Category Archives: High Altitude Training & Fitness

What are the challenges and benefits of recreation and training in a high altitude environment? How does it affect your body’s physiology? What are the inherent risks?

Spring Recap 2019

We’ve learned a lot in the high country this season! For example, it isn’t too late or too warm for a snowstorm. We’ve conducted several interviews with professional, high-altitude athletes, athletic and tourism organizations in Summit County, physicians, podcasters, interns, and a local brewer. They’ve shed so much light on fitness, health, child growth & development, and acclimation at elevation, it warrants a re-cap:

  1. 8,000 ft. seems to be the pivotal elevation at which the body starts to experience a significant deficit in the oxygen and water it needs to function, affecting everything from sleep to metabolism.
  2. A plant-based lifestyle has benefitted athletes under extreme training and competitive conditions at altitude.
  3. Training at altitude significantly reduces your ability to reach cardiovascular and strength goals, even while preparing your respiratory and circulatory systems for the severe decrease in oxygen. “Live High, Train Low” is an effective strategy more and more athletes are advocating for.
  4. Preparation for backcountry excursions is as much mental as physical.
  5. Foods high in nitrates (like red beets, red bell peppers and arugula) can facilitate acclimation and recovery.
  6. Oily foods may inhibit your body’s ability to cope with a significant increase in altitude.
  7. We metabolize and experience the effects of alcohol differently at altitude.
  8. Current research suggests some people suffering from Parkinsons disease may experience some relieve from symptoms at higher elevation.
  9. Increased muscle mass requires increased oxygen. Being an athlete does not necessarily mean you will have an easier time acclimating.
  10. As always, the best way to facilitate acclimation and deal with symptoms of altitude sickness is to drink plenty of water, allow yourself ample rest, and monitor your blood oxygen saturation levels with a pulse oximeter.

Be sure to subscribe to keep up with what this summer has in store for your elevated experiences at altitude! And if you have any questions or are eager to read more about a particular topic, let us know in a comment!

Portrait of a High-Altitude Athlete: The Ultra Mountain Athlete

Yuki Ikeda has been a professional cyclist for the past 10 years. He’s won titles in both Japan and the US. Interestingly enough, however, he come to Colorado to study at Metro State in Denver in order to play pro basketball. He is now known as an Ultra Mountain Athlete, not only biking, but running races up to 100 miles at altitudes over 10,000 ft. Over some decaf coffee on a warm Sunday afternoon at Gonzo’s in Frisco, he tells me he tried out every semester for the college team and failed. He had never really explored outdoor recreation growing up in Japan, because he had been so focused on a career in basketball.

He started taking some classes on outdoor sports while he was in Colorado, at Metro and then at Red Rocks Community College: rock climbing, cycling, backpacking, kayaking … He ended up staying in Colorado after graduating from Metro. “At that time, I was so into mountain biking,” he says. “I decided to pursue my career in mountain biking.”

He started racing in 2002. It took him five years to accumulate sponsors and become a full-on pro. “After every season, I sent my resume — racing results and what I do — to so many teams [to see if] they [would] accept me or not.”

Ultra Mountain Athlete Yuki Ikeda

But he started to get burned out. While he was still improving his stats, he was noticing that he couldn’t maintain the lead against some up-and-coming younger racers. “I was mentally very tired the last couple of years. I was kind of frustrated. Last year, after the season, I was so bummed out, I didn’t want to ride my bike, and I didn’t feel like starting training for the next year, so I stayed away from biking. I didn’t even touch my bike for a month.”

“But I still wanted to do some exercise. I just followed my wife, running, then I kind of joined the local trail running community. They showed me where to go and where to run, and I just loved it. I was so into mountain biking only, I thought doing other sports might cause injuries and effect my career. But it was the opposite.”

His new love for running turned his career around. “Physically, I don’t know [if it has improved my biking] yet, but mentally it helped. Now, my training is still 60 – 70% cycling, but not all the time. When I get on the bike, my brain is still fresh. Before, I rode my bike every day, pushing hard every day. It burned me out.”

Last month, he ran his first ultra running race, 50K. “Last October, I got sore from just running only 5K. Now I an run 50K, so that’s awesome.” He won.

Ultra Training at Altitude

I ask him how he trains for these races. Every summer, he comes to Colorado, staying in Frisco or Breckenridge to train in preparation for a series of races at altitude. It usually takes him 10 days to almost 3 weeks before he can do the same workouts he does at sea level in Tokyo.

Threshold power key. Threshold power is the maximum power you can sustain for about 60 minutes. He has a power meter on his bike that measures the power he exerts in watts. Recently, he has also been wearing a similar device on his shoe for when he runs.

“In Tokyo, my number is 310 watts, but here, it’s almost 270 to 280. I just did a threshold test last week. So that’s almost 10 to 12% lower. But still, if it’s within 10 to 15%, that’s very good for this altitude. But I usually take the test after a week or 10 days after I get here. I cannot push myself hard enough [before that]. Even [if] you’ve adjusted to this altitude, your power number is still lower than at sea level. I feel like I’m weak, but you have to accept it. That’s just how it is.”

His next race is part of the Leadman series, consisting of 5 mountain biking and trail running races in Leadville, Colorado. This next one is 42 km. Originally, the trail takes the runners over Mosquito Pass, which is at over 13,000 ft. But this year, there is still so much snow that the trail has been re-routed, so the runners aren’t sure what to expect. But the race starts at over 10,000 ft.

To train for this, he’s been running and biking six days a week. Every morning, he measures his blood oxygen saturation using a pulse oximeter. The first morning he arrived in Frisco, it was at 92. After a couple weeks of acclimation and training, it’s pretty reliably at 96 every morning.

Pacing

Yuki claims the most difficult part about running these long races is pacing. His coach encouraged him to run “negative splits”, increasing his speed toward the end of the race. “At my first 50 km race, even though I won it, I could have paced myself better. I just went too hard at the beginning [to] take the lead and paid for it later in the race. I was so trashed after the race, I couldn’t even stand and walk.”

“My coach is saying to be careful about [hitting the wall] at altitude. It’s so hard to recover. It takes almost five times longer than at sea level. I need to pace myself, especially for running 100 miles,” Yuki says, referencing the Leadville Trail Run in August he is also preparing for: 100 miles at altitude. “I’m so excited, but at the same time, I’m so nervous. Even finishing is questionable at this point.”

Acclimation

His secret to acclimating comfortably and quickly is actually movement. He says he feels the affects of the elevation more when he’s sedentary. In order to get more oxygen to his body, he has to get his circulation going. “The first week, I feel better when I exercise than when I just sit [around]. “

Also, beets. And red bell pepper. And arugula.

He eats a limited portion of these every day he’s at altitude. These vegetables provide a lot of nitrates, which your body processes into nitric oxide, facilitating blood circulation. At altitudes over 8000 ft., where you have access to about a third of the oxygen available in the air at sea level, the key to supplementing the oxygen your body requires is increased blood flow. After a certain amount of time, your body starts creating more oxygen-carrying red blood cells to counter the deficit, so getting the blood moving is literally vital.

