Category Archives: Mountaineering

Already an extreme sport, mountaineering at high altitudes adds exponential risk! Know before you go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you mitigate their symptoms on the mountain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you seen any rare or surprising complications?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you eat on the trail?

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

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

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

He laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

robert-ebert-santos

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

Understanding the effects of nocturnal hypoxemia in healthy individuals at high altitude: A chance to further our understanding of the physiological effects on residents in Colorado’s mountain communities

The population of Summit County, Colorado is projected to grow by 56% between 2010 and 2030. Along with adjacent Park and Lake Counties there are now over 40,000 people living above 2800 meters elevation. This is the largest high altitude population in North America. As opposed to native populations in South America, Africa and Asia who have been residing above 2800 m for centuries, the North American residents are acclimatized but not adapted. Symptoms related to hypobaric hypoxemia are notable above 2500 m.  Recognized conditions associated with altitude include central sleep apnea leading to hypoxemia (abnormally low oxygen level in the blood) which activates the sympathetic nervous system. In susceptible persons this can cause systemic and pulmonary hypertension. The incidence of this potentially devastating side effect of mountain living is unknown.  In order to better understand the potential side effects of nocturnal oxygen desaturation in healthy individuals, it is beneficial to investigate the normal physiological changes that occur during sleep, which leads to low oxygen levels in all individuals.

When the body enters the sleep state, many of the behavioral mechanisms that are active during wakefulness are blunted, and it’s been found that different sleep stages have varying effects as well.  One of the major changes is a diminished response to hypercapnia (high carbon dioxide levels in the blood) and hypoxia.  During sleep, the CO2 set point is elevated from 40 mmHg to 45 mmHg, which results in reduced alveolar ventilation.   It’s also observed that minute ventilation is reduced, which is due to decreased tidal volumes that is normally compensated for with an increase in breathing frequency during wakefulness.  Also, during sleep, there tends to be upper airway narrowing that is normal and there is reduced reflex muscle activation of the pharyngeal dilator muscle.  All of the above factors contribute to decreased ventilation during sleep. 

A lot of what is understood about the effects of nocturnal hypoxemia is due to extensive studies in individuals with underlying diseases, and these studies are not always conducted at higher altitudes.  One such study investigated the effects of nocturnal desaturation (SaO2 < 90% occurring for > 30% of the sleep study) in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients without a diagnosis of sleep apnea.  The authors found higher rates of dyspnea, increasing rates of worsening COPD symptoms, poorer quality of sleep and health-related quality of life.  Another such study found that some patients with COPD experience increased transient arterial hypoxemia (TAH) during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.   In this study, the authors observed that the study subjects experienced increased pulmonary vascular resistance (which can lead to pulmonary hypertension) and a few subjects experienced an increase in their cardiac output. The authors found that individuals could experience a decrease in this phenomena by using nighttime oxygen therapy.

Studies, such as above, do not assist in identifying healthy individuals that may need early intervention due to nocturnal hypoxemia at altitude.  What about the healthy individuals without underlying diseases?  In the study conducted by Gries and Brooks in 1996, the authors collected data from 350 patients.  Their recorded average low saturation in the study of 350 subjects was a reported 90.4% lasting an average 2 seconds.  This study was conducted at the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital located in Cleveland Ohio, at an elevation of 653 feet (198 m). This is one of the largest studies done to assess normal oxygen levels observed during sleep, and the results, along with results from other studies are displayed in Table 1.  As of right now, there is no equivolent study for subjects at elevations like that of Summit County, CO, which is at an average of 9110 feet (2777 m). Aside from the normal physiological changes noted above, the rates of developing underlying central sleep apnea leading to systemic and pulmonary hypertension is unknown.  Further, there are no guidelines as to initiating treatment in patients that may be experiencing adverse effects of high altitude nocturnal hypoxemia, because there is a lack of data to establish baseline normal values observed at this elevation.  This leads to unnecessary sleep studies, and further involvement of a myriad of healthcare professionals that have no specific guideline to reference when approached by one of these patients. 

