Category Archives: High Altitude

High Country Healthcare’s Guide to Altitude and Acclimatization

Welcome to Summit County! At the high elevations of the Colorado Mountains, everyone is affected by altitude to some degree. As you go to higher altitudes, the barometric pressure decreases, the air is thinner and less oxygen is available. The air is also dryer and the ultraviolet rays from the sun are stronger. At elevations of 8,000 plus feet your body responds by breathing faster and more deeply, resulting in shortness of breath, especially on exertion. Many people develop mild symptoms of headache, nausea, trouble sleeping, and unusual tiredness, which we call acute mountain sickness or AMS. These symptoms usually go away in a day or two. If symptoms are severe, persist or worse, you should consult a doctor. A short visit to a physician may save the rest of your vacation.

A more serious condition is called high altitude pulmonary edema or HAPE. This condition is recognized by a wet cough, increasing shortness of breath, and the feeling of fluid building up in your lungs. Other symptoms may include disorientation or confusion. If you feel any of these symptoms developing you need to seek medical attention immediately. HAPE is easy to treat but can be life threatening if left unattended.

The effects of high altitude can be decreased by following these recommendations:

  • Increase Fluid Intake – drink two or three times more fluid than usual, water and juices are best; adequate hydration is the key to preventing altitude illness. You should drink enough fluids to urinate approximately every two hours.
  • Avoid alcohol and minimize caffeine on your day of arrival and one to two days thereafter; be very careful if consuming alcohol, and remember, at this altitude, you may be much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and sedatives (caffeine and alcohol are dehydrating).
  • Decrease salt intake – salt causes your body to retain fluid (edema), which increases the severity of altitude illness.
  • Eat frequent small meals high in carbohydrates, low in fat, and low in protein.
  • Moderate physical activity and get plenty of rest.
  • Medications and oxygen can help you feel much better. Diamox is a prescription drug which prevents the unpleasant symptoms for many people. Recent experience suggests that a small dose of Diamox suffices: 125 mgs in the morning before you arrive at altitude, again that evening, and each morning and night for two days after arrival. It is generally a well tolerated medicine with few side effects. It should not be taken by anyone who is allergic to the sulfa class of medicines. Some people may experience a tingling sensation in their fingers, toes and around their mouth. You may also notice a subtle change in your sense of taste; especially carbonated beverages may taste flat. As with any medication, take only as directed and discuss any potential side effects with your physician.
  • Studies have shown that spending 1 -2 nights at a modest altitude of 5000 – 6000 feet decreases symptoms when you go higher.
  • The effects of the sun are also much stronger at high altitudes, even in cold weather! Be sure to use sunscreen of at least SPF 15 to avoid sunburn.
  • Have fun and enjoy the mountains!

**This was taken from a handout provided by Dr. C. Louis Perrinjaquet at High Country Healthcare in Summit County, Colorado.**

Dr. Chris’s Tips for Staying Active Through the High Country Winter

Welcome to another Winter in the High Country! We’ve already had a series of snow storms in record-breaking cold temperatures across Colorado. On one hand, snow conditions are excellent! On the other hand, it’s sometimes cold enough to make you want to stay inside! One of the most effective ways to warm up is from the inside, out. Don’t forget about all the little opportunities you have to move your body and get your blood flowing, before, after, and even in the middle of a work day. Dr. Chris always has some valuable insight that she shared in a recent chat:

What keeps most of your patients from being more active during the Winter as opposed to the Summer?

Except for sledding and ice skating, Winter sports around here are very expensive. Not only is the equipment expensive, but having enough free time to actually go out and do something that takes more than one hour is very difficult for many of our families who are working two or three jobs, since Winter is the busiest season. Also, many of the parents did not grow up in a climate with snow, and came to Summit County for jobs, but not necessarily for recreation.

Is an hour your recommended duration for exercise?

Many studies have shown that 30 minutes a day of movement, whether it’s walking, running or dancing, can lead to adequate fitness. Personally, my goal is 14 hours a week. There are so many things that I want to do, and I want to do them fairly well and fairly intensely, so an hour a day isn’t enough for me to feel like I’m pursuing a maximum fitness level.

Aside from the obvious downhill skiing and snowboarding, what are some healthy activities you recommend during the Winter?

Shoveling snow, snow shoeing, hiking trails that are packed down, on Yaktrax “ice cleats” (inexpensive and very healthy, very good workout), hut trips (gives you a destination, which adds variety and camaraderie to your exercise; carrying a pack adds to your aerobic workout; on your way up, you’re getting the extra workout, but on your way home, it’s almost always downhill (and your pack is lighter), sledding, building snowmen or snow forts …

Do any of these activities provide benefits especially advantageous at altitude?

