her own account here.

robert-ebert-santos

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.

Medicine Man: Ski Patroller & EMT Jonathan Sinclair’s Elevated Experience

“I’ve been here 25 years,” Sinclair shares with me over coffee at the Red Buffalo in Silverthorne, Colorado (9035’/2754 m). “Born and raised on the East Coast in Philadelphia.” The software company he had been working for moved him out to Colorado Springs. He hadn’t ever skied in his life until then. Shortly after, “on a whim”, he moved up to Summit County and started working on the mountain as what we used to call “Slope Watch”, the mountain staff often in yellow uniforms monitoring safe skiing and riding on the mountain. After a month, he got really bored, “and I said, ‘How do I get to be a patroller?'”

Sinclair then went to paramedic school to get qualified as an Emergency Medical Technician, then spent 19 years as an EMT and 9 years as a Medic. For the last six years, he’s worked for the ambulance service in Summit County, one of Colorado’s highest counties, with towns at above 9000′. He has also worked as a ski patroller at Copper Mountain, Keystone, and Park City (Utah). This year is the first he hasn’t been patrolling in 18 years. During the summer, he is a wildland fire medic, where he often works with crews that are shipped in from lower elevations, including sea level.

Although he’s decided to take this season off, he still maintains a very active relationship with the outdoors, travelling around the backcountry on expeditions to remote mountain cabins, and has made a recent trip to Taos, New Mexico (6969’/2124 m). He’s witnessed his share of altitude complications.

What are the most common altitude-related complications you see?

You see the families coming up to go skiing … Usually 90% of them are fine. Altitude doesn’t seem to bother them at all – they’re either healthy enough or lucky enough. They get in, they ski, they get out. But there’s that one family or that one couple that just don’t acclimatize. They don’t realize that they don’t acclimatize, and the rest of their group doesn’t realize. A couple of days go by and they think, ‘Geez, I feel awful,’ then they go ski, or do something active, and their condition is exacerbated. Or ‘Geez, I haven’t slept,’. you get that story over and over.

And you’re having this conversation on the hill as a patroller?

Or they’ve called 911 on their way [up to the mountains]. They have no idea. Just no idea. I ask them what they’d had to eat. They had a donut or a pastry or just coffee before the plane ride. I ask them when was the last time they peed. You’re trying to find the physiology of what’s happened.

I tell them, ‘You need to sit down or go back to your condo. You need liters of water. You need liters of Gatorade. No fried foods, no alcohol, no coffee. No marijuana. Let your body catch up. Wherever you’re staying, tell them you need a humidifier. Put it in every bedroom, crank it up and leave it on. You’re gonna have trouble sleeping.’

And they never wanna hear it. They never wanna take a day off, but by the time you see them, they’ve taken the day off anyway, because there’s no way they’re getting back up there!

Sinclair also expresses some frustration with the lack of resources provided by the ski industry itself:

How do you educate them? The marketing people don’t want to. Because if they have to spend a day in Denver [to acclimate], that’s one less day up here [at the ski resort]. They don’t want to publicize that [altitude sickness] can happen, that it’s common. People ask, ‘How often does this happen?’ Easily, at any resort in a day, Patrol probably sees 20 – 25 people, whether they called, they walked in, you skied by them and started talking to them. ‘You’re dehydrated. You’re at altitude. It means this …’ The resorts don’t want that many to know, otherwise, you’re gonna go to Utah or California, where it’s lower.

You get such misinformation. ‘At 5000 ft., you have 30% less oxygen.’ No, the partial pressure is less, there is still 21% O2 in the air. You just have to work harder to get the same volume. The real physiology of what’s going on is systemic. [People experiencing altitude sickness] don’t know why they feel like crap. They think it’s because they’ve been drinking too hard.

How do you mitigate their symptoms on the mountain?