In order to further our understanding of the effects of high altitude and nocturnal hypoxemia in healthy individuals, like that of Summit County, there has to be preliminary and ongoing research in these individuals.  Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos is currently conducting an overnight pulse oximetry study, which aims to recognize which symptoms they may or may not be experiencing, that are related to high altitude or sleep disorders, so that they may receive treatment, feel better, and remain active. 

At this moment, initial study results reveal a decreased average low night oxygen saturation from that of the study conducted by Gries and Brooks.  In a sample of just 14 individuals, the average low SpOs recorded overnight is at 81.3%, which is 9% lower than that recorded by Gries and Brooks (Graph 1).  The study is also revealing a trend in lower night oxygen saturations in individuals that have lived at elevation for a longer period of time (Graph 2). These findings suggest the need to expand and build on the current study being conducted by Dr. Chris and her team at Ebert Family Clinic. If interested, you may apply in-person at Ebert Family Clinic, where you will be required to fill out a health questionnaire on your length of residence at altitude, medical history, and possible symptoms related to high altitude.  Your basic vitals will be logged at the appointment.  After the first study, you will then be rescheduled in 12 months for a follow-up overnight study to monitor for any changes.  Overall, this study is designed to help with an understanding on the potential impact of high altitude on healthy individuals that are acclimated, but not necessarily adapted, to this environment.

Robert Clower is a second year physician assistant student at Red Rocks Community College in Arvada, CO.  His undergraduate degree was in Biology, which incorporated both medical health science courses as well as independent research courses in general biology and ecology.  While attending school at the University of North Georgia, Robert served in the Army National Guard for a cumulative time in service of 8 years.  After completing his undergraduate degree, Robert gained medical experience as an operating room assistant, which included assisting support staff with surgical preparation and patient transport throughout the hospital for surgical appointments.  Outside of his studies, Robert enjoys snowboarding, hiking, snowshoeing, exercising and spending time with family and friends. 

Sources

Summit County Population Projections: Summit County, CO – Official Website. Summit County Population Projections | Summit County, CO – Official Website. http://www.co.summit.co.us/519/Population-Projections. Accessed March 3, 2020.

Tintinalli JE, Ma OJ, Yealy DM, et al. Tintinallis Emergency Medicine: a Comprehensive Study Guide. New York: McGraw Hill Education; 2020.

Gupta P, Chhabra S. Prevalence, predictors and impact of nocturnal hypoxemia in non-apnoeic patients with COPD. 52 Monitoring Airway Disease. 2015.

Lemos VA, Antunes HKM, Santos RVT, Lira FS, Tufik S, Mello MT. High altitude exposure impairs sleep patterns, mood, and cognitive functions. Psychophysiology. 2012; 49 (9): 1298-1306.

Cingi C, Erkan AN, Rettinger G. Ear, nose, and throat effects of high altitude. European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology. 2009; 267 (3): 467-471.

High Altitude Hawai’i

Rising 13,803′ (4207 m) from the surface of the Pacific Ocean, Hawai’i’s tallest dormant volcano, Mauna Kea, reaches well into its own unique high altitude environment. Measured from its base on the ocean floor, it is the tallest mountain in the world, about 33,000′ (10,000 m) in height.

A frozen Haleakalā silversword. PC: Lyle Krannichfeld & Pueo Gallery

You may never have thought to find a high altitude environment on the tropical island chain, but Mauna Kea is just one of four peaks that summit over 8,000′. The next three are Mauna Loa (13,679′), Haleakalā (10,023′), and Hualālai (8,271′), with Haleakalā (“House of the Sun”) on the island of Maui and the other three on the Big Island. Each of these dormant volcanoes is home to species of plants and animals found only in Hawai’i, many of them only found around their respective peaks.