By doing any activity at altitude, you are increasing your cardiopulmonary fitness (heart & lungs). 

If you’re just getting started, aim for 20 minutes a day, and add five minutes every week. Listening to podcasts, books or music makes everything less painful and more fun. Get a buddy to engage in these simple activities with you. Wear layers for the weather. Being outside doesn’t have to be uncomfortably cold, and you’ll be more inclined to exercise longer if you’re not freezing.

Pay a little more attention to how you can anticipate your hunger throughout the day. I try to keep some nuts, cheese, grapes, small chocolates at my desk, in my pocket, in my car for quick snacks. A smoothie or coffee in a portable cup really cuts the hunger over a good amount of time.

Take advantage of down time to do a few stretches wherever you are. This opens up circulation, allowing your body better access to the nutrients and oxygen your blood delivers.

Be on the lookout for The Doc, cross country skiing on snow day streets, sledding at Rainbow Park, or getting a good stretch in just about anywhere. And let us know if you have a favorite activity that’s easy to fit into a busy or cold, indoor day that you’d recommend!

robert-ebert-santos

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


Sickle Cell Anemia at Altitude: a Case Report

Martin, a 27-year-old African American male, presents to a rural mountain hospital with complaints of left upper quadrant abdominal pain. Martin arrived at altitude (9,400 feet) two days ago from Oklahoma City after a 12-hour drive. Shortly after arriving to his condo in the mountains, Martin developed a dull aching pain to his left upper quadrant. The pain is constant but radiates to his L flank intermittently. Martin tried snowboarding today but had to end his day early because the pain became too severe. Martin cannot identify any aggravating or relieving factors and states that ibuprofen “didn’t even touch the pain.” Martin denies associated nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, urinary symptoms, fevers, chills, enlarged lymph nodes, or fatigue. His medical history is significant sickle cell trait without active disease. He has a negative surgical history, takes no daily medications, and has no known allergies. *

Differential diagnoses considered include kidney stones, pancreatitis, gastritis, diverticulitis, splenic enlargement, an infarcted spleen, or mononucleosis. Laboratory tests ordered include a complete blood count, reticulocyte count (indicator of immature red blood cells production), lactate dehydrogenase (an indicator of red blood cell destruction), haptoglobin (a binding protein that binds free hemoglobin after red blood cell destruction), a complete metabolic panel, and a urine analysis. A CT scan of the abdomen with contrast was also ordered and performed. 

Martin’s results showed an elevated white blood cell count, sickled cells on his blood smear, mildly elevated reticulocyte count and lactate dehydrogenase, low haptoglobin, and an elevated bilirubin. The remainder of his blood work was unremarkable. The CT scan showed a 40% infarction of his spleen. Martin was treated with oxygen, fluids, and IV pain medication and was promptly transferred to a larger hospital at lower elevation. 

What caused all of this to happen? 

Sickle cell anemia (SCA) is a mutation of the HBB gene that affects the development of normal hemoglobin, the major oxygen transporting protein in the body. SCA is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder which means that two copies of the abnormal gene have to be passed on from both parents in order for the disease to be active in the offspring. So, in other words, if both parents are carriers of the abnormal gene, their offspring have a 25% chance of developing the active disease and a 50% chance of becoming carriers themselves. 

http://www.healthnucleus

The hemoglobin protein is made up of four subunits, 2 alpha-globin and 2 beta-globin. Sickle cell carriers will have a mutation of one of the beta-globin units, resulting in no clinical manifestations of the disease. These individuals live normal lives and are virtually unaffected by the mutation, as seen in Martin’s case. Individuals with active disease will have a mutation in both of the beta-globin subunits, creating sickling of their red blood cells. Sickling of red blood cells makes them less flexible in maneuvering through the vasculature, ultimately resulting in a blockage of blood flow to various tissues in the body. This is cause of severe pain that many individuals experience when in crisis. Sickled cells are also more prone to destruction leading to an anemic state and are inefficient oxygen transporters. 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/27669979993

The sickle cell mutation is typically found in certain ethnic groups which is thought to be related to the protective quality of sickled cells from the development of Malaria. The ethnic groups most likely to be affected include African Americans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Latinos, Indians, Individuals from Mediterranean descent, and those from the Caribbean. 

But if Martin was a carrier without active disease, why did he develop sickle cell anemia?

Individuals with the sickle cell trait can cause their cells to sickle under extreme stress including during strenuous exercise, severe dehydration, and when at high altitude. The resulting consequence is the manifestation of all of the symptoms of active disease. Although Martin had never had any symptoms related to his sickle cell trait, he was now in full sickle cell crisis that required immediate intervention. 

