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?

Mt. Shavano & Tabeguache Peak

This past weekend, we ended Dr. Chris’s birthday week celebration with an ascent up Mt. Shavano, at 14,229′ (4337 m). We didn’t make it to the summit of the neighboring Tabeguache Peak, but I’m including it in the title of this piece because it was very much a part of our experience on this particular trek.

The standard summer route up Shavano and Tabeguache starts at 9700′, outside of the town of Salida. Up to the summit of Shavano, there is a 4400′ elevation gain over about 4.2 miles. If this is hard for you to imagine, know that it is formidable. Additionally, the trail increases in difficulty the further you progress, and the last .6 mile to the top is one of the most challenging ascents I’ve ever done without a heavy pack. In a previous article, I mentioned anticipating an inner dialogue about turning around before summiting. This inner dialogue didn’t involve me turning around so much as just passing out on a rock and staying there forever. But I did manage to summit after a 5.5 hr ascent, which included a 2-mile detour past and then back to the very first sign indicating the trail, in the dark of the early morning, at the very beginning of the hike. As obvious as the sign should have been, I’m relieved to say we weren’t the only ones.

This is the wooden sign indicating the Colorado Trail and the trail to reach Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak.
The sign, .1 mi from the trailhead, that we somehow missed in the dark of the early morning.

And this is precisely why you should bring several resources to help guide you. In spite of all the trail descriptions with mileage that we brought, the only sure indication we had passed the turn-off from the Colorado Trail were the actual GPS coordinates of the sign listed in one of our resources (14ers.com). Pro tip: you can enter GPS coordinates into your Google Maps app (assuming you have service); leaving off the capital letters for cardinal directions (N, S, E, W), the first number will be latitude, the second longitude (in our case, we entered “38.60218, -106.19594” to find the sign we had initially passed).

Another learning experience on this particular trek was regarding our camp site. We had chosen the Angel of Shavano camp site, close to the trailhead, which is outside the town of Maysville, past Salida (about two hours from Frisco). The site is right at the foot of the mountains in that area, quite small (20 spots, first-come-first-serve, $20 per night for two vehicles). I was expecting a lot of other hikers, going to bed earlier than us, to wake up and start their ascent earlier than us, with more expensive, specialized gear, but was surprised to find all our neighbors partying until hours after we had retired into our tents.

Icing these puppies in a beautiful river along the Angel of Shavano campground.

As it turns out, there is a Winter route up Shavano, and the trailhead for the standard Summer route was about a 30-minute drive back toward Salida from the Angel of Shavano campground. So that explains why we didn’t encounter any other early-risers there. The good news is that Angel of Shavano campground is gorgeous, right off the Colorado Trail, along a beautiful river that, this late in the summer, was flowing shallow and slow enough that I could set a chair in it and soak my feet in the icy water (before putting them through hell the next day).

A half-moon over Angel of Shavano campground.

We ended up at the trailhead for the Summer route the next morning at 5:15 am. Pitch black. Here’s another pro tip: if your headlamp is dim, it needs new batteries.

Be aware that this parking lot is referred to as the “Blanks Trailhead Parking Lot” on signs on the trail, and this sign is the only one that reads “Mount Shavano Tabeguache Peak Trailhead”.

Other than missing what would have been a very obvious sign in the daylight, the rest of the trail was pretty much straight up. Even the switchbacks were steep enough to make me think, “Would it be much steeper if we just went straight up?” If you’ve ever climbed Peak One in the Ten Mile Range above Frisco, it’s like that (or any portion of that) times a hundred.

The dawn breaking as we backtrack toward the sign we missed.

It’s also significant to note that this was the second time in my life I’d ever wished for hiking poles. The steep grade had me pushing off my own thighs constantly as I trudged up the incline, and my quads were burning the entire hour-and-a-half it took me to get back down. Yes: 5.5 hours up, 1.5 hours down.