Sacred lands, whose access was once restricted to only the divine rulers of Hawaiian society, Mauna Kea now hosts 13 observatories and research staff in addition to its foreign and local visitors, many of whom make the historic pilgrimage to the summit from sea level in a matter of hours via an access road established in 1964.

Visitors to Mauna Kea are advised to acclimate at the Visitor Information Center which sits at 9,200′, although a particular length of time is not specified. In addition to the more intuitive precautions regarding pregnancy or heart and respiratory conditions, visitors in Hawaii are also warned against making an ascent within 24 hours of having been SCUBA diving, which may not be so obvious. You can find this and more helpful tips consistent with current high altitude research on their Public Safety brochure, which includes information about symptoms of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, featured in a previous article, and very common in the Colorado high country).

Poliahu visits Haleakalā. PC: Lyle Krannichfeld & Pueo Gallery

In addition to the hypoxic conditions, Mauna Kea and its aforementioned counterparts are also prone to the dryness and weather systems we see in Colorado, with snowfall above 10,000′ as recent as the past few days, a visit from Poliahu, Hawai’i’s own goddess of snow, and the subject of songs and hula dances in her honor.

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 on a computer, 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.

Section House in December: Moose Country

Section House sits at 11,481′ (3499 m), on Boreas Pass, just south of Breckenridge, Colorado. It isn’t the highest hut in the Summit Huts system, but its unique location and history is what makes it one of the most challenging.

Many of the huts in the Summit and 10th Mountain Division systems sit on a hillside, below tree line, which provides a significant amount of weather mitigation. Section House is right at the tree line, on the pass, which means any wind and weather will likely be funneled right into you. And because you are in one of the highest counties in the United States, weather is highly variable.

I’ve done this hut in a blizzard before, arriving to find the padlock on the front door was frozen shut. That may have been the most I’d ever despaired in my life up until then.

Even in great weather, however, the temperature alone is a liability. When we set out from the trailhead this time, it was sunny and relatively balmy for December, in the 30’s (Fahrenheit). But the temperature in the shade can be several degrees lower, and as the sun sets below the Ten Mile Range, the temperature starts to drop by the tens of degrees really quickly.

The Stats

Distance: a little over 6 miles; GPS and some maps may differ by tenths of a mile. If you tell your friends 6, they may resent you.

Timing: the same hike has taken me a couple hours with no weight on my back besides water, on well-packed snow. This time, it took over an hour a mile, including frequent breaks, thanks to all the weight I was carrying and pulling. Additionally, we constantly had to redistribute weight among sleds and backpacks to relieve shoulders and keep sleds from tipping over. If you decide to pull a sled, keep the weight low and as evenly distributed as possible. The other very limiting factor was the last half of the trail was covered in at least a couple feet of unpacked, fresh powder. Our lead was breaking trail in snowshoes.

While the grade going back down to the trailhead isn’t steep enough to keep momentum without skating, it is significantly easier and faster, and took us half the time even after waiting for moose to safely cross our path.

Elevation gain: about 1100′.

Capacity: 12 people.

Packing

I’ve pulled a sled both times I’ve done this hut. I don’t regret it, but it is challenging at best in calm weather. Unless you are going for more than a couple nights, I’d recommend packing everything into a backpack.

Because the elevation gain is so gradual, the challenge with weight is the distance. Pack your weight so it will still be comfortable on your shoulders after three miles. The advantage of pulling a sled was having less weight on my shoulders, but after several miles, even minimal weight can dig into your muscles.

The only source of water around this hut is the snow you melt, which is why it isn’t open in the Summer season. Water purifying filters are the quickest way to refill all your containers at the hut, but you will want plenty of water for the hike in alone. Running out of water on the trail is dangerous. An added risk: when the sun went down on us after the first three hours in, the water in our CamelBak nozzles started freezing if we weren’t regularly sipping on them.