What are the implications? 

Individuals from any of the ethnic groups listed above should be tested for the sickle cell trait to ensure they are not carriers. A carrier must exercise extreme caution in ascending to high altitude, should stay well hydrated, and avoid strenuous exercise to prevent the development of a sickle cell crisis. 

*Case scenario is not based on any individual patient rather a compilation of varying presentations seen in the emergency department. 

Liya is 3rd year Doctor of Nursing Practice Student attending North Dakota State University. She lives in Breckenridge, Colorado and works as a registered nurse in the Emergency department. Liya was born in Latvia and moved to the United States in 1991 with her family. She grew up in the Washington, DC area until she moved to Colorado in 2012.  She is passionate about helping immigrant families and other underserved individuals gain access to basic healthcare services. She hopes to work in Family Medicine in a federally qualified health center in the Denver metro or surrounding areas. In her spare time, Liya enjoys hiking, snowboarding, biking, and camping. 

References

Adewoyin A. S. (2015). Management of sickle cell disease: A review for physician education in Nigeria (sub-Saharan Africa). Anemia, 2015. doi:10.1155/2015/791498

American Society of Hematology. (n.d). Sickle cell trait. Retrieved from https://www.hematology.org/Patients/Anemia/Sickle-Cell-Trait.aspx

Mayo Clinic. (2018). Sickle cell anemia. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sickle-cellanemia/symptoms causes/syc-20355876

U.S National Library of Medicine. (2019). Sickle cell disease. Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/sickle-celldisease#inheritance

Yale, S.H,, Nagib, N., & Guthrie, T. (2000). Approach to the vasoocclusive crisis in adults with sickle cell disease. American Family Physicians, 61(5), 1349-1356. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0301/p1349.html

Mental Health at Altitude

Last year, 20% of U.S. adults experienced a mental health disorder (CDC). Mental illness is a leading cause of disease burden worldwide, and therefore, needs to be talked about. Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, drug/alcohol abuse, etc., have devastating consequences on the individual’s quality of life and overall wellbeing. Mental illness emerges from a complex interplay of genetic, psychological, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Environmental exposure is important to consider when looking at mental health, especially at high altitude. Up in the mountains, we must consider oxygen availability on the impact of our mental wellbeing. 

Numerous studies have shown rates of depression and suicide to be higher at high elevations (Figures 1 & 2), even when controlling for other variables such as socioeconomic status and demographics (Kim et al., 2014).

Why is this?

Some researchers propose that low blood oxygen levels from lower atmospheric pressure at altitude (called hypobaric hypoxia) has something to do with it. Animal studies done on rats and short term human studies have found this connection (Kanekar, 2015), and altering brain bioenergetics and serotonin metabolism could have something to do with it. Both pathways are affected by depression, and both are affected by hypoxia (Hwang, 2019). Hypoxia may lead to suppressed mitochondrial functioning, resulting in a change of how our cerebrum uses its energy. Patients with depression have a harder time using energy in their pre-frontal cortex, which makes it harder to concentrate and fight off negative thoughts. If this is already the case at low altitude, being at higher altitude may make moods more unstable and focus even harder to obtain. 

Second, hypoxia may lead to decreased serotonin levels in the brain, which is a very important neurotransmitter targeted in the treatment of anxiety and depression. These medications, known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) allow more serotonin to hang around in the brain. If normal antidepressants are less effective at elevation, we need to take another look at the current treatment plan. Researchers are looking into a medication that is a precursor to serotonin that bypasses the oxygen-dependent phase of the reaction. It is called 5-hydroxytryptophan. Creatine monohydrate may also be effective in treating depression at altitude (Ramseth, 2019). This is an exciting opportunity in mental health at altitude research; one that may yield more effective treatment for people living in the mountains.

However, we cannot be certain that high altitude is causing the increased rates of depression and suicide (Reno, 2018). After all, correlation does not equal causation. There are multiple confounding variables at play, such as population density, characteristics of suicide victims, access to health care, religious beliefs, and ownership and access to firearms. Even though we do not know the cause, the correlation is clear. Because of this, clinical professionals at high altitudes need to be vigilant when exploring this concern with patients. 

Looking at the flip side, multiple studies support positive effects of altitude on mental health. It is well known that physical activity is good for your body and mind. In general, exercise improves symptoms of anxiety, depression, and panic disorder, in addition to increasing quality of life and resilience (Hufner, 2018). An interesting report found that physical activity in the mountains has even more benefits on mental health than exercise at sea level (Ower et al., 2018). This was found to be because building a personal bond to an individual mountain enhances the positive effect of the outdoors on mental health. Think about that the next time you look up at a mountain you once stood on top of. In addition, a mountain hiking program in the Alps has been shown to improve hopelessness, depression, and suicidal ideation when added on to usual care in patients who were at high risk for suicide (Sturm et al., 2012). Programs like these utilize high altitude in a positive way to treat mental health conditions.