According to high-altitude growth and development expert Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos, nitric oxide is often the way newborn babies with complications at altitude are treated. Hypoxia (the state of receiving less oxygen than is normal at sea level) causes pulmonary vessels (in the lungs) to constrict. Putting these infants on nitric oxide gas dilates the pulmonary arteries and improves some types of respiratory distress.

There are powders marketed to aid the food version of this nutrition, including BeetElite, Yuki’s product of choice, which he’ll add to his sports drinks in addition to consuming about an ounce of roasted beets. But portion control is also important, as too much nitrate can also have a negative effect on the body.

Running Recovery

Yuki is learning that he has to deal with an interesting phenomenon when it comes to his ultra running races: it’s tough on his guts. When it comes to his diet, he doesn’t typically change anything for recovery after a long event. “But I think my guts are more tired, because your body is bouncing so much from running.”

When running these incredible distances, he fuels his body with an energy gel every 20 to 30 minutes while running. “It usually has about 100 to 120 calories. It’s a dense energy. Then you take them for five hours, continuously, so it also tires out your guts. During the race. You have to maintain your blood sugar and keep your muscles moving. My muscles are tired, but also, my intestine and stomach are tired.”

“Even water is hard on my stomach [after running a race]. I’m kinda worried about running 50 and 100 miles. I’m not only worried about my legs, but even my stomach. I’m not used to [consuming] energy for 20 hours, eating and running at the same time.”

In Japan, hot springs and bathing are also a huge, sacred part of the recovery and health ritual. He takes a hot bath almost every day, “especially in winter,” he says. “It helps me to sleep at night.”

Sleep

The first week he spends at altitude in Colorado, he finds it harder to fall asleep. “I used to take one or two melatonin capsules every night, but it’s hard to tell if it helped. I just go to bed early, like 8 or 9, even if I cannot fall asleep. I just take the time to lay down and recover. [I try to sleep] at least 7 to 8 hours a night, but sometimes it’s hard. If I can’t get that amount of sleep, I usually take a nap after training.”

This may sound obvious, but sleep is when your body does most of its recovery, both mentally and physically. Sleep experts and studies have proven that the body and brain visibly deteriorate after so much sleep deprivation. And at altitude, with less oxygen available to supply a body in constant motion, sleep may be more important than ever.

Plant-based Nutrition

Yuki isn’t the first high-altitude athlete I’ve spoken to who advocates for a plant-based lifestyle. In a recent blog, skier and duathlete Cierra Sullivan also tells us about how a plant-based diet seems to make a big difference.

“When I used to like and eat animal products a lot, my recovery time was slower than now. It was hard to digest animal fats. I believed that they had a lot of good protein, but it was so hard on your body and digestive system,” Yuki says. “It took time to change my diet, but I now feel more comfortable with my plant-based diet, physically and mentally.”

Live High Train Low

Another recurring theme among high-altitude athletes.

“One of my sponsors has an altitude tent. They leased it to me before the competition, so I used it about a month. I slept in the tent, set at about 3000 m, then I train at sea level. I think it helped a bit, but it might be too short to tell. It tired me [out], though. I think I needed to do it longer before the competition, like, two or three months. I couldn’t train well, because I felt tired all the time. But I think for altitude training, I think this elevation is almost too high. Because you cannot push to your maximum potential. For example, for cycling, I can push up to 1000 – 1200 watts at sea level, but I cannot hit that number here, so I cannot train in that range here. I can lose that high power if I stay longer here. But it depends on your [goal]. My [goal] is winning the Leadman series, that’s why I’ve come here to train.”

This is partly why Yuki will lift weights once a week when training at altitude, “to maintain my high power.” With such limited access to oxygen, athletes up here can’t reach the same “punching power” that they can at lower elevations, so lifting may help maintain that power. “Very short, maybe 45 minutes, once a week, just to maintain. Weightlifting is still supplemental for your specific sport, so I don’t want it to affect my training on my bike or running. For race week, I don’t lift weights, because lifting weights takes time to recover.”

Keeping It Fun

“My trick to keep going — the best way to improve yourself,” Yuki adds, in a final reflection, “is to keep it fun. If you’re not having fun, I think that’s not good. Last year, I almost lost my motivation as an athlete. I almost thought about quitting racing, but I still love the sport. Trail running helped me mentally and physically, and my motivation came back, even for cycling. Having fun is the key to keep going.”

Ultra mountain athlete Yuki Ikeda with high-altitude researcher and writer Roberto Santos at Gonzo’s Coffee in Frisco after an insightful afternoon interview.

Thank you, Yuki. I completely agree. And best of luck with that 100-mile trail run at 13,000 ft.! Keep track of Yuki’s race schedule, social media and stats at http://yukiikeda.net/

robert-ebert-santos
Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

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.

Metabolism at Altitude : Preventing Acute Mountain Illness through Strategic Nutrition

Last September, my friend and I decided to go camping. We chose an area close to Silverthorne, Colorado (9,035 ft.) and decided to camp above tree line at around 11,000 feet. Both of us were endurance athletes and had done camping trips at altitude many times without complications. We considered ourselves in great shape and ready for any adventure. 

We departed from our home in Fort Collins (5,003 ft.) in the morning and arrived at the trailhead before noon. We were well prepared and had plenty of nutrition in our 40+ lb.-backpacks. The start of the trailhead was at 9,035 ft and we had to hike 7 miles to our destination at 11,000 ft. We were well hydrated, built our camp and went to bed. Both of us had mild edema to our extremities, but nothing that we were worried about as we had experienced these symptoms on multiple hikes to higher elevations in the past. 

We spent the next day hiking above tree line, staying hydrated and fueling with high-quality calories. We have learned from personal experience to eat even when we do not feel like it. We both have experienced weight loss of about 5-10 lbs. per week when camping and hiking above 10,000 ft. 

We did a 7-mile exploratory hike along the ridge line at 11,000 ft. the next day, again, staying hydrated and consuming plenty of calories. We returned to camp when my partner first mentioned a mild pounding headache. He drank more fluids, had dinner and went to bed. 

Rewarding views, in a tent at altitude!

I woke up at around midnight due to my partner running out of the tent. He vomited once and returned to the tent. Something else seemed off. He did not zip the tent door shut when he returned. He mumbled that his head was hurting and kept his head elevated as it relieved the pain to some degree. A few hours later, he vomited again. 

The next morning I proposed that we should pack up camp and hike down the mountain, as he continued to complain of a pounding headache. He refused and wanted to go hike some more. I left the tent site first, walked a few steps and turned around: he was sitting down, staring at the ground. Now I started to really get worried as he was an amazing endurance athlete with a never-ending hunger for adventure. This was not like him. 

I decided to pack up the tent, whether he liked it or not. We needed to get off the mountain before his condition worsened. 