We do a lot, but it’s reactive, not proactive. I hate to bash the oxygen canisters, but it’s not doing anything for you. It’s not gonna make you feel better, other than what you’re sucking up. At 10,000′, it’s questionable. We’ll be at the top of Copper [Mountain] giving them two to four liters of oxygen, then they’ll ski down and feel great.

Sinclair refers to the Summit County Stress Test, which was the first I’d heard of it:

You’re 55, you’re 40 – 50 lbs. overweight, and you come up for your daughter’s wedding. You walk over to Keystone [Ski Resort], you take the gondola over, then all of a sudden, you find out you have a heart condition. You find out whatever else you have going on. We’ve done it over and over and over. They go ski, they call us at 3 in the morning, we find out they’ve got a cardiac issue, or they’ve irritated the pulmonary embolism they’ve had for years.

I had a guy last year, at the Stube at Keystone for lunch.

Keystone’s Alpenglow Stube is a reputable restaurant that sits in the resort’s backcountry at 11,444′ (3488 m).

He had some food, alcohol, he’s having a great day. Ski patrol gets a call, ‘Hey, my husband doesn’t feel well.’ This guy looks bad, sitting on the couch, sweating profusely, and he can hardly tell what’s going on. It’s the classic presentation of an inferior heart attack.

‘I don’t have any heart conditions. I saw my cardiologist.’ You saw a cardiologist, but you don’t have any heart conditions?!

And there are a lot we don’t see. People who go home because they think they have the flu.

Have you seen any rare or surprising complications?

We see HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) now and again. That seems to be a walk into the hospital where [their blood oxygen saturation is] at 50 – 52. We’re not in the zone to see HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). We’re just not at the altitude.

HACE is more typical above more extreme elevations, above 11,000′. Colorado’s highest peaks are just above 14,000′. Most ski resorts in Colorado are below 12,000′.

I’ve only seen one HAPE case on the hill. In their 50s. You listen to their lungs, and they’re getting wonky. A guy who was reasonably fit, but you look at him and go, ‘Hm, this is bad.’ But he was responsive and talking. Then you start seeing the things like the swaying, getting focused on something else [in the distance]. One of those [situations] where you’re like, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ [We need] tons of oxygen. Again, ‘I didn’t feel good yesterday, but I decided to go skiing today.’ He was sitting at the restaurant at the top of Copper [Mountain].

People do not realize that their diabetes, their asthma, their high blood pressure, things that they commonly manage at home, are exacerbated at 9000′. By the time they realize it, they’re calling 911. At that point, your best bet is to get out of here.

What tools or instruments do you use the most as a paramedic and ski patroller?

Cardiac monitor. It’s got a pulse oximeter. [Also] simple things you ask. ‘Hey, do you know what your blood pressure is?’ I use a stethoscope all the time. Sight and sound. Are they talking to me? Are they having a conversation with me? Are they distracted by what’s happening to them? When was the last time they peed? Was it regular color? Did it smell stronger than usual?

People ask, ‘How much water do I need?’ How much water do you drink in a day? If I’m outside and I’m moving, I probably have 10 liters. If I’m on a roof laying shingles, I probably have 4 or 5 liters before lunch. It’s those little tools. You don’t even have to touch somebody.

Do you have any personal recommendations for facilitating acclimatization at altitude?

Workout, be in shape, go harder than you normally do that month before you get here. Get the cardiovascular system more efficient before you get here. If you have any kind of medical concerns, make an appointment with your doctor and say you’ll be at 10,000′ to sleep. Just ask, ‘What do I need to do?’ The day before you get on the plane, stop drinking coffee and start drinking water. Hydrate before you get here. They humidifier thing. Make sure the place you’re going has one. Find out. Go to Walmart and spend $15 to buy one.

Watch your diet. Just so your body’s not fighting to get rid of fat and crap.

When we’re getting ready for a hut trip, we are mostly vegetarian (although we do eat meat), but we ramp protein up a week prior, pushing more chicken, more red meat. We tend to eat fish normally, but there’s always at least one fish meal at the hut. We don’t do crappy food at the hut. I don’t care if I have to carry another 10 lbs. In addition to going to the gym, go for a skin, go to 11,000 – 12,000′ for a couple hours. Ramp up the altitude work.