The water in my Camel-bak was all I’d brought on the trail (after drinking from a couple Nalgene bottles I’d brought in the car), and I ran out just before getting back to the trailhead. One of us ran out of water in her Camel-bak on her way up to the summit. Fortunately, another one of us had packed an extra gallon of water.

As far as snacking went, we had plenty of jerky, pistachios, bananas, nut butter, and electrolytes between us. I may even have had a chocolate-covered Twinkie. But we didn’t finish all of that, and as I’d expected, my body didn’t really crave food so much as liquids, until I’d reached the end of the hike, at which point I promptly finished all traces of food in the car.

Dr. Chris taking a break on the saddle below the summit of Shavano.

All-in-all, I’d say that was a successful excursion, and even the mistakes we made affirmed that even experienced hikers should take extra care. My main takeaway: don’t rush the start of the trail. It is worth hours to be sure where you are headed, even if it means standing in one spot, double-checking all your resources, entering GPS coordinates for 20 minutes.

The treacherous terrain up the last .6 mi to the summit of Mt. Shavano.

Also notable: we started back on the right track toward the beginning of the hike just before 7 am, at which point it was already bright out, and I reached the summit at 11 am. By 11:15, all the distant clouds had amassed into huge thunderheads, and the first rumble of thunder had us packing up pretty quickly. And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. No matter how far away you think those clouds are, it takes mere minutes for them to travel. And as white and interspersed as clouds may seem, they can collect into large, grey, stormy masses very quickly. So, beer in hand, I started a quick descent from the peak. I’d already run for my life down a fourteener in a lightning storm once, and I don’t ever plan to do that again. Furthermore, the summit area of Mt. Shavano is little more than a huge pile of rough boulders, a type of terrain requiring your hands as well as your feet to navigate, called talus. The trail is neither clear nor safe, and there is no way you are running down it.

Do you see a trail here?
Neither did we.

Finally, the weather was the main reason we didn’t make it to the neighboring Tabeguache Peak. A local we talked to on the trail who had made the ascent numerous times advised us to budget at least an hour each way to and from Tabeguache. It’s only about a mile away, but it’s a rocky, narrow ridge. And sure enough, on our way down, it started hailing along with the thunder (and in my experience with fourteeners this time of year, it always does), rained lightly twice through the forest, and then poured torrential rain toward the bottom of the trail.

Would I recommend this trek? Definitely. It is a true test of fitness, and even more so, stamina. As with any other trek, and as I always strongly advise, be wise and pre-emptive about how far and how fast you go. Elevations above 8,000′ are when your body’s reaction to the altitude become exponentially more dramatic, so you can bet elevations above 10,000′ put you at much higher risk for all kinds of symptoms of altitude illness. The faster you ascend, the greater the risk. And remember, our party set out well before daylight at 5:30 am. In the future, should I plan to summit both of these beasts, I would certainly start no later than 4 am.

Other than that, do your homework and prepare accordingly, and you’ll be in for the time of your fitness-challenging, self-motivated lives! Happy Trails!

Beer and jerky time, 5.5 hours later, atop Mt. Shavano at 14,229′.
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.

Climbing a Fourteener: An Insider’s Abridged Guide

Some of your friends have done one or two and a couple are on their way to having ascended their 20-something-eth peak over 14,000 ft. You’ve heard the views are breathtaking, the sense of accomplishment is riveting, and it makes you that much more secure in calling yourself a Coloradan.

Climbing fourteeners has become a popular quest for so many residents and visitors to Colorado, and as I prepare to take on another one myself, I thought I’d share my process of preparation for anyone looking for insight. There are a lot of very practical guides out there, everything from maps to trail descriptions. Hopefully, what I have to tell you is some less-than-obvious, experience-driven advice.

Every fourteener is different. Elevation in itself is a poor indicator of the level of difficulty of any trail. Mt. Evans, at 14,265 ft. (4348 m.), has a paved road all the way up to the top. Mt. Princeton at 14,196 ft. (4327 m.) took me several hours to hike and I was on all-fours to climb any set of stairs the next few days.

Oops …..