After many attempts, I was finally able to convince him to come with me, and we started our descent. Between 11,000 ft. and 9,000 ft. we walked slow, as his coordination was slightly limited. As soon as we reached 9,000 ft., he started to improve: he started to walk faster, was more coordinated, and communicated more. By the time we got back to our car, he was back to his normal self, however he still had a lingering headache. 

The effects of altitude on his body were very surprising. He demonstrated some classic symptoms of what the high altitude medical community refer to as “HACE”, High Altitude Cerebral Edema: headache, vomiting, confusion, and ataxia (a loss of control of body movement). The experience was unexpected and scary. Cell phone reception is very limited in the backcountry and if his condition would have worsened, this trip could have ended in a very bad situation. 

Summit County, Colorado is a beautiful place to explore the outdoors, hiking and camping. I recently had a conversation with an avid outdoorsman who calls Fort Collins (4,982 ft.) his home and enjoys hiking and camping in Summit County at elevations ranging from 9,000 ft – 12,000 ft. He stated that he consistently experiences unwanted weight reduction of around 5-10 lbs. in body weight per week when living in the backcountry at elevations above 9,000 ft.

Is this weight loss related to increased activity without adjusting calorie intake? Could this weight loss be related to exposure to higher elevation and possible changes in metabolism? How can one keep track of calorie-cost and anticipate the inevitable stress on the body at altitude?

Compare your activity level

A GPS or even a pedometer can help measure and compare activity. An increase in miles or steps compared to baseline may require caloric adjustment in order to prevent weight loss. Calorie input should equal calorie expenditure in order to prevent weight loss. It is important to take into consideration that hiking in the mountains usually requires a high level of physical performance due to elevation gain and loss as well as walking on uneven surfaces which result in increased muscle recruitment.

Increased basal metabolic rate (BMR)

According to Dünnwald et al. (2019), exposure to higher altitude increases BMR initially as the body is adapting to the hypoxic environment. The study concluded that increased sympathetic activity and hypoxia may be responsible for the increase in BMR. Due to more extreme exposure to elements such as cold, wind, rain and snow, involuntary shivering may also contribute to an increase in calorie expenditure and should be considered when preparing for the backcountry.

Decrease in appetite

Another factor contributing to possible weight loss may be related to a lack in appetite. Research on the cause of high altitude anorexia is ongoing, however some researchers believe there may be a correlation between a change in appetite-stimulating hormones at altitude. A study by Shukla et al. (2005) found a decrease in total levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, peptide YY, glucagon-like peptide-1, and leptin at initial exposure to altitude. Pre-packaging and scheduling meals while hiking at altitude may aide in the prevention of weight loss during backcountry activities.

Muscle atrophy

Chaudhary et al. (2012) propose that changes in protein turnover in hypoxic environments may be related to muscle wasting, including a decrease in protein synthesis and an increase in protein degradation. To minimize muscle atrophy, it is important to consume high protein foods frequently. Amino acids may also aide in protein synthesis. Packing snacks with high nutritional value can prevent weight loss. Nutrition labels on food items are a great way to identify optimal snacks.  

Hiking in the backcountry on a multi-day trip requires preparation. I choose high-calorie foods that taste good, are light to pack, and have minimal waste. I make breakfast and dehydrated meals at home and put them into individual bags that only require me to add water. Making your own dehydrated meals allows you to avoid unnecessary additives. I supplement throughout the day with high calorie snacks. If I have room in my pack, I also add what I call “novelty” backcountry foods, such as cheese and wine – it is important to splurge every once in a while, even if you live in a tent. 

Great foods for the back country:

  • Butter or Coconut Oil coffee: many companies make pre-packaged individual coffee. One cup of butter coffee is around 200 calories.
  • Perfect Bars: 1 Bar has around 300 calories and 17 grams of protein. 
  • Pro Bars: 1 Bar has 390 calories, they are light to pack and taste great.
  • Nuts and seeds: easy to pack, great source of healthy fats, calories and protein
  • Jerky: we make our own elk jerky. It is a great snack throughout the day with healthy protein and added salt. 
  • Apples: It is difficult to get fresh fruit in the back country. Apples are easy to pack, last for a long time and allow you to get vitamins and fiber. 
  • Dehydrated fruits and vegetables: great addition to oatmeal in the morning and your dinner at night. Dehydrated fruits and vegetables are easy to make at home, very light to pack, and you can rehydrate them in the backcountry. 
  • Oatmeal with protein powder: we pre-package oatmeal with dehydrated fruit and a scoop of our favorite protein powder in individual bags. Just add water and you have a fantastic-tasting and calorie-rich breakfast. 

Every backcountry excursion should be well planned and it is always better to be over-prepared. It is crucial to be knowledgeable about what foods need to be consumed and when, in order to prevent negative outcomes. Know the distance and elevation changes on your trip, prepare for changes in weather, plan your calories out for every meal on every day, and make a schedule to prevent complications related to nutrition. 

Most importantly: enjoy the beauty of the high-elevation backcountry!

Angi Axmann Grabinger is Nurse Practitioner student at the University of Northern Colorado. Angi’s passion in healthcare involves disease prevention and integrative medicine. If Angi is not studying, working or gardening, you can find her exploring the mountains running or hiking. 

References

Chaudhary, P., Suryakumar, G., Prasad, R., Singh, S.N., Ali, S., Ilavazhagan, G. (2012). 

Chronic hypobaric hypoxia mediated skeletal muscle atrophy: role of ubiquitin–proteasome pathway and calpains. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11010-011-1210-x

Dünnwald, T., Gatterer, H., Faulhaber, M., Arvandi, M., Schobersberger, W. (2019). Body 

Composition and Body Weight Changes at Different Altitude Levels: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from:https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2019.00430/full

Shukla, V., Singh, S.N., Vats P., Singh, V.K. , Singh, S.B., Banerjee, P.K. (2005).  Ghrelin and 

leptin levels of sojourners and acclimatized lowlanders at high altitude. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16117183

Portrait of a High-Altitude Athlete: a Medical Student’s Philosophy of Training and Preparedness

When I first met Cierra Sullivan, I had been preparing for a year abroad in Japan to continue my Japanese language studies, and she was working on her Bachelor’s in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We didn’t have much of a chance to connect before I left the country, but through social media, we were able to follow each other’s passion for extreme sports and the remote outdoors. I ended up in Japan for several years while Cierra graduated from CU, finished a Master’s in Nutrition and Metabolism at Boston University School of Medicine, grew a career as a competitive athlete and high country adventurer, and found a deeper path into Naturopathic and Chinese medicines, in which she is completing a Doctorate and Master’s respectively.

Her resume is an impressive timeline of contributions to every aspect of her academic experience, and studies and volunteering have taken her from both US coasts, South America, Africa and back, working with underprivileged communities in several languages, providing aid, health care, and opportunities for children of underrepresented demographics, just to name a few of the projects on the long list.

itu-world-championships
Cierra Sullivan (center) at the Duathlon ITU World Championships, July 2018 in Odense, Denmark, with teammates Emily Allred (left) and Alex Veenker (right).