Overall, mental health at high altitude is a complex topic that needs more research. The most important thing we must all remember is to seek help when we need it, and to never feel ashamed if you are struggling with a mental health concern. Remember: You are doing your best. 

If you or a loved one are in a crisis but don’t know where to turn, consider calling Colorado Crisis Service toll-free at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255 to speak to a trained professional.

If you are interested in hearing more about this topic, here is an interview with reporter Rae Ellen Bichelle on NPR news discussing mental health at altitude:

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/752292543/752292544

Maggie Schauer is a 2nd year PA student studying at Des Moines University. She is from Pewaukee, WI and obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology at UW-La Crosse. After completing her pediatrics rotation at Ebert Family Clinic, Maggie will be going around the Midwest until her final international medicine rotation in Belize! She loves cheese, the Packers, hiking, running, waterskiing, and almost anything outdoors. Her current plan is to become a physician assistant in psychiatry and live somewhere exciting (like the mountains), until eventually moving back to Wisconsin. Her dream is to hike every 14er in Colorado; she currently has two under her belt: Grays and Torreys.

References:

  1. Ha, H., & Tu, W. (2018). An Ecological Study on the Spatially Varying Relationship between County-Level Suicide Rates and Altitude in the United States. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(4), 671. 
  2. Hufner, K., Sperner-Unterweger, B., & Brugger, H. (2019). Going to Altitude with a Preexisting Psychiatric Condition. High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 20(3).
  3. Hwang, J., DeLisi, L. E., Öngür, D., Riley, C., Zuo, C., Shi, X. , Sung, Y. , Kondo, D. , Kim, T. , Villafuerte, R. , Smedberg, D. , Yurgelun‐Todd, D. and Renshaw, P. F. (2019), Cerebral bioenergetic differences measured by phosphorus‐31 magnetic resonance spectroscopy between bipolar disorder and healthy subjects living in two different regions suggesting possible effects of altitude. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci., 73: 581-589.
  4. Kanekar, S., Bogdanova, O., Olson, P., Sung, Y., D’Anci, K. Renshaw, K. (2015). Hypobaric Hypoxia Induces Depression-like Behavior in Female Sprague-Dawley Rats, but not in Males. High Altitude Medicine & Biology; 16 (1)
  5. Kim, J., Choi, N., Lee, Y. J., An, H., Kim, N., Yoon, H. K., & Lee, H. J. (2014). High altitude remains associated with elevated suicide rates after adjusting for socioeconomic status: a study from South Korea. Psychiatry investigation, 11(4), 492–494.
  6. Ramseth, L. (2018, July 1). University of Utah research shows high altitude linked to depression and suicidal thoughts. In The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved October 17, 2019.
  7. Reno, Elaine, et al. (2018). Suicide and High Altitude: An Integrative Review. High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 19(2).

Open Call for Interviews on Parkinson’s at Altitude

Earlier this year, our students published some articles on Parkinson’s disease at altitude. One was an account of patients experiencing some relief from their symptoms at high altitude, and another involved a local couple in our region of the Rockies.

We’ve since received a lot of attention to these articles specifically and would like to hear from more people who have any feedback to share about their experience at altitude with Parkinson’s disease.

Feel free to send us an e-mail – admin@ebertfamilyclinic.com

The Legacy of the Mountain Guru: Prof. Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Castillo

We’ve published a series of accounts from Dr. Chris’s recent attendance at the 7th Annual Chronic Hypoxia conference in La Paz, Bolivia , conducted by Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Castillo. He is one of the world’s leading experts of altitude medicine and Dr. Chris’s collaboration and contact with him has added literally phenomenal insight into our own high altitude research.

Dr. Chris “en Teleférico” with fellow altitude researchers Vanessa Moncada, Diana Alcantara Zapata, Dzhunusova G. S., Oscar Murillo, and Alex Murillo. Photo courtesty of Dr. Zubieta-Castillo.

There is something literarily romantic about the scientists who are compelled to remind you, “I’m not crazy!” Dr. Zubieta-Castillo has held soccer games at 6,542 m (21,463′), proving the remarkable adaptability of the human body. He maintains a high altitude training lab, called the Chacaltaya Pyramid, at 5,250 m (17,224′). In his recent video (below), he illustrates the connection between longevity and elevation, where citizens of the highest cities in South America live to be well over 100.