Access is everything. I mentioned there are ample resources out there, including regularly updated printed literature as well as online accounts. Take it from me: read them all. Many of these peaks have several approaches, and trails sometimes intersect. The difference may be hours! Some friends and I set out to climb Mt. Harvard (14,423 ft., 4396 m.), in the Collegiate Peaks outside Buena Vista. When we got to the top (after a few hours of hiking), the small cardboard sign tucked under some rocks read “Mt. Columbia 14,078′” (4291 m.)”. Imagine our surprise.

You can’t always rely on your phone, either, so take maps, print out trail descriptions (including any of trails you don’t plan to take), and check them often during your ascent.

Timing. Timing, timing, timing, timing, timing. You may have heard this already, and any Coloradan will tell you that no matter how clear, sunny and calm the first part of the day is, the weather can change in an instant. Even if it remains calm at the base of a 14er, these high peaks will rake in the clouds. Shortly after we summited Mt. Columbia (as in, within five minutes), we noticed some grey clouds in the distance. Then we started to hear the crackling of static all around us. Then lightning. Then we proceeded to run all the way down that rocky mountain questioning every decision we’d ever made. During the 30 or 40 minutes of very dangerous running and leaping back down to the tree-line (an ascent that took us hours), all I could think was, “So this is how it ends. My family won’t even find out for days.” Luckily we made it down, and my companions couldn’t tell I was crying because we were soaking wet from rain and hail.

Start early. Before dawn if possible. I’m not exaggerating.

Anticipate every climate. There is often still snow on Colorado’s highest peaks, even at the height of summer heat. You will be sweating all the way up, but as soon as you stop to rest, the biting wind toward the summit will prompt you to unpack every layer you shoved into your tiny Camel-bak.

Pay attention to distance and elevation gain. Ascending 2000 ft. in 8 miles is a vastly different experience than ascending 2000 ft. in 4 miles. If you can’t imagine what either of these feels like, definitely try some lower summits before attempting a 14er. Peak One, just over Frisco, in the Ten Mile Range summits at 12,933 ft. (3942 m.), but the elevation gain is almost 4000 ft. in less than 5 miles. I’ve done this hike several times, and I always, always find myself debating whether it is totally necessary that I reach the top.

This weekend, I’ll be headed up Mt. Shavano at 14,299 ft. (4337 m.), outside of Salida. It’s a 4600-ft. gain over almost 5 miles, so this tells me I’ll be having that inner dialogue about turning back early at least a couple times on my way to the summit. It’s been 95 degrees (F) at 7000 ft. during the day recently, so that tells me I’ll be in all my layers, including a hooded jacket when we set out on the trailhead before daylight, I’ll strip all the way down to shorts when the sun rises after an hour or two, then put it all back on when we reach the top.

One piece of advice on water and snacks: lots of water, lots of snacks. I very personally prefer to give my body some extra calories the night before we set out on the trail, and I don’t expect to consume a lot of weight on my way up. However, as soon as I’ve reached the top and all I have to worry about is the (often less-intensive) descent, my muscles start craving nutrition and hydration.

Remember, turning around is always an option. If someone in your party is struggling or the weather looks like it will be taking a turn for the worse, don’t wait until it’s too late to head back to safety. These mountains aren’t going anywhere fast. Other than the above-mentioned, maybe lesser-known details, don’t forget the usual: sun protection, sturdy and comfortable shoes, some basic first aid, and a plan to maintain communication with those in your party.

If you’ve had any close calls hiking fourteeners in Colorado or any additional wisdom you’d like to pass on, please do share them in the comments! In the meantime, stay tuned for a follow up on our Mt. Shavano ascent, and Happy Trails!

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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.

What’s Going On in La Paz?

The 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium was held this year in La Paz, Bolivia, in February and March. La Paz, sitting at 11,942 ft. (3640 m), is home to one of the world’s leading researchers of the effects of chronic hypoxia, Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja, with whom Colorado’s own Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos was able to meet with during her attendance of the symposium. You can refer to her previous article on the gathering of experts from over 16 countries for her own account of Dr. Zubieta-Calleja’s impressive work.