Now that we’re both back in the continental US, we’ve had more opportunities to share about our mutual passions, and I was finally able to get some time with her over the phone to really talk about her philosophy of health care and how she represents that in her active outdoor life. In addition to her experience playing basketball, rugby and golf, she continues to compete nationally for Team USA as a duathlete, and is currently seeing her fourth consecutive year of having skied every single month.

Why Naturopathic and Chinese Medicine?

Her background in Western medicine made her aware of the lack of focus on nutrition in the United States, which she believes is essential not only to healing, but more importantly to disease prevention. Naturopathic medicine “is a focus on healing from the inside out,” she tells me. “I really value the patient-physician relationship,” she continues. The ever-looming presence and power of insurance companies means the interaction between physicians and their patients is constantly restricted by time and money.

She says her experience in Naturopathy and Chinese medicine has put more emphasis on the mind-body experience, first doing no harm, and the importance of doctor-as-teacher philosophy. When it comes to health, there are some fundamental similarities; Western and Eastern medical practitioners both recommend exercise and drinking plenty of water. The main difference, she speculates, may be in the definition: “What is it to ‘eat healthy’ and ‘stay hydrated’?”

The essence of her philosophy of nutrition is simple. Even in preparation for the many physically strenuous expeditions she trains for, she tries to maintain a minimally-processed, plant-based lifestyle. Even the companies that sponsor her as an athlete create products that adhere to her strategy of nutrition. Being so particular about the products, both what she puts on her body and in it, she looks for products that value the same things that she does, products that are more beneficial to the body, with no extra colors, preservatives or fillers. Ultimately, she wants to be able to reduce recovery time and enhance performance.

The Mental Game

trail-running-with-doggo
Trail running in Forrest Park out in PDX.

Cierra tells me she wasn’t always so passionate about the outdoors, having been more immersed in playing basketball when she was younger. But she had always been competitive, and playing sports her whole life, gradually shifted from traditional indoor sports to the wild outdoors. She started climbing and cycling when she was in Boulder, then did a duathlon (running and cycling). “You do a few races, then you get hooked. You see results on the board and it motivates you.”

Her growing experience being an athlete in the outdoor arena fostered the idea of being present in any moment, whether it’s inside, or out with nature. “Ultimately, you learn to set boundaries and cut out all the noises and distractions of social media.” Now, after a brief hiatus from all of that, she has a renewed relationship with her online presence, motivated by the opportunity to share her lifestyle and philosophy and stay in touch with friends and family, which she says is better portrayed in photos than in words.

But her mental strategy remains a strong part of her training, preparation, and execution when it comes to the outdoors and altitude.

“For high altitude excursions, decision-making and mind set are always going to be the challenge. Knowing when to turn around when conditions aren’t right, constantly watching the weather, [being aware] if someone’s not keeping up.” She tells me this is the most difficult aspect of her career right now. And I completely appreciate it. For all the trekking our research team does at altitude, I agree every time she says “you’re only as strong as your weakest team member,” an old proverb we’ve both learned to live by. Although when it comes to the high altitude excursions we’re talking about, I don’t think either of us would use “weak” to describe any member of our team.

She tells me she’s bailed on plans to ascend Mt. Hood for not having fallen asleep by the time their alarms went off before 3 am. “[You] can’t let your ego supersede the safety of everybody in the group. You have to push yourself outside your comfort zones, but you have to do it smart. Even expert backcountry rescuers get stuck.” And it’s not because they’re inexperienced. It’s because conditions outdoors can easily overwhelm even the most experienced bodies.

The Physical Game

Staying active, consistently challenging her body, and consistency are large parts of her strategy when it comes to optimizing her condition at altitude. She says she pays more attention to self-care and exercise than some of her more stressed colleagues in her Naturopathic and Chinese medicine programs, which, for her, looks like a lot of time outside over weekends and breaks.

“Live high and train low might be best for the access to oxygen,” she recommends. I’ve heard the phrase before, but honestly, I’d never really put much thought into it. I’d just always assumed it was most efficient to live and train at altitude. But the way she puts it, having more access to oxygen at lower elevations allows you to train longer and harder, so you’re more physically prepared for long treks at higher elevations. Combine that with the oxygen deficit during recovery and you have a recipe for hard training and increased red blood cell production to maximize performance. And I do admit, training at 9,000 ft. in Summit County is grueling, even for a resident, and I can definitely go longer and harder when I’m at a lower altitude, especially sea level.

She ski tours for hours to train for cycling and running events, saying, “if you can sustain a low Zone 2 workout for 5 or 6 hours [at altitude], you’re set at sea level,” referring to the heart rate zones. (I’ve found a great description of the five zones on Pivotal Fitness’s website.)

The hardest part of acclimation for Cierra, she says, is “being patient for your body to catch up.” She’s really conscious about continuous snacking and water. “I sweat easily, so I switched to Merino wools, adjust layers, and avoid being soaked and getting cold.”

high-altitude-family
Cierra with the family, Olli and Jackie Shea, out for daily exercise at Mary Jane in June 2018

When she prepares for the monthly ski trips, she carb loads, increases fats, does lots of endurance training, stays hydrated and nourished, and makes sure she gets enough quality sleep.

The Gear Game

I ask her what tools or resources she most consistently relies on. I’m expecting some top trade secrets, but, luckily for us, they’re pretty standard and more or less obvious:

“When it comes to winter-time skiing, definitely get to know your [local] avalanche forecasters; avalanche reports are key. Apps like Gaia and Caltopo are great for route planning, but having a GPS spot and being competent with a compass and a map are way undervalued in our tech-loaded society. Of course a good dose of common sense goes a long way, even if the avy report is green, make sure you have your avalanche gear, headlamps, and enough water. Extra high-fat bars that can get you through a 24-hour emergency, confidence in who you’re going to be out with. Layer appropriately. Don’t go above the skill of your weakest member. Food is my comfort thing. Snacks.”

We’re hoping to get some of her time and expertise in the Ebert Family Clinic and on the high altitude research team next summer, but in the meantime, you can follow Cierra’s minimally-processed, plant-based, outdoor adventures on Instagram.

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.

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.

The Benedict Excursion: Testing Your Limits at Altitude

In a previous blog, I described preparing for a trip to the Benedict huts above Aspen, Colorado. After over eight hours of skinning uphill in the snow and two hours snowboarding back down, we are all back home, and I’ve finally cleaned all the pistachios and cookie crumbs out of my car. And yes, it took me eight hours to reach the hut.

I’ve been on numerous hut trips in the Colorado Rockies year after year, and it’s safe to say the trek to the Benedict huts (there are two: Fritz and Fabi) is the most challenging, mentally, physically and emotionally. The winter trail descriptions on the 10th Mountain Division Huts Association website did provide some insight into navigating the route. However, we found the descriptions of elevation gains and mileage to be quite different from the route we took: a winter trail marked by blue diamonds and arrows (a pretty standard trail marking practice).