It’s notable that a city known for its wine at 2,790 m (9,153′), called Chuquisaca, boasts some of the oldest residents. Not surprisingly, our research has led us to some speculation on the relationship between alcohol and the body at altitude. Additionally affirming is Dr. Zubieta-Castillo’s father, nicknamed “El Guru de la Montaña”, who began his legacy of altitude research and medicine by examining the hearts of dogs at altitude (sound familiar? See our article on Dogs at Altitude), as well as Dr. Zubieta-Castillo’s own testament that asthma can be and has been treated by altitude (see Asthma at Altitude).

His latest correspondence with Dr. Chris and their mutual colleagues reads like letters written by history’s greatest scientists, beginning,

Dear Colleague Scientists:

The 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium, thanks to your outstanding participation was a great success !! We shared great scientific, friendship and enthusiasm from 16 countries, along with travel and conferences in fascinating environments, all at high altitude.

The letter ends with an invitation to all colleagues to contribute their own research to the first chronic hypoxia-dedicated issue in a top medical journal, so be on the lookout for Dr. Chris’s contribution (which we will be sure to share here).

The video below is a fascinating look into some of Dr. Zubieta-Castillo’s latest research, including his theories and recommendations on conditioning humans in space with hypoxia, a dissertation that was initially dismissed as irrelevant, then subsequently published. Enjoy!

robert-ebert-santos

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

Can Living at Altitude Alone Improve Your Health?

There has been a lot of speculation among all the locals and visitors up here, even the students who do rotations with us, on whether merely living at altitude can yield health and/or fitness benefits. And this is a conversation that has been going on for quite some time.

At our clinic, what we’ve been finding over these past two decades of our practice and research is that the way individuals respond to altitude is not so simple. Yes, in many cases of acute mountain illness we see, the remedy may simply be more oxygen, whether that means being hooked up to an oxygen concentrator or descending in elevation. But the answer to whether living at high altitude will improve your health and/or fitness in itself is much more complex.

Studies have been and continue to be conducted all over the globe, not surprisingly in other countries with high-altitude communities like India, Nepal, Argentina, and Bolivia (you may remember Dr. Chris’s accounts of the Chronic Hypoxia conference she attended earlier this year in La Paz). An article in Berkley Wellness from 2014, Are Higher Elevations Healthier?, cites some speculation that appetite may be suppressed at higher elevations because of the effect it has on hormones like leptin, and that the added physical exertion required for your body to function in an environment with lower oxygen may also require more calories.

Sure. This is consistent with some of our own speculation at Ebert Family Clinic. But there is so much more to it.

Hiking rations up to one of Colorado’s remote mountain huts.

Altitude does demand a lot from the body. Bodies born and raised up here tend to be more well-adapted. Bodies not born, but raised up here certainly have a great chance at achieving more advanced levels of acclimatization. Healthy bodies that come up to altitude on occasion may experience little to no symptoms of mountain illness. But as soon as a pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition comes into play, all bets are off, and the high altitude can become more of a threat than an asset.

On the other hand, we’ve also seen some recent studies (and personal accounts from patients and readers) that indicate certain conditions may experience relief from various symptoms at higher elevations (see Altitude As Asthma Treatment or Increasing the Altitude to Decrease the Symptoms of Parkinsons). And there are many other variables here besides the elevation, like air and water quality or culture. Summit County’s population is consistently rated among the healthiest, most long-lived in the country. But how much does the culture of outdoor activity influence that? And how does the popularity of craft beer and marijuana use affect that? Is there a “typical” diet up here?

Somewhere in Eagle County, CO.

The way each individual body acclimatizes depends on so many physiological factors and fine processes. Very generally, the better your body carries out these processes, the easier your life at altitude will be. With this in mind, it might seem that those who thrive at altitude are already in good shape, while those who are prone to the most difficult transitions may very well be fighting other inhibiting factors already.

It would seem that for every accommodation your body makes at altitude that may benefit its function at sea level, there are other compromises. We’ve heard from more than one athlete that muscle training at altitude may not be as effective, because your cardiovascular and respiratory capacity will max out before you reach the limit of your strength. We’re also finding that blood oxygen saturation levels may be lower at altitude for many people while sleeping. While lower oxygen may stimulate some beneficial transformation in the body (increased red blood cell counts, for example), it may also very quickly complicate body function under certain conditions. In addition to all that, there is a strong genetic factor to an individual’s response to altitude that we still have much to learn about.

robert-ebert-santos

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

Closer to the Sun: The Dermatological Benefits and Consequences of Living at High Altitude

As many of us know, high-altitude living goes hand-in-hand with a multitude of outdoor activities like biking, hiking, and skiing. But with all that outdoor activity comes an insidious risk: radiation from the sun. According to an article interviewing Kim Guthke PA-C, a Physician Assistant working in Dermatology in Boulder, CO, “living at a higher elevation exposes us to approximately 25 percent more ultraviolet radiation when compared to sea level” (Guthke 2018). This means that with all the outdoor activities we enjoy, we must also be proactive about protecting our skin from high altitude sun and the increased risks of long-term skin issues it brings. 