Bring a sleeping bag. Most huts I’ve been to have blankets and pillows on the mattresses, but this one does not. This is also one of the oldest and coldest cabins; built in 1882, it takes hours to heat up by wood stove, especially if no one has been in it recently.

Moose

Now forget all the advice I just gave you and center your whole packing strategy around how you plan to evade a charging moose.

This region is moose country: high, high meadows filled with willowy wetlands. They don’t care how cold it is. In the dead of night, one of us opened the front door to use the outhouse and a young bull was standing right in front. On the trail back, two different parties ran into a moose and her calf right on the trail. They are not in the way. You are on their trail.

But seriously, pack to be prepared for your comfort and sustenance on the trail and at the hut. The only thing you can do about the moose is give them a lot of space while avoiding any confrontational, jerky movements that may suggest any predatory intent. If moose perceive a threat, they are liable to charge, male or female. If they charge, drop everything weighing you down and pray-run (praying while running).

When we ran into the moose on the trail, we stayed over 50 meters away and just waited while the moose wandered further off our path. As soon as they were about 50 meters off our path, we proceeded with caution. But we waited for over 30 minutes, and would have waited longer if we needed to.

Skis vs. Skins vs. Snowshoes

This was the most highly contested logistical conversation among our party. In the end, four of us were on cross country skis (without skins), one was on skis with skins, one was on a split-board with skins, and one was on snowshoes.

This really depends on the conditions. Two weeks prior, three of us hiked the trail in boots, on well-packed snow after days of warm, dry weather. Days before we left for the trip, however, a series of storms blew several feet of snow in, which changed everything. Boots alone were definitely not an option.

Most people, who aren’t hiking to the hut, will stop and turn around at the halfway mark where historical Baker’s Tank stands. This means the trail up until that point will reliably be pretty packed down. Because of the recent snow, however, no one could be sure what conditions would be like for the second half of the trail.

Freshly-broken trail through fresh snow past the midway point to Section House.

Sure enough, Baker’s Tank to the hut was unbroken trail through deep, soft snow. Our lead, on snowshoes, was cursing all the way to the hut as he carved the path for the rest of us. But in deep snow, snowshoes are sometimes the most comfortable option for an ascent, especially if you are inexperienced on skis and skins.

The advantage to skinning up on a split-board or downhill skis is the width of the blades. They are wider than cross country skis, which makes balancing the extra weight more comfortable and stable.

On a packed track, cross country skis were relatively comfortable, if narrow. The boots are more similar to normal footwear, so are more flexible and comfortable than ski or snowboard boots. Price was also a determining factor: renting skis or a split-board can cost upwards of $45 per day at most rental shops. We found cross country skis for $10 per day at Wild Ernest Sports, above Silverthorne, and they worked well. One thing about cross country ski boots, however, is that they aren’t as well-insulated as downhill ski or snowboard boots. Trekking through deep snow in them requires much better waterproofing and insulation than we were prepared with.

Jupiter rising in the dusk on the way up to Section House.

As for skins, although the trail grade is very gradual, there is enough of a grade at times that you will be thankful for the traction that skins provide. So unless you’re on cross country blades, you’ll want some skins.

Altitude & Acclimatization

One advantage of carrying all the weight we did was that it forced us to make a slower ascent and take frequent breaks. These are two things you can do to minimize the affects of the altitude on any ascent. In our party, all but one of us have lived at an altitude over 7,000′ for at least one year. Most of us have lived over 9,000′ for several years. But this was the first hut trip over 10,000′ for three of us, one of whom flew in two days before from sea level.

Fortunately, no one in the group experienced any severe symptoms of acute mountain illness, and I credit that to our meticulous supervision of each person’s blood oxygen saturation as well as our slow ascent. The first night we were at the hut, the lowest oxygen saturation we saw was 85%, but most were between 85 and 90%, which, at over 11,000′ is not surprising. If some slow, deep breaths hadn’t brought oxygen levels up, I would have been more concerned.