Below is the renowned Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s own account on video of his introduction to the experience of hypoxia and altitude with Dr. Zubieta-Calleja.

Always keep in mind, there are many physiological reactions going on when your body and brain are at altitude, and the higher the altitude, the more extreme the effects. Benefitting from a hypoxic environment isn’t as simple as staying hydrated. When we talk about chronic hypoxia, we are typically referring to a population who have spent many years in a high altitude environment.

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.

Coloradans on the Annapurna Circuit

One of our nearest and dearest, Shelbie Ebert, a certifiable high country local born at Vail Valley Hospital, has been an adventure guide for the last decade. She is currently working on her nursing degree, and is an Emergency Medical Technician. While she has done some multi-day backpacking in the past, she says her recent trip to Nepal was her “most ambitious journey to date.” I was able to sit down with her and her mother, Karen, and hear all about the literal ups and downs on the Annapurna Circuit, in the central mountain region of Nepal, where they reached the highest point at 17,769 ft (5416 m)! They were in Nepal from April 17th to May 17th.

This trek is of international fame, and there are many resources to inform those looking to embark on this historical, spiritual, mental, and physical adventure. All in all, they spent 14 days on the trail. But I was so curious what it was like for those more familiar with the unique challenges posed by Colorado’s high altitude environment.

Did you do anything different from others you observed on the trail?

Most people had porters; we decided not to do that. Even those who didn’t have porters hired a guide.

Having been born and raised at a higher elevation than most, did you notice a difference between your own process of acclimation and that of your colleagues?

I did get sick in Nepal, but it was mostly stomach sickness. No headaches or anything like that. Mom didn’t feel a headache until we got pretty high up. We noticed a lot of people dropping; a lot of people bused into Manang, and from there, it’s a two-day hike up to the base camp, and from there you cross the pass. They got on the trail from there. Manang is at about 10,000 ft. Those people definitely struggled more. 

A father and son hiked the trail side-by-side with us. They didn’t hire porters. Shortly after we got over [Thorung La Pass], the son got really, really sick. The pass tops out at about 17,200 ft. When we saw him at the top of the pass, his lips were bright blue. I think he started to get sick on the ascent. I think he was probably about my age, and he was a doctor. He had some drugs stocked up and he felt pretty confident about doing the hike. 

They started their hike at about 2600 ft. above sea level. In a matter of 10 days, they would climb to over 17,000 ft. over 70 miles.

How long did you take before you started hiking?

We flew into Kathmandu, spent two days there, then took a long bus to the city where we started hiking, and we started hiking as soon as we got off the bus. We did take an acclimation day in Manang, at 10,000 ft. We hiked to it, then we spent an extra day there, about 48 hours. 

What was the greatest challenge about this excursion?

How much constant up and down it was, with the altitude gain. The day that we went over the pass it felt like a good day to me, because it resembled hiking in Colorado. But those days of up and down prepared us well for the pass. 

Did you do any training in particular in preparation for this excursion?

No, absolutely not. I read a lot of blogs so I knew what to expect. I tried to have just a really good plan for what we could and couldn’t do, and when we got to Kathmandu, I stocked up on all kinds of drugs, because anyone can buy them. Diamox. I think I maybe only took one once on our ascension day, just to get ahead of the game. 

Did you change or adjust your diet at all to prepare for this excursion?

I thought I did. I looked up some Nepali food online and tried cooking it at home to prepare my stomach for the type of food that we would be eating, but I found it was nothing like actual Nepali lentils and rice. 

Learned some hard lessons about food. A lot of the lentils in Nepal made me sick. Luckily they have a lot of potato-based dishes. 

[There was a] surprising amount of good snacks available, [lots of pre-packaged cashews, nuts, cookies and snacks]. I would recommend for anybody to bring five or six cliff bars for the harder days.

Also kept some sugar on me: Snickers, chocolate, gummies … I forced Karen to eat some sugar when she wasn’t feeling well, and that seemed to improve her condition.