What do you eat on the trail?

Pre-cooked sausage, usually some kind of chicken sausage. Cheese. Whole grain tortillas, and if we’re feeling spunky, some kind of hot sauce or pico [de gallo]. For me, it’s just a handful of nuts and raisins. If I feel like something else, I’ll throw in some chocolate or white chocolate. I hate the packaging, the processed foods, the bars. Somebody usually makes granola for on-the-way-out food. And I tend to carry dried fruits. Lots of peaches during Palisade peach season. I used to take a lot of jerky.

A recent topic that comes up alot in altitude research at our clinic is Aging.

I have to work harder to stay at the same place. I’m sitting here and I can feel my right knee. I was at a 15″ [of snow] day in Taos, and I caught something [skiing]. It’s been weeks, and it’s not weak or anything, but I just know. It takes longer. I find I need more sleep. I was a 4 or 5 hour a day guy for a long time. Now I’m at 7. The days I get 8 are awesome. Luckily enough, I’m still healthy, fit. If I’m up at night, it doesn’t shatter my day. Haven’t slept on oxygen yet. Don’t want to find out.

He laughs.

As I get older, I’m adding more supplements: fish oil, glucosamine, glutine (for eye health). My eyes are bad anyway, and I’m constantly standing outside against a big, white mirror (the snow). And I’m cautious of the bill of a hat vs. a full-on brim during the summer. Other than my face, everything’s covered during the winter. The color of the bill on your hat can be way more reflective. A black bill will cut the reflection. Little things.

I’ve rounded out my workouts. They’re more whole-body. I concentrate on cardio. I’m conscious that I’m not as flexible as I was. I’d like to say we’re regularly going to yoga, but at least we’re going.

The gauge for me is you go on a hut trip with our friends in the middle-age category, but we’ll take some younger folks [too]. I kinda monitor who’s doing what – chopping firewood, who’s sitting more than who. It’s not out of pride. I need to realize.

I’m colder. You start to notice. It’s not that your feet are cold, it’s that your calves are cold. I succumbed to boot heaters a few years ago.

Year after year, in every season, visitors from all over the state and all over the world come to Colorado’s high country. For many of them, it’s the highest elevation they’ve ever visited, and often ever will. The dryness, the elevation, the air pressure, the intense sun exposure and the lack of oxygen demand a lot of compensation from the body. Sinclair’s experiences at altitude are consistent across every conversation I’ve had with physicians, athletes and other professionals when it comes to preparing your body to be active at altitude, from getting plenty of water to controlling the speed of your ascent to any elevation above 7000′ to consulting with a specialist regarding any pre-existing cardiac or respiratory conditions to how much oxygen one needs to mitigate symptoms of altitude sickness to decreasing elevation in case of an emergency. Any one of these experts will also tell you that the best ways to prepare your body for altitude is to get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and limit foods containing a lot of oil, grease and fat that will demand more from your body.

robert-ebert-santos

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.

Altitude Training 101

High elevation prompts physiologic changes in the body. As elevation increases, oxygen concentration in the air decreases; this is why some people suffer from altitude sickness when travelling to high altitude environments like Summit County, Colorado from a lower elevation. Training and/or living at elevation increases our red blood cell mass in order to compensate for the lower oxygen concentration, thus increasing our oxygen-carrying capacity. Red blood cells are like microscopic rafts that flow down the rivers of our blood vessels, picking up oxygen from our lungs when we breathe and then transporting it to all the muscles and organs that need it to function properly. For athletes, this physiologic concept can be used to their advantage in order to improve their performance. If they can train their blood cells to carry more oxygen by forcing them to grow in a more hypoxic (low-oxygen) environment, then they can have more oxygen available to their muscles to perform in any activity.