Even following the appropriate trail markers, there is a crossroads where, looking at a map, we could see that the recommended Smugglers Mountain Road trail was significantly longer than the 10th Mountain trail we decided to take. And even after having taken the shorter route, we hiked about two miles farther than the trail directions had described. Having started at Upper Hunter Creek trailhead, we’d expected to arrive in 4.8 miles, but had long passed 6.

The trail description listed an elevation gain of 2130′, but by the time we reached the hut, we’d gained over 2300′. This isn’t a gradual incline, either. It is important for anyone setting out on this trail to know that you will be climbing the grade of a ski hill the entire way.

Our team came from the Colorado high country and San Francisco. We are all fit, athletic and experienced in various kinds of outdoor recreation. After collecting the San Francisco constituency from the Denver airport, we made a point of allowing a full day to acclimate in Frisco, Colorado, at 9000 ft. Blood oxygen levels were quite normal for people coming from sea level, averaging around 90%. Those concerned about nausea and headaches started taking Diamox, and we all made sure to drink plenty of water and prioritize sleep before setting out on the trail the following day.

By the time we arrived at the hut, it was 8 pm, and the sun had just dipped below the mountains. Sore and sunburned in spite of multiple reapplications of sunscreen, the rest of our evening was devoted to self-care, recovery, and refueling. All the food we had painstakingly carried up was certainly worth it. Our epic journey up the mountain had been fueled by nuts, energy bars, stroop waffles, chocolate chip cookies, and a lot of water. So we immediately got to work lighting up fires to melt snow for our water filtering systems and cooking a hearty sausage and tomato pasta.

Classic hut breakfast on a propane stovetop.

We were sure to feed every craving for calories, because we weren’t about to pack it all back down after what we’d just been through to get it up there. Although I’d planned to do some snowboarding, the following day was mostly dedicated to resting, eating, reading, and games. Frittata with bacon, shiitake mushrooms, manchego and peppers (and of course, pancakes) for breakfast; the aforementioned epic sandwiches for lunch, and loco moco’s for dinner. Plenty of chocolate, cookies, coffee, beer and bourbon to close the calorie gap. And constant water intake. I refused nothing.

Epic hut sandwich.

Hut trips require considerable effort, not only for the traverse and recreation outdoors while you’re in residence, but also for basic necessities. With no running water, snow must be collected in the winter to be melted over a fire you have to build, then boiled and/or poured through a filtering system. There is typically a large supply of wood for these fires on hand, but for less-maintained structures, gathering and chopping wood will also claim a lot of calories.

Recovery on a hut trip must be efficient in order for you to enjoy your time there while also preparing for the trek back out. Stretching, hydrating, feeding your cells nutrients, and sleep are what it’s all about. While the rest seem simple enough, choosing foods to replenish your supply of nutrients and treat any ailments or injuries you may have may take some more thought. As I mentioned in the previous blog on Packing for a Spring Hut Trip, the intense physical challenge of these trips requires energy your body can quickly convert from sugars and caffeine, which make chocolate and coffee easy options. For the time I can give my body to rest and recuperate, I want to feed it denser meals with better nutrient-to-calorie ratios, and this is where I look for proteins and carbohydrates that will take my body a longer time to process.

Stuffing our faces with Dr. Chris. See above for sandwich.

My body will use all these nutrients (including fats) even as I sleep as it repairs and replenishes itself. The extremity of long exposure to the elements stresses your brain as well as the rest of your body, and well-hydrated sleep is one of the best things you can do for it.

Alcohol, as you know, dehydrates the body. But a hut trip without beer and whiskey is not something I’ve ever heard of, so I make sure I continue to hydrate with plenty of water as well. The sugar from alcohol, however, may contribute to your store of energy the following day, but there is definitely a threshold where the amount of consumption contributes more to a disabling hangover. I continue to do more research on the matter.

Being so sore the first night, I was a little concerned about being able to move the rest of the trip. As much as I wanted to just lie down, I know stretching is just as vital to healing muscle mass after strenuous activity, and the combination of ample hydration, nutrient intake and stretching gave our bodies the resources to maximize the time we did spend napping and sleeping the next day. I did manage to get out on my split-board for a mini-tour around the site in the afternoon before dinner the second night, but it hadn’t snowed in the area in a while, and the snowpack was very hard after so many days of warm Spring weather.

The hut sits at the top of the mountain we ascended, so the terrain immediately around it doesn’t get much higher. The area is also pretty heavily wooded in all directions, so building a kicker to snowboard off of was out of the question. The party in the Fabi hut next door invited us to some skiing just a 3-mile hike along a ridge away, but none of us felt like adding 6 more miles to what we’d already trekked.

#activerecovery

I am glad I made a point of skiing around the hut, though. It was a great way to get my blood and breath moving around my body with fresh nutrients. One of the best parts about going on a hut trip is how efficiently it makes you spend your time. Even time lying down doing nothing is just as valuable as time exercising.

Mountain Kate

We set back out to the trailhead early Easter morning. Two nights and two unforgettable days later. We didn’t get any new snow, so those of us who weren’t on snowshoes were skiing/snowboarding down hard-pack. Con – crete. A two hour ski run sounds amazing. This was like two hours of squats. With a backpack on. So that happened.

But it sure beat the hike up! In retrospect, I’d say we packed appropriately. We might have had some extra food for the way down, but we were fortunate that the weather was sunny and warm, and that no sort of emergency required extra rations. I was almost too warm between the daytime sun, and the wood stove at night. But again, the weather could have been worse, and I would have needed every single layer I’d brought. Not mad about that. In a word, “harrowing” was mentioned more than once while on the trip. But no one had to carry any beer or bourbon back.

The high altitude research team from San Francisco.

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.

Packing for a Spring Hut Trip

Another winter has come and gone, and now Spring is in Colorado. Which means Winter will be back a couple more times before the snow all melts.

We’ve organized a team of friends from San Francisco, Denver, and Colorado high country for a backcountry excursion to one of Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division huts. The Benedict huts, our dwelling for two nights tucked into the wilderness outside of Aspen, are almost 6 miles from the trailhead, with an elevation gain of over 2000 ft. : a formidable trek, even for the experienced. And experience in wilderness trekking is one thing, but altitude is a game-changer. We will be well over 8000 ft. long before we reach the huts, so preparation for such an undertaking requires as much attention to mental, physical and physiological condition as much as clothing, gear and rations.

Weather & Conditions

This has everything to do with the weather, so it’s important to be on top of tracking all the resources available to you. At the top of my list in this region is the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. They provide up-to-date reports for high-risk areas around the state according to a comprehensive and easy-to-understand rating system. When considering this information, I always remember that our trek will take us through several types of terrain, and thus, several types of conditions: in and out of trees, varying steepness and exposure (to sun, wind, precipitation, etc.), all kinds of microclimates and environments (wetlands, scree fields).

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides no shortage of visuals to aid your risk assessment.

As far as incoming weather patterns are concerned, one of the most popular and reliable forecasts endorsed by people who play outside in Colorado is Open Snow. Founding meteorologist Joel Gratz updates local forecasts regularly, and provides information on what to expect with the outdoor adventurers in mind.