Karen did experience some symptoms of altitude sickness as they ascended the highest point of the trek, Thorung La.

In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently in preparation and/or on the trail?

I would have packed a lot less. We had about 35 – 40 lbs. in our bags, and that was way too much — and totally unnecessary. Less is more on the trail. We did end up hiring a porter to carry my mom’s pack on our big day, and that was an excellent decision. 

Did you notice anything different upon your return to a much lower elevation?

I felt really strong! I was really grateful for my body. I think it was mostly a mental shift. I felt more capable doing most activities, whether it was mental or not. I started taking better care of myself. I started running in the mornings before school, which is something I never would have felt before. 

I thought, “I hiked 17,000 ft, I can probably run a mile and be okay in the morning.”

Any other advice you’d give in particular to other travelers intent on similar excursions?

You know what, go for it! It’s not as hard as you think. I came to a country I’d never been to before with a book in my hand, and we did it! I think anybody can really do it.

Shelbie is honored to have shared this experience with her wonderful, strong mother. And this isn’t the first or last adventure they will have been on together. True backcountry buffs, I can always find them on all types of gear on the snow, on the river, or on the trail.

Shelbie and Karen victorious at the height of Thorung La Pass.

If you’d like to read more details about their Annapurna Circuit Trek, Shelbie maintains a blog where you can find all kinds of tips and recommendations on backcountry gear at lahlahdesigns.com.

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.







Dogs at Altitude

The mountain communities are home to more animals than people in Colorado. Every Spring, we’re likely to see everything from foxes to moose in our yards and on our streets. About a month ago, I watched a juvenile (but plenty large) black bear on an evening walk in front of the houses in our neighborhood, peeking into the garbage bins lined up for pick-up the following morning.

Claire Tinker with her Dachshund Baxter on Bierstadt.

Dogs are natural companions to many up here as well, with plenty of space to run around, smells to sniff, and communities that seem to welcome their company indoors as well as out. Having seen so many of our dog friends on trails all across the state, we’ve wondered how they might be coping with the altitude. 

Most recently, we ran into a German short-haired pointer named Moose on an ascent up Mt. Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 14ers, sitting at 14,060 ft (4285 m). He and his human, Nick, moved to Colorado permanently about a year ago, after a two-week visit turned into several months. 

Moose is 13 years old, Nick tells me, “but you have to believe that my dog acts like he’s 6.” Nick and Moose have been enjoying a lot of time outdoors together since moving to Colorado, and Bierstadt was their first 14er together, which they did with some other friends from Louisiana, where they’re from. 

“It was awesome. Took [our friends] a long time to summit, but Moose did really well. He liked the breeze and the birds coasting right next to him. It would have been hard without a harness to [lead] him up to the top. He’s 65 lbs. Boulders weren’t too bad for him. Just have to be careful coming down, so he doesn’t slip and break a leg.” 

Moose and his Louisiana posse on their way up Mt. Bierstadt.

This is a very legitimate concern. Many hikers have found themselves carrying their canine counterparts: they get tired, the terrain is difficult for them to negotiate or too rough on their bare paws, etc. You definitely don’t want to have your hands full as you ascend or descend a 14er.

Dr. Danielle Jehr, who has been a veterinarian with Frisco Animal Hospital for years after studying and practicing in Nebraska, also recommends waiting to take your puppy on the longer, more strenuous hikes.

Dr. Danielle Jehn with hiking and car ride enthusiasts Libby and Liam.

“Unfortunately, we do not get a chance to discuss this with many owners unless there are new puppy owners. Usually, we just see the aftermath from a hike and help guide them for future incidences. I would love to be able to tell all new puppy owners that activity needs to be limited up until 6-8 months of age while they are experiencing enormous amounts of bone growth. This means no major hikes on uneven surfaces and no 10 mile runs while the owner mountain bikes. We just want the pups to grow normally without complications for them or the owners.”