Using thick UV-protectant clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen (and reapplying it) are great ways to protect our skin from the sun. However, some new research has argued that we are actually hurting our health by staying away from the sun. In a revelational article from Outside magazine called “Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?”, Rowan Jacobsen uncovered a novel study claiming only the sun can provide the vitamin D we need. He claims that we are trying and failing to supply vitamin D with pills alone, and the pills just aren’t good enough. Vitamin D is a vitamin required for calcium absorption whose levels, if low, can increase one’s risk of “cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions, and more” (Jacobsen 2019). Thus healthcare workers have concluded that supplementing it will obviously decrease the risk of these diseases. 

Jacobsen reports that multiple different studies have proven that supplementation of vitamin D just isn’t enough to lower that risk. The studies reported that even if supplementation raised vitamin D levels, the general health of the patient did not improve. There was no correlation between high supplemented vitamin D levels and overall health.

So, why was this?

Jacobson claims that vitamin D is actually just a marker for overall health. In other words, raising vitamin D by artificial supplementation does not make one healthier; rather, to raise one’s vitamin D level one must live a healthy lifestyle outside in the sun. Jacobsen states, “…what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. … Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health — that big orange ball shining down from above” (Jacobsen 2019). 

Soaking up the Vitamin D on Lake Dillon.

So, what are the implications of this study? Does this mean we all need to stop using sunscreen in order to absorb the most natural form of vitamin D and subsequently decrease our risk of dangerous diseases? Well, yes and no.

Yes, in that the best way to absorb vitamin D is from the sun and sunscreen does inhibit that absorption.

No, in that one day of playing at the beach and getting horribly sunburnt is not going to raise your vitamin D levels enough to benefit your health.

Unfortunately, the answer is quite complicated. I believe the implication of this new information is that we all need to start getting outside every day, exercising, enjoying the mountain air, and absorbing small amounts of sunlight each day, rather than just enjoying a single session of baking our skin to blisters. Living at high-altitude, I hypothesize that we don’t need as much time to absorb the same amount of beneficial sunlight as we would at sea level, so I feel there is still a need for sunscreen and protective clothing, if outside for an extended period. We should all try to absorb the sun’s rays daily, but we need to do it in a healthy way.

Cooling down on the way up Uneva Peak off Vail pass.

I encourage everyone to read Jacobson’s article, as it has points both for and against protection from the UV rays of the sun. In the meantime, there is one point Jacobson makes that I would like to argue. 

In his article, Jacobsen admits that increasing sun exposure does increase the rate of skin cancer, but then claims this is ‘okay’ because, “Skin cancer kills surprisingly few people: less than 3 per 100,000 in the U.S. each year … People don’t realize this because several different diseases are lumped together under the term ‘skin cancer.’ The most common by far are basal-cell carcinomas (BCCs) and squamous-cell carcinomas (SCCs), which are almost never fatal” (Jacobsen 2019). The reason I’m disagreeing with this point is due to my direct experience with the “non-fatal” skin cancers. I spent 12 months working with a board-certified dermatological surgeon performing Mohs micrographic surgery, a delicate and precise surgical procedure to remove said cancers from the face, ears, scalp, fingers and toes. Although it’s true BCCs and SCCs are rarely fatal, they can cause significant damage to one’s image. Depending on the location and size of the cancer, a “non-fatal” SCC in-situ has the potential to cause extensive disfigurement of the face, ears, or eyes. I strongly believe this is not something to take lightly, and I fear that saying skin cancer is non-fatal creates a false sense of security. This can be especially dangerous in high-altitude where the sun’s rays are exceptionally stronger than the majority of the US. 

All in all, I do believe that the sun is incredibly beneficial to our health, though in moderate portions. Living in the Colorado mountains gives us more opportunities to enjoy the mountain air, along with the sun, and allows us to lead healthier lives in general. I don’t think I’m going to stop using sunscreen in the near future, but I do know I won’t be so afraid of the sun anymore. I definitely won’t be letting the sun keep me from enjoying my time here in Colorado!

