Category Archives: Mountaineering

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

The Benedict Excursion: Testing Your Limits at Altitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic hut breakfast on a propane stovetop.

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

Epic hut sandwich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#activerecovery

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

Mountain Kate

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

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

The high altitude research team from San Francisco.

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

Packing for a Spring Hut Trip

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

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

Weather & Conditions

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

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

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

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

Gear & Clothing

The Commute

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

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

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

Avalanche Gear

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

Cabin Comforts

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

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

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

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

Medication & Acclimation

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

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

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

Food & Water

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

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

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

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

Am I Ready?

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

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

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

Beyond Acclimatization: Avalanche Safety

Spring of 2019 in the Colorado high country has certainly been one to remember. Unsure of where work would take me, I waited until the last week to commit to a ski pass for the season, and after all the storms we’ve seen, I’m glad I did. And I can tell that many others are just as excited. I’ve never seen so many people on the weekend slopes and on the surrounding highways.

Meanwhile, the central mountain region has seen a record number of avalanches and fatalities, and Colorado retains the highest statistics in the country. People from all over the world come for world-class skiing, but many experienced locals have been avalanche victims. We often assume they are skiers and snowboarders, but avalanche fatalities happen just as often to snowmobilers and backcountry hikers. Another misconception is that these avalanches are happening exclusively in the backcountry, which they are not. Three young men this year barely escaped an inbounds avalanche at Breckenridge ski area, while two weren’t so fortunate in New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley.

But the wild Colorado backcountry still beckons and many continue to answer. Having spent over ten years in Summit County, home to Colorado’s greatest number of peaks over 14,000 ft., my family and I are regulars in the backcountry, in all seasons. Experiencing these mountains in all kinds of conditions can make you much more aware of the risks inherent in the outdoor recreation scene here, but it clearly does not guarantee your safety.

This coming April, I’ll be on a trek to one of the 10th Mountain Division huts, a series of remote cabins, most of which are only accessible by foot, snowshoe or ski. In the summer, the trails tend to be well-maintained and obvious, but I’ve seen first-hand that conditions in snow, even during a mild season, can make the commute much more difficult and much more dangerous. Carrying all your supplies on your back certainly increases your vulnerability and decreases your ability to respond quickly to unexpected events, as you are more liable to sink deeper into loose snow-pack.

Shrine Mountain Inn, one of the more easily-accessed huts in the 10th Mountain Division system, even offers running water and electricity, as is within most cellular networks.

As you may have been taught, luck favors the prepared. If there’s one way to tell a local from a visitor in the high country here, it’s how prepared they are to be outdoors in variable conditions, and as the sole resident on the upcoming hut trip, I will be passing on all the proper safety precautions to my less-experienced San Francisco counterparts.

Expeditions to more popular huts at lower elevations during mild winters tend to be more about preparing comforts: boots, snowshoes, skis that fit well; warm, dry layers; plenty of water; etc. What makes me especially wary of the increased danger and the necessity of avalanche equipment is the alternating warm weather and snow storms. This means several alternating layers of heavy snow and light pack, making large slabs of snow (and ice) more prone to letting loose and leveling everything in their way.

While there are some obvious measures you can take and gear you can pack to boost your ability to respond in case of an avalanche, professionals across the state can’t recommend official avalanche safety certification highly enough. It’s available across the globe, thanks to the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), and Colorado is one of the best places to get certified.

Technology has come a long way when it comes to avalanche safety, but the three things AIARE recommends you carry while in the backcountry are a transceiver (a beacon), a probe (for finding buried victims) and a shovel. Local conditions are updated daily on Colorado’s Information Marketplace Avalanche Information Center. Be sure to check the very day you plan to be in areas of high risk, and as frequently as possible.

On a closing note, keep in mind that avalanche safety measures aren’t always as intuitive as carrying a shovel. One major statistic we should all keep in mind is that most avalanches don’t happen on their own, and are caused by the victims themselves, often because there is more than one person traversing a slope at a time. In this case, safety is not in numbers: one person on a slope at a time.

I love Colorado, I love the mountains, I love the ski slopes, I always appreciate the vast open wilderness of the Rockies, and I’m looking forward to many more upcoming excursions in them. Hopefully this has armed you with some knowledge to better equip your daring high country adventures. It is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg, however, and on top of certification and gear, there is no end to the value that actual experience adds.

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.

A Sea-Level Dweller Climbs Cotopaxi

During the winter of 2018, the Little Rock Climbing Center Alpine team ventured south to Ecuador for a mountaineering expedition. However, poor weather and