And as you might have speculated, animals are also prone to certain risks at high altitudes, although, “In general, healthy animals do not function any different at high altitude,” says Dr. Jehn. “Animals and pets with known blood pressure, cardiac or respiratory disease can decompensate at higher altitudes, and we do see this in practice. Just as human hearts have a difficult time at altitude, so do cats, dogs and livestock!”

Ike, about 8 months old, seriously reconsidering his choices on his way up Mt. Bierstadt.

So how do you know if your furry buddy is struggling with acclimation?

“Most often, an owner will call and have a presenting complaint of their pet experiencing exercise intolerance while on a hike or constant panting/lethargy/anorexia since the pet has been up in Summit County. If a dog presents in any type of respiratory distress, we place them on supplemental oxygen, check their heart and lung sounds, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and ability to oxygenate. We do this by utilizing a tool in the clinic that measures the percentage of oxygen carried in the blood.” Sound familiar? “We always want to see a dog at over 92%. If the dog or cat cannot maintain that or better without being provided oxygen, we need to see other diagnostics for reasons why.

“Common canine ailments we see that are drastically exacerbated by altitude are: cardiac disease (heart murmur, pulmonary hypertension, congestive heart failure), general hypertension, lung disease (asthma, allergic bronchitis) or vascular volume abnormalities (i.e. anemia).”

The most common injuries Dr. Jehn sees, she tells me, are “lacerations and abrasions from the rough terrain. We also see exacerbated lameness after hikes that are too long for our canine friends that are not otherwise used to it (i.e. 14ers).”

Nick and Moose currently live in Boulder, at 5328 ft (1624 m), but they moved there from a house in Bailey, at about 7740 ft (2359 m). I ask Nick if Moose has ever had trouble with the altitude since they moved to Colorado. 

“Not at all. Not even when we first got here. He was ready to rock and roll. The only thing he didn’t like was the snow at first. Once he realized there were rabbits and stuff that went in the snow, he was about it.”

Being from Louisiana, one of Moose’s greatest challenges is the relative scarcity of water. Colorado doesn’t have as many lakes and ponds that Moose can cool off in and drink from, so Nick says he’s sure to carry water for him.

Nick also tells me that Moose is a pretty fit dog, and has never experienced any major health complications. He is careful, however, not to work him so hard that he’s limping the following day. I think it’s safe to say that’s something humans are wary of for themselves as well. If you’ve ever hiked a 14er, you already know. 

Dr. Chris with grand-dog Ike on their way up Mt. Bierstadt.

Another factor that affects Moose and people alike is exposure. “If there’s no shade or wind, it’s a lot harder on him,” Nick notes. We also relate over the challenge of descending a mountain, when the resistance of gravity is especially stressful on your knees and hips. Nick works for Sacred Genetics, a company that cultivates feminized hemp seeds, who are partners with a company, Verdant Formulas, that specializes in CBD products, utilitzing the relaxing, remedial properties of the oil from cannabis. Among other applications, balms and oils infused with CBD have grown in popularity as a naturopathic treatment for muscle soreness and inflammation. Incidentally, more and more similar products are being marketed for the same afflictions in dogs. Nick tells me it helps with his own post-adventure soreness.

My main takeaway from all this insightful doggo dialogue is that we are all the more similar. It certainly seems like the same precautions apply for avoiding a serious situation outdoors. And don’t forget, if anyone in your party is having trouble on your hike, it is not advisable to continue; you are only as strong as the weakest member of your team, whether that is a dog or a person. 

A last bit of advice from Dr. Jehn:

“I would also love to be able to tell all tourists to take it easy on their canine counterparts while visiting us in Summit County as well. Altitude sickness is real for humans and dogs, alike. Accomplishing a crazy hike with your dog should not be the first priority within the first few days at elevation. Dehydration and prior health conditions are real when experiencing altitude. If you know your dog has history of a heart or lung issue, especially, let them take it easy. We want you to enjoy Summit County for everything it has to offer….without the emergency visit!!”

Happy Trails, all you trailhounds and trail … hounds!

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.

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.