For our upcoming hut trip, it looks like the storm we’re expecting will be warmer and milder than recent systems, with most of it heading toward the northern mountain region. That being said, however, I’m keeping in mind that any projected weather system can be just a few degrees colder, a few inches wetter, and a few miles closer and change conditions dramatically. So let’s talk about how we can anticipate this with …

Gear & Clothing

The Commute

In any season in Colorado, there are essential comforts I always pack to get me to and from any hut that requires a hike, and to keep me happy while I’m enjoying the site. Dead of Winter, Height of Summer alike, the sun and glare is liable to be more intense than anything you’ve ever experienced at sea-level, while at the same time, the temperature and lack of humidity can cool your body significantly, night or day. Depending on how strenuous the commute is or how active you intend to be even after arriving at your destination, you may be constantly shedding, then adding, then shedding, then adding layers, so keep it all very accessible.

For this particular trek, I’ll be in snow gear. Basically anything I’d wear snowboarding: snow pants, outer shell on top, hat, gloves. I want it to be warm and waterproof on the outside. Underneath this shell, I want layers that I can strip down to as soon as I start moving and sweating with a 40 -60 lb. pack on. Unless the storm turns out to be much more intense (in which case, I’ll keep the outer layers on), I expect my skin to be steaming, so I won’t want to be in much more than warm compression tights, a t-shirt, and a light pullover. Your outer shell is for blizzards and water-proofing, so whatever you are stripping down to should be significantly lighter. Also, sunglasses or goggles. The glare from snow is significant. I bring both, because goggles get way too hot while I’m trekking uphill.

Here’s the tricky part: What are you going to wear on your feet? This is where the weather forecast comes in. This time of year, after such a snowy winter, I’m expecting most of the trail to be covered in snow, and the storm moving in is likely to bring more. I will be scoping out the trail pre-storm, which will give me a much better idea of what to expect, but I’m preparing to have snowshoes or a split-board and skins strapped to my snowboard boots. Of course, skis with skins are another alternative. There is a very slim chance most of the snow on the trail will be melted down, in which case I would probably opt for waterproof boots instead, which I would expect to get pretty muddy.

Avalanche Gear

Whether it’s on the commute or while you explore terrain around the hut during your stay, there are some essentials you can pack for the worst-case scenario. I’ve gone into more detail in a previous blog, but standards that I will be keeping on me are a shovel, probe and beacon. But these tools are only a small part of avalanche preparedness. More important than the endless supply of technology you can invest in is knowing what conditions and natural phenomena to be aware of during your trek, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is a great place to start familiarizing yourself with these.

Cabin Comforts

There is only one limiting factor to this list, but it is considerable: how much you can carry. For six miles. Uphill. In snow.

Most of the huts in the 10th Mountain Division hut system are equipped with soft mattresses, small pillows, and blankets. The kitchens are stocked with utensils and dishes, there is toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and dish soap, as well as ample supplies of wood for burning in the wood stoves. So most of your weight will be food and drinks.

I always pack a sleeping bag and extra pillow, because the guaranteed warmth and comfort are worth it when you’ve spent your day being intensely active outdoors. And keep in mind you’ll want warm, dry layers to change into that you haven’t been hiking and sweating in all day. What do you want to be wearing when you’re lounging around the cabin reading, cooking, eating, playing cards, etc.? For me, this looks like socks, long underwear, a pullover and slippers that I can crush into my pack. And then what are you going to throw on when you have to go back outside into the dark cold of night to use the outhouse? Your Colorado uniform: a hoodie.

There won’t be running water, so you can’t expect to shower. When you’re in the wilderness for a long time and need to be discerning about how much weight you carry that isn’t food and water, bathing is of low priority. But for a short trip like this, I don’t mind bringing some form of wet wipes; they’re light-weight and take up very little space. Toothbrush and toothpaste should be obvious, though.

Medication & Acclimation

From climbing Mt. Fuji to Colorado’s 14er’s, I’ve noticed a lot of people bringing pressurized cans of oxygen. High altitude research has taught me just how temporary and unnecessary this trend is. Often, the most effective remedy for altitude sickness is 5 – 10 minutes on oxygen. I’m pretty sure you’ll blow through a whole can of gas-station aerosol oxygen before it does you any lasting good.

Avoid this by giving yourself time to acclimate before you get to extreme elevation. Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, Colorado, specialists in high altitude research, always recommend keeping track of blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter, and this is something small, inexpensive and very portable. Our team will be spending at least 24 hours at altitude before we embark on the trek to the hut. This way, members from lower elevations will have access to an oxygen concentrator to facilitate acclimation.

Physician and high altitude expert Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos recommends packing the following mediations for hut trips: Acetazolamide, Benadryl, Ibuprofen, an EpiPen, Acetaminophen, and topical antibiotic oinment. Of course, be aware of any allergies to medication in your party. It is also helpful to be aware of what symptoms you may expect to experience, should you start having trouble acclimating, including dizziness, nausea, hyperventilation, and fatigue.

Food & Water

This is where most of the weight you pack in will be. Again, no running water at the hut, so expect to boil all the water you need for drinking if you run out of what you bring. There are lots of compact water purification systems you can easily pack as well. For our six mile trek to the cabin, I will have a Camel Bak and a couple Nalgene-sized thermoses full of water tucked into my pack.

You don’t want to have to cook everything you bring, so snacks you can easily access and eat are essential, especially for the trail. For this particular hike, I expect to burn more calories more quickly than any other average day, so I want lots of nutrients per gram: pistachios, energy bars, jerky … And don’t underestimate the power of sugar and caffeine, this is precisely the kind of work your body acts quickly to convert these nutrients to energy for. And yes, I mean chocolate. (Fruit also contain a lot of valuable sugar, I’m told.)

While we’re at the cabin, we’ll have access to a propane stove, so we’ll be able to cook some hearty meals. Bacon, fruit, yogurt, bagels and cream cheese are all easy breakfast foods to pack. If you are fortunate enough to be on a hut trip with Dr. Chris herself, you will have pancakes at least once. It’s also easy enough to bring fixings for the most epic sandwich you’ve ever had: guacamole, sprouts, turkey, ham, greens, tomatoes, bread; and remember, it’s a good chance to justify all the calories you get from mayonnaise and mustard.

And speaking of calories and sugar, I feel like whiskey and beer were invented to accompany the warmth of a fire in a remote, mountain cabin. The good news is that you are sure to be carrying less out than you did in. The bad news is that hangovers are exacerbated by high altitude, so pay more attention to your consumption than you would at any lower elevation, and be sure to have plenty of drinkable water at hand.

Am I Ready?

Hut trips in Colorado are mentally and physically challenging, even in the best conditions. The more time you give yourself, the better. Know before you go and don’t go alone. And don’t be intimidated. I’ve successfully guided friends from sea-level who don’t consider themselves athletic to destinations well above the tree line without incident.

Always be checking in with your body, your team, and your environment.

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.