Delaney Schara is a Physician Assistant student at Des Moines University in Des Moines, Iowa. She hails from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and obtained her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Delaney gained valuable experience in medicine by working as a medical scribe in Dermatology prior to beginning PA school. After completing her pediatrics rotation with Dr. Chris, Delaney will have rotations in multiple Midwestern states before her graduation in June 2020. Delaney is an avid musician who loves singing in choir, playing the flute, and playing acoustic guitar. She also enjoys tasting new blends of tea, exploring rural communities, and spending time with loved ones. 

References

Guthke, Kim. “Sun Protection at Higher Altitudes.” Boulder Medical Center, 29 August 

2018, www.bouldermedicalcenter.com/sun-protection-at-higher-altitudes/

Jacobsen, Rowan. “Is Sunscreen the New Margarine.” Outside Online, 6 June 2019

www.outsideonline.com/2380751/sunscreen-sun-exposure-skin-cancer-science?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits

Wilderness Medicine & Medicine for our Wilderness

Our mission of advocacy and community building continues at our little mountain clinic as the aspen leaves have just begun to turn, and our passion for high altitude research has brought us to a unique and timely junction between the Wilderness Medicine Society‘s conference in Crested Butte, Colorado that Dr. Chris attended, and a recent conversation with the founder of The Sustainable Hiker, Summit County resident and voice of the Wilderness, Tom Koehler.

As health care providers in the high country, we see patients experiencing all kinds of reactions to the extreme altitude, residents and visitors alike. Even those who aren’t out climbing fourteeners or skiing can often experience symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Needless to say, we also see our share of injuries in the more adventurous outdoor-inclined. We ourselves make a point of regularly venturing out into the celebrated Colorado forests to experience this demanding environment first-hand, and it is not always without incident, in spite of our expertise and careful planning, and these past Spring and Summer seasons have been no exception, between hut trips, fourteeners, camping, kayaking, stand up paddle-boarding, cycling, lifting, yoga, and running at 9000′ and above! It is our due diligence and life’s work to share our experiences and the valuable research being done across the globe with you.

Dr. Chris and her contemporaries have returned from the Wilderness Medicine conference this year with some good and bad news. First, the good news:

Dr. Chris receives some impromptu wilderness medicine for a scrape on a recent trip to Harry Gates hut.
  1. There are no brown recluse spiders in Colorado, according to Kennon Heard, MD (although Dr. Chris’s sister-in-law disagreed with this expert’s statement).
  2. Most snake bites do not inject venom, so anti-venom treatment is only indicated if symptoms are noted. The anti-venom is very expensive, but treatment of the wound is important in order to control the cascade of events set off by the venom, starting with a diffuse reaction similar to a severe anaphylaxis, followed by neurotoxic fasciculations of muscles, along with a necrotizing wound causing pain and swelling at the site of the bite and ending in a full disruption of every clotting factor and cell in the body. The clotting disruption does not lead to hemorrhage. In layman’s terms, most snake bites aren’t shown to lead to symptoms, but should you experience any symptoms, things could escalate to life-and-death very quickly.
  3. Another useful talk was given by a specialist in foot care, Patrick Burns, MD, DiMM (Diploma in Mountain Medicine): He recommends wearing two pairs of acrylic socks and protecting areas of friction with paper tape. He rejected the ointments and gels as unproven. Don’t use duct tape, as it damages the skin, and moleskin tends to be too thick. Blisters should be left intact, although consider draining if pain is intense. Healing takes 120 hours.
  4. For accidents and injuries, studies show that irrigating wounds with water is as good as saline, and a well-filled Camel-bak makes an excellent splint for fractures. Pain was addressed by Alex Kranc, MD, FAWN (Fellow Academy of Wilderness Medicine): doses of acetaminophen 1000 mg and ibuprofen 400 mg or Naprosyn given together or alternately are as good as stronger prescription medicines in most cases. A system of acupuncture without needles that is light and compact has been shown to help with pain in combat situations (where, incidentally, many of these techniques and tools are developed). Think of a sticky patch that you apply to a pressure point behind your ears.
  5. Linda Keyes, MD discussed women at altitude, including some helpful tips for dealing with menstruation on wilderness treks: menstrual cups catch the flow and can be washed and used over again; taking the active birth control pills continuously will delay the onset of bleeding. Another piece of good news: bears (and sharks) are not attracted by menstrual blood.
  6. In a discussion about training for altitude events, Aaron Campbell, MD, MHS, DiMM, FAWM reviewed the role of sleeping in hyperbaric chambers or tents, which showed a mild improvement in adaptation. The best way to prepare for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, he said, is to climb a fourteener every week for 6 weeks!
A slide on improvising a Camel-bak bladder as a splint at the 2019 Wilderness Medicine conference in Crested Butte, Colorado.