Hitting kickers behind Section House.

As seems to be tradition on our expeditions, we arrived well after dark. But these days, sunset is at 4:30 pm. Luckily, the weather was calm, and the trail is quite obvious. Our biggest concern after dark was the tremendous drop in temperature. With no cloud cover and a recent cold front, it was well below freezing, and the only thing that kept us from freezing was the constant movement, which kept us progressing forward.

Ken’s Hut, next to Section House.

By the time we had all made it to the hut and built up a fire warm enough to kick our boots off, our socks were steaming in spite of how cold our extremities were. It took well into the night to heat up the hut, and we all spent the first night sleeping around the wood stove. Yes, it took seven hours for the last of us to make it to the front door of Section House, but the spring trip to the Benedict Huts outside of Aspen was still loads more difficult — and we didn’t even pull any sleds! The next day was windless, sunny, clear, and warmer outside than it was inside, which allowed us to get back out on our skis and snowboards to enjoy the backcountry without weight on our backs.

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.

Doc Talk: Nutrition & Oxygen as Preventative Medicine

Dr. C. Louis Perrinjaquet has been practicing in Summit County, Colorado’s mountain communities since the 80’s, when he first arrived as a medical student. He currently practices at High Country Health Care, bringing with him a wealth of experience in holistic and homeopathic philosophy, such as transcendental meditation and Ayurvedic medicine, as well.

This past week, Dr. Chris managed to sit him down over a cup of coffee in Breckenridge to talk Altitude Medicine. And not a moment too soon, as PJ is already on his way back to Sudan for his 11th trip, one of many countries where he has continued to provide medical resources for weeks at a time. He’s also done similar work in the Honduras, Uganda, Gambia, Nepal, and even found himself out in the remote Pacific, on Vanuatu, an experience overlapping Dr. Chris’s own experience spending decades as a physician in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Experience is everything when it comes to High Altitude Health. I asked PJ if there was any such thing as a “dream team” of specialists he would consult when it came to practicing in the high country: more than any particular field, he would prefer physicians with the long-served, active experience that Dr. Chris has in the mountain communities.

Complications at altitude aren’t always so straight-forward. Doc PJ sometimes refers to the more complex cases he’s seen as “bad luck”, “Not in a superstitious way,” he explains, but in “a combination of factors that are more complex than we understand,” not least of all genetics and hormones.

At this elevation (the town of Breckenridge is at 9600’/2926 m), he’s seen all cases of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): chronic, recurring and re-entry. The re-entry HAPE he sees is mostly in children, or after surgery or trauma, which Dr. Chris speculates may be a form of re-entry HAPE.

He’s seen one case of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), a condition more commonly seen in expeditions to even more extreme elevations (see our previous article, Altitude and the Brain). In this case, “a lady from Japan came in with an awful headache, to Urgent Care at the base of Peak 9 … she lapsed into a coma, we intubated her, then flew her out.”

How common are these issues in residents?

It’s probably a genetic susceptibility. More men come down with HAPE at altitude, or estrogen-deficient women. Estrogen may protect against this. When I first moved up here, we used to have a couple people die of HAPE every year! The classic story is male visitors up here drink on the town after a day of skiing, don’t feel well, think it’s a cold, and wake up dead. A relatively small number of the population up here has been here for decades. Most move here for only 5 – 10 years; even kids [from Summit County] go to college elsewhere, then move away.

In addition to hypoxia, severe weather and climate are also associated with extreme elevation. Do you observe any adverse physiological responses to the cold or dryness, etc. at this elevation?

Chronic cold injury probably takes off a few capillaries every time you’re a little too cold.

At this, Dr. Chris chimes in, “People who have lived here a long time may have more trouble keeping their hands and feet warm.”

Do you have any advice for athletes, or regarding recreation at altitude?