Rethinking Your Energy Supply

On May 27th 2017, Adrian Ballinger summited Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. This is an accomplishment that less than 200 people have achieved and followed a failure to summit the previous May of 2016. The 41 year old seasoned climber attributed his failures to the cold, which could have been aided by more muscle and fat content, better insulated jacket and gloves, but he wondered why his climbing partner, Cory Richards so easily made it to the top. Ballinger came to realize it that wasn’t his gear or body composition, but it was that Richards had a different approach to training and nutrition that gave him the edge to summit. Richards trained with a organization called Uphill Athlete that trains its athletes to become a fat burners. After hearing of Richard’s training regimen Ballinger was determined to pursue the same for a another summit attempt in 2017. Ballinger was a carb burner, which means he was relying on burning carbohydrates for energy. When he attempted to summit Everest being a carb-burner, he simply ran out of energy to fuel his body through the last grueling stretch. This was due to depleted glycogen levels that a carb-burner relies on. The average human can only contain enough carbohydrates to supply glycogen stores for about 45 minutes. Once your glycogen stores are depleted, you need to refuel, which in Ballinger’s case, would mean pulling a hand out of a mit in the frigid Everest air to replenish his energy every 45 minutes. This is also known as “bunking,” which means completely exhausting your energy supply, which is what happened to Ballinger. Richards on the other hand, was a fat burner. With alterations in Ballinger’s nutrition and training regimen, he was successful in 2017.

But what is a fat burner?

A fat burner is an athlete that primarily uses fat for energy, and this metabolic process is called fat oxidation. When an athlete is exercising on a typical high carb and low fat diet, they are burning about a 50/50 mix of carbs and fats during steady exercise. If that athlete decides to sprint at full speed being a carb burner or a fat burner, they are primarily burning carbohydrates, known as glycogen. This is the body’s evolutionary design to have instant energy to run away from the tiger when it storms your cave. In Ballinger’s scenario, the high intensity of Everest climbing was like a sprint, depleting all of his glycogen stores causing him to “bunk”.

Why is a fat-burning diet better for climbing?

Being a fat burner for a long distance endurance athlete is beneficial because it eliminates the need to refuel every 45 minutes, which is bothersome. Ever wonder why there is a plethora of fancy sugary “sports” drinks, gummies, and energy bars at sporting stores? They are called “energy” foods, because they are loaded with simple carbohydrates and sugar. On the other hand, a fat burner does not need refueling foods or drinks during exercise, but relies on the extensive supply of fat throughout the body. Even the most elite athletes with very low body fat will have enough to supply the body energy for a event. Picture this, there is a giant fuel tanker truck cruising on I-70. The truck has its own fuel tank which sits below the cab of the truck, which will be depleted in a couple hours. What if the truck could access the large tank that it’s hauling? That would give the trucker a enough fuel to drive for days! In the context of nutrition and your body, the small tank is the your glycogen storage and the large tank is fat storage. This is why some people can fast for days without skipping a beat; they have tapped into their fat supply.

What does it take to become a fat burner?

To become a fat burner, it’s quite simple: cut the carbohydrates. Well, I guess some may think it’s not so easy. You have to cut out pizza, bread, candy, tortillas, and all that good tasty stuff. When a person limits their carbohydrate intake to less than 10% of caloric intake, and increase fat consumption to 70% of their intake, their body shifts into a different mode of creating energy, by burning fat instead of carbs. The by-products of fat oxidation are called ketones. When a person converts to being a fat burner, it is called being in ketosis. This process may take a few days to weeks, which varies from person to person.

Is there any research behind this crazy idea of eating all the bacon and butter you can handle?

Yes, yes there is!

In the research article by Volek et al. (2015), the authors wanted compare a low carbohydrate ketogenic diet and a typical high carbohydrate diet in 20 elite endurance athletes. The authors tested the athletes with a 180 minute, moderate intensity (64% VO2 max), treadmill run.

VO2 max is known as the capacity of your cardiovascular system and its ability to distribute oxygen throughout the body. Higher means a stronger cardiovascular system, so 64% of your maximum effort would be considered moderate exercise.

A 64% VO2 max to you or I would be a brisk walk or a slow hike up that beautiful 14’er, but for these Ironman athletes it was an easy run on a treadmill. The authors compared the rate of fat oxidation and carb oxidation between the two diets, as well as their ability to recover and replenish their glycogen stores. The authors found that the fat adapted athletes had 2.7 times the rate of fat oxidation than the high carb diet athletes. The low carb group also had fat oxidation at higher VO2 max, meaning they could go faster without tapping into their precious glycogen stores. The study also found that after the exercise, the athletes in both groups had similar glycogen level in their muscle. This is significant because the classic rule of thumb with exercising is that you need a post-workout shake with protein and carbs to replenish your muscles, or your exercising efforts are gone to waste …

WRONG!

It turns out your body has its own way of replenishing its glycogen stores without the post-workout carb load. That means after you climb that 14’er, you don’t necessarily have to stop at the local brewery for carb-tastic IPA, but I won’t judge you if you do.

In another research article by Hetlelid et al., they wanted to compare the levels of fat and carb oxidation levels between nine well-trained (WT) runners and nine recreationally-trained (RT) runners during a high-intensity interval training session (HIIT). There was no difference in diets amongst the participants in the study. The study found that the WT runners had a three times higher rate of fat oxidation than RT runners and increased performance with higher VO2 max. The author attributed the increased performance due to the higher rates of fat oxidation. These athletes were consuming a normal carb-ful diet, which makes me wonder what the difference would have been if they were fat adapted.  

So, let’s get down to why all this mumbo-jumbo is important to your next trip to the high country. Many outdoor activities that we enjoy in the summer like hiking, biking, climbing, etc. all require significant energy to supply for all day fun. Take climbing a 14’er, for example. You will most likely be climbing for several hours, depleting your energy stores as you climb being on a high carb diet. You have to stop, refuel, start up climbing, stop and repeat. As a fat adapted climber, you could sail past your carb-comrades with ease, not depleting your glycogen stores all day, all while burning some of that winter Christmas cookie belly in the process. As we examined the two research articles, we also found that higher fat oxidation could mean higher VO2 max levels.

What does this mean for your next trip to high altitude?

That’s right, better usage of the less available oxygen in the high country and improving oxygen delivery throughout the body. If you want to be the best Balliger you can be on the mountains this summer, rethink your energy supply and consider life in the fat lane! 