There is a modern training model that some athletes have adopted called “Live High, Train Low”. This means that the athlete performs high intensity training sessions at a lower elevation, but maintains general training and living at higher altitude. Your body begins making metabolic changes immediately when exposed to high altitude and hypoxia, but it can take a couple weeks for the maximum effect. Expert Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Castillo, who spoke in La Paz, Bolivia at the 7th Annual Chronic Hypoxia Conference that Dr. Chris attended in 2019, claims that it takes him about 40 days to build up his hematocrit to be back to functional in La Paz which is situated at nearly 12,000 ft. All in all, the goal of living and/or training high, while including high intensity sessions at lower altitude, is to give your body enough time to build up some acclimatization to the hypoxic environment. Several studies in the last 25 years have taken various groups of athletes and placed them on different training regimens over 4 weeks. Some would live at low altitude and also train low, some trained low and lived high, and others trained high and low while living at high altitude. One study completed in 2008 concluded that athletes who either live high and train low, or live high while training low and high, showed about a 1.4% improvement in sea level endurance performance.

How high is too high, and how low is too low?

Snowshoeing above 9000 ft., Summit County, Colorado.

It was found in this same study, that there is in fact a “sweet spot” for implementing the “Live High, Train Low” paradigm. If subjects were living lower than 1800 m, there was not a significant improvement in athletic performance. On the other hand, if subjects were living too high, they could not adequately recover from training and therefore did not show improvement because their bodies struggled to keep up with the hypoxic environment. The best elevation to live and/or train at in order to increase RBC (red blood cell) production, RBC mass, and oxygen-carrying capacity is between 2100 m-2800 m, or about 7000 ft-9000 ft.

What does this mean for athletes in Summit County who live high and train high?

Great news! There are still major benefits to those who live and train in Summit Country, as well as for people who visit the mountains and train while they are in town. This is because of a physiologic process called autophagy. Autophagy is described as our cells’ process of degrading old proteins and damaged cell parts. This is a normal process that modulates cell survival, is important for cell renewal, and is also a promoting factor of exercise performance from altitude training.

When exposed to a hypoxic environment, our cells produce adaptive responses that ramp up autophagy and cell renewal elements. These responses include factors that promote skeletal muscle growth, boost skeletal muscle capillary concentration, and enhance coronary arteries (the arteries that feed your heart). Living and training at altitude is good for your heart and it can help build muscle while decreasing body fat mass. It also shows significant increase in cardiac output and strength of your heart stroke.

However, excessive exercise and especially excessive exercise at altitude can prove harmful to our skeletal muscle. It has been observed in male subjects running 20 km that the excessive exercise induces autophagy too much which leads to degradation of muscle protein, damage, and eventual loss of skeletal muscle all together. Therefore, just as there is a sweet spot for altitude training, it is also a good idea to monitor training in order to maximize the benefits of training in a place like beautiful Summit County.

So, how should I be training if I live in Summit County or if I am visiting for some time?

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mary Scheifley about this particular strategy. Mary is the owner of Peak One Fitness, a 24-hour gym in Frisco, Colorado (9000 ft.). She has over 20 years of experience in fitness and athletic training. She competed semi-professionally in mountain bike racing, and continues to bike today as well as cross-country ski, snowboard, weightlift, hike, and anything else that keeps her active. She loves Frisco and has found that being outside and active is almost spiritual. She is passionate about fitness and nutrition, and she works extremely hard to tailor her training regimens to each of her clients based on their individual needs or goals.

Cardio machines at Peak One Fitness, Frisco, Summit County, Colorado

When she trained people in Denver, she typically was running high-intensity aerobic classes. However, here in Frisco, she prefers to focus on strength and only include high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in short spurts. She believes that you don’t need to be over-exerting your body to see a positive response. She has a client who lives near sea level for most of the year where her main training regimen includes Cross Fit. When she comes to Frisco though, she can see a significant decrease in BMI and body fat index in just two months of lower-intensity training. Though frustrated that she cannot run on the treadmill as fast or as long as she can at home, by the end of her stay in Frisco, this client understands that difference of the elevation and appreciates the process that Mary provides for her.