Don’t be an athlete up here very long. Don’t get injured. You can train yourself to perform a certain task, but that might not be healthy for you [in the long term]. Really long endurance athletes – that might not be good for your health, long-term. I see chronic fatigue often, they kinda hit a wall after years: joint issues, joint replacement, …

We’re observing a relatively recent trend with many high altitude and endurance athletes subscribing to a sustainable, plant-based diet. We’ve also encountered a lot of athletes consuming vegetables and supplements rich in nitrates to assist with their acclimatization. Do you have any experience with or thoughts on these techniques?

Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, not a lot of simple carbohydrates, not a lot of refined grains. Eat whole grains. I’ve been vegan for a while; it’s been an evolving alternative diet.

Do you ever recommend any other holistic or homeopathic approaches to altitude-associated conditions, healing or nutrition?

Why don’t you get some sleep? Eat better? Don’t drink? Pay attention to your oxygen? Sleep with air? … If you’re over 50 and plan to be here a while, you might sleep on oxygen. I can’t imagine chronic hypoxia would benefit anyone moving here over 50. It may stimulate formation of collateral circulation in the heart, but we’re probably hypoxic enough during the day. It might benefit athletes that want to stimulate those enzymes in their bodies, but even that would be at a moderated level, not at 10,000 ft.

We’re onto something here: Dr. Chris has seen a lot of benefits in some of her patients sleeping on oxygen. If you haven’t already heard, Ebert Family Clinic is currently deep in the middle of a nocturnal pulse oximeter study, where subjects spend one night with a pulse oximeter on their finger to track oxygen levels as they sleep. This will provide more data on whether certain individuals or demographics may benefit from sleeping on oxygen.

In the case of pulmonary hypertension, probably 50% of people who get an electrocardiogram may experience relief from being on air at night. Decreased exercise tolerance when you’re over 50 might be a good case for a recommendation. I don’t think we ever have ‘too much oxygen’ up here; ‘great levels of oxygen at night’ are about 94%. Humans evolved maintaining oxygen day and night [in the 90s], same with sodium, potassium, etc., at a fairly narrow tolerance.

Are there any myths about altitude you find you frequently have to clarify or dispel?

Little cans of oxygen! it’s predatory marketing! It’s so annoying! We’re littering the earth and taking people’s money for ‘air’! Just take some deep breaths, do some yoga for a few minutes … sitting for 30 minutes at an oxygen bar might help. There’s no way to store oxygen in your body, so within 15 minutes, it’s out, but the effects might last, but it gives a false sense of security. 

Also,

IV fluids! DRINK WATER! Or go to a place where you can get real medical care. Most vitamin mixtures, or ‘mineral mojo’, is not real. First of all, don’t get drunk! Drink way less. Dr. Rosen, a geriatric psychiatrist, sees a lot of older guys with MCI (mild cognitive impairment), they’ve had a few concussions, have a drink a day and have lived at altitude for a while. He sees more of these guys here than at low altitude. It’s part of my pitch for guys to sleep on oxygen and minimize alcohol. We don’t have the science to take one or two drinks a week away, but just add oxygen.

Do you have to change the way you prescribe medications due to altitude? Has anything else changed about your practice after moving to altitude?

I don’t [prescribe] steroids as much. Even if it’s rare, I don’t think [steroids] are as benign as other doctors. I avoid antibiotics if possible.

Do you yourself engage in any form of recreation at altitude? How has the altitude played a role in your own experience of this?

I didn’t exercise much until I was 40. [Now] I trail run in the summer, which I think is better than road running (‘cave man’ didn’t have completely flat pavement to run on for miles and miles). In the winter, I skin up the mountain almost every morning; [also] mountain biking. 

Ease in to exercise gradually. Exercise half an hour to an hour a day, but do something every day, even if it’s 10 minutes. And don’t get injured.

Doc PJ also has a handout he most often refers his patients and visitors at High Country Health to, here.

robert-ebert-santos

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

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.**

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.

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