So, here are some personal tips to becoming fat adapted:

-Give your body at least 3 weeks to become adapted before any highly strenuous activity, like climbing a 14’er

-Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate with water, and balance it with electrolytes

-Consult with your physician before drastically changing your diet

-Choose foods high in natural fats (eggs, nuts, olive oils, avocados, meat, fish, dairy) and stay away from unhealthy trans fats

-Intermittent fasting can help you transition into ketosis faster (12-16 hrs)

 

References

Hetlelid, K. J., Plews, D. J., Herold, E., Laursen, P. B., & Seiler, S. (2015). Rethinking the role of fat oxidation: Substrate utilisation during high-intensity interval training in well-trained and recreationally trained runners. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 1(1). doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2015-000047

Volek, J. S., Freidenreich, D. J., Saenz, C., Kunces, L. J., Creighton, B. C., Bartley, J. M., . . . Phinney, S. D. (2016). Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Metabolism, 65(3), 100-110. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2015.10.028

http://www.adrianballinger.com/about/

High Altitude Training for Better Sea Level Performance

High altitude training has become very popular among endurance athletes over the past few years. This trend has developed due to emerging evidence that chronic exposure to altitude improves overall performance at sea level. There have been multiple peer reviewed studies proving that physiologic changes which occur with high altitude training are beneficial for low altitude performance. The physiological changes that occur in response to decreased oxygen availability include increased erythropoietin response, leading to an increase in red blood cell production. These physiological changes lead to an improvement in oxygen carrying capacity and the delivery of oxygen to muscles. The ability to store iron is also increased. Even though these physiological responses appear to have beneficial effects, they can also be detrimental. Some studies have indicated a “detraining effect” associated with long term high altitude training. The low oxygen available at high altitude impairs the ability to train at high intensity, which can in turn negate the improvement in VO2 max.

Given the most recent data collection, the mantra of “Live High, Train Low” has been adapted. The idea behind this thought process is that the athlete is able to gain all of the beneficial physiological changes of training at high altitude, while still being able to train at high intensities at a lower elevation. In order to gain the highest advantage from high altitude training, a series of clinical guidelines has been published. The guidelines state that the optimal altitude at which to live and train is between 2000-2500m. Although altitudes about 2500m provide the beneficial physiologic effects previously stated, they are also associated with negative effects such as decrease in quality of sleep. The guidelines also recommend all training performed at altitude to be of low intensity, and to reserve high intensity workouts for lower altitudes. Furthermore, it is recommended that in order to maximize the benefits of altitude training, one should remain at altitude for a minimum of 21 days. Finally, it is recommended to compete either within 48-72 hours after returning to sea level or to wait approximately 14 days before competing.

Altitude training is nothing new to the elite athlete. This has been a tool used by many top athletes over the years in order to gain as much advantage as they can on the day of a competition. It is these specific guidelines which have been recently been published that give more precise strategies to optimize sea level performance. It is, however, always important to keep in mind that although the above guidelines can give both professional endurance and everyday athletes the best chance of improving their competitive performances, the response to high altitude training can vary from one individual to another.

Anna Miller, PA-S

Carly Stillman, PA-S

Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program

Resources:

Constantini, K., Wilhite, D. P., & Chapman, R. F. (2017). A Clinician Guide to Altitude Training for Optimal Endurance Exercise Performance at Sea Level. High Altitude Medicine & Biology. 18(2), 93-101.

Can I take my child up a 14er?

There are over fifty 14ers in Colorado. A 14er is a mountain with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. If summited, these majestic peaks afford their climbers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Being that many people within Colorado – and those who come to visit – are active, a question often voiced by parents is: “Can my child hike up a 14er with me?” Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question and the simplest response is: it depends.

According to recent research, it appears that children are largely similar to adults when it comes to adapting to higher elevations. Research examined children’s short-term cardiorespiratory adaptation, incidence of acute mountain sickness, hypoxic ventilatory response, and maximal exercise capacity and found little variance between adults and children (Garlick, O’Connor, & Shubkin, 2017).

When CAN you take your child up a 14er? There are a multitude of factors that affect when and if a child can climb a 14er. For example, children develop and mature at different rates. This might affect whether your 11-year-old is able to climb a 14er, compared to someone else’s 11-year-old. Additionally, some children grow up being exposed to technical hikes and climbs, while others are not. This affects ability level and is certainly something to keep in mind (Provance, n.d.). Another factor to keep in mind is whether you’re child has an underlying condition. For example, conditions such as congenital heart disease, asthma, sickle cell anemia, an upper respiratory infection, or an ear infection can significantly increase the risk for high altitude illnesses (Garlick, O’Connor, & Shubkin, 2017, p. 6). Yet another factor is whether you live at altitude or are visiting from a lower elevation. There is a strong recommendation for those individuals traveling from a lower altitude to take some time to acclimate. Spending a night or two at an intermediate altitude is recommended. Additionally, be mindful not to overdo it when you do ascend to a higher elevation: stay hydrated and don’t overexert yourself. If you decide to climb a 14er, it is imperative that you give your body at least a few days to acclimate to the altitude (“How can I optimize my health at high altitude?”, 2016).

So, what’s the bottom line? Since it isn’t possible to place a concrete age on when it’s okay for your child to climb a 14er, it is ultimately up to you to know you’re child’s limits and to decide if such a challenging hike is right for you and them. The most important thing is to make sure that everyone remains safe.

If you do decide to set out on the challenge of hiking up a 14er, there are some things to remember in order to keep yourself and your child as safe as possible and ensure that the hike is an enjoyable experience for all (Kirkland, 2015):

  • Set out early: Summiting the peak by noon is recommended in order to avoid afternoon weather, thunderstorms, and potential lightning strikes.
  • Start slow and easy: It’s important for you to determine whether or not you’re child will be able to summit a 14er. Start with easy hikes and build up over time so that you have a good understanding of your child’s abilities.
  • Know the weather forecast: Check the weather before you set out to prevent getting stuck in a storm.
  • Clothing: Wear appropriate clothing. It is important to layer since it can be colder on top of the mountain. Additionally, it is important to wear clothing that protects you from the elements (including the sun!).
  • Protect yourself from the sun: The sun can be very strong when one is high up. It is very important to ensure that your child is adequately protected from the sun: sunscreen, clothing, etc.
  • Food and Fluids: Bring adequate nutrition and hydration.
  • Be prepared to turn around ahead of time: There are many things that could cause you to turn around. It’s very important to accept ahead of time that you might not manage to summit the peak and to accept that’s okay.
  • High altitude illness: It is incredibly important for you to know the symptoms of high altitude illness and be prepared to turn around should your child exhibit any of them. Symptoms of high altitude illness include: fussiness or irritability, refusal to eat, lack of energy, nausea and/or vomiting, dizziness, and light headedness (Provance, n.d.).

References:

Garlick, V., O’Connor, A., & Shubkin, C. D. (2017). High-altitude illness in the pediatric population: A review of the literature on prevention and treatment. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, doi:10.1097/MOP.0000000000000519

How can I optimize my health at high altitude? (2016). Retrieved from http://www.altitudemedicine.org/optimizing-health-at-altitude/

Kirkland, E. (2015, May). Taking kids to new heights: Hiking Colorado’s “14er” mountains. Retrieved from http://www.outdoorfamiliesonline.com/hiking-colorados-14er-mountains/

Provance, A.J. (n.d.). What age can my child start hiking fourteeners? Retrieved from https://www.childrenscolorado.org/conditions-and-advice/new-and-featured-articles/sports-safety/when-can-kids-start-hiking-fourteeners/

Rianne Smeele, BSN, RN, Regis University FNP Student