Mary recognizes that fitness is not “one size fits all”. She typically likes to start people out at 80% of their maximum heart rate when exercising, but there are factors that may change this. Her clients that live in Summit County have already been acclimatized to the elevation so she can add a little to their 80% max heart rate because for them, 80% may feel like 70%. On the flip side, if you are visiting from sea level, she may have to decrease your 80% of maximum because of the hypoxia at elevation. Other factors that play a role in how Mary develops her training regimens include age, the client’s goals, their previous fitness level, and their overall reaction to altitude.

I also asked Mary about her experience with competition and professional athletes. Personally, she could tell that her endurance was superior to her competition when she raced at altitude against bikers from Denver. She also noticed that when she was in Denver, the racers there were stronger and bulkier than her. She also has experience training athletes who are preparing for competitions such as the Leadville 100 or who are professional skiers who tell her that it is more beneficial for them to come to altitude about 3 weeks prior to competition in order to prepare rather than just training at lower altitude. This is because their body will better adapt if they give it a little more time before competition while training.

At the end of the day, whether you are training for a competition, or just trying to stay healthy, being at altitude can pose challenges as well as benefits to our bodies. The following are some tips from Mary on maximizing your workouts at altitude without compromising your health and wellness.

Mary’s tips for athletic training and exercising at high altitude:

  • Increase water intake, even before you come to elevation. You should be drinking at least 3-4 liters of water per day.
  • Increase caloric intake. At altitude you are burning more calories than at sea level, and if you are wanting to train you need to fuel your body appropriately. Especially increase protein intake.
  • No alcohol. If you enjoy one drink here and there you should be fine, but if you are wanting to train at a high level alcohol should not be on the menu.
  • Add electrolytes. In addition to increasing water, you need to make sure you are replenishing your body with the salts it requires.
  • Take it slow. Maybe start with some yoga or moderate stretching before moving into running or HIIT classes. You may need to decrease your level of training by 20%.
  • Consider spending a night in Denver before heading up the mountain to Summit County. Dr. Chris has expressed this frequently to travelers and visitors of Frisco; it gives your body a chance to acclimatize prior to ascending to 9,000+ feet.
  • Don’t expect to be at your “home” level of endurance or fitness. Do not get discouraged if you cannot run your typical 7-minute mile, or you can’t easily warm up with a set of 10-15 squats. Your body needs to adjust, and you may need to just take it easy in the altitude. Ultimately, have fun and enjoy the beautiful outdoors!

Sarah Brzecezk is a 2nd year Physician Assistant student attending Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona. She graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ with a Bachelor’s in Biomedical Sciences and then worked as a medical assistant in Internal Medicine prior to starting PA School. She is passionate about healthy eating and maintaining a physically active lifestyle, and she hopes to specialize in Orthopedics when she graduates this Fall. During her 6 weeks at elevation in Frisco, Colorado, she has enjoyed numerous hikes, two hut trips, yoga classes, and running in the gorgeous outdoors. Her goal as a provider is to help others overcome injury and illness in order to return to physical activity and athletics, enabling them to combat chronic illness and stay healthy for their future years.

References

Zhang, Y., & Chen, N. (2018). Autophagy Is a Promoter for Aerobic Exercise Performance during High Altitude Training. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2018, 3617508. doi:10.1155/2018/3617508

Brocherie, F., Millet, G. P., Hauser, A., Steiner, T., Rysman, J., Wehrlin, J. P. & Girard, O. (2015). “Live High–Train Low and High” Hypoxic Training Improves Team-Sport Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(10), 2140–2149. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000630.

Stray‐Gundersen, J. and Levine, B.D. (2008), Live high, train low at natural altitude. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 18: 21-28. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2008.00829.x