The most exciting and spellbinding parts of the conference, according to Dr. Chris, were the descriptions of rescues from mountains, crevices, and ledges from Alaska to Boulder.

Now for the bad news:

Michael Loso, PhD gave a fascinating talk on the science of glaciology and water acquisition research in Alaska. Poo on the glacier gets buried and frozen, and lasts for years, if not decades, and they have even found traces of E. coli around certain base camps too high for drinking standards. This obviously can significantly compromise water quality, even at higher elevations, where we imagine the water from snowmelt is of the most pristine quality, a subject I also speculated about with Tom Koehler. This is why you should carry a proven filtration system. Tom’s preference, when possible, is an 8-minute boil.

Can you see the Rocky Mountain big horn sheep?

But what about the Wilderness itself? Colorado’s Continental Divide plays a major role in where our water goes, how it gets there, and in what condition. Sixty-eight percent of Colorado’s forests are federally owned and protected, one of the highest in the nation. With the continuing rise in residence and tourism, increased traffic through our precious forests is a double-edged sword.

“Summit County is really a microcosm, but an example of a larger issue facing Colorado: exponential growth, both in permanent population, as well as increase in guests to our land. So that, on a high level, has water managers scratching their heads, wondering, ‘How are we going to deliver the water we need for businesses and human health?’,” explains Koehler. “Summit is unique, particularly in the water issue, because we supply a significant amount of runoff into the Colorado River at the headwaters in Kremmling. And that arguably touches an estimated 40 million people all the way to California,” giving a rough estimate.

“A lot of Colorado is struggling to maintain their trails. We have about 430 miles of trails of all uses. In this county, we have a lot of trails to maintain, and arguably, that’s our first line of defense against erosion into our streams. It’s just a cascading effect (pardon the pun),” he says. “Most every park and forest in the West is under strain for maintenance. We just happen to be the most recreated, visited in the country, with 4.4 million recreational visits per year.”

Koehler’s passion for conservation and preservation of our forests and watershed was fostered in natural forests of Shenandoah Park, where he frequently escaped to while working as a research director for a wealth management firm in Washington, DC, while also dreaming of a career as a competitive skier in Park City, Utah.

“Once the opportunity arose to head out West with a couple of pennies in my pocket, I took it, and my move to Summit County was transformational in that I saw nature first-hand, right outside my door.” It transformed his outlook on how it benefits us all, even economically. He started volunteering with the Summit Huts Association, which provided him with “tremendous opportunity to really be in the backcountry”, the High Country Conservation Center, where he “really carved out an ethos for [himself] of stewardship”, and was even named the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District Volunteer Recruiter of the Year for 2015.

The Sustainable Hiker was founded as a response to recognizing that the efforts on a lot of fronts being made by organizations wasn’t as widely broadcast to both locals and guests. It’s mission: to be the leading voice for protecting Nature.

“I see the Sustainable Hiker as part of a number of organizations from the stewardship to the climate change advocacy groups to the local conservation groups, where you can find out what’s going on with your land and water here in Summit County.

“A healthier forest provides me with cleaner air and cleaner, more reliable water. It’s taken for granted. Kind of like a factory that turns out profits, it has to be maintained to continue yielding as high a profit.” Spoken like a true financier.

Setting off through the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness below Buffalo Mountain in Summit County, Colorado.

So what is one thing Colorado residents can do, immediately, to forward this movement of sustainability?

“Immediately, wherever you reside or are visiting, look at a nature or forest stewardship project, or educational events related to our forest or nature, and sign up.”

What is one thing we can stop doing that will contribute to the preservation and conservation of our forests and water?

“Stop, right now, taking nature for granted. Because we need it.

“Stop relying on your car for everything.

“Stop talking. In Nature … our time in Nature is a time to slow down everything, including our conversations. For two reasons: for the joy and peace we experience listening to the birds, and it gives the wildlife a break, too.”

Below treeline on the way up to Harvard and Columbia peaks outside of Buena Vista, Colorado.

I understand his point. While living in Japan, I learned a word, “shin-rin-yoku” (森林浴), literally translating to “forest bath”. The idea revolving around the practice is that by walking through the trees and water in the forest, you exchange ions with it, providing your body with a balancing recalibration. I believe this is also a vital part of high-altitude health.

The Sustainable Hiker provides insight into Koehler’s mission, at sustainablehiker.com, where you will also find information on organizations, events, and his newsletter, Nature’s Beacon, drawing attention to conservation projects you can get involved in.

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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.

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′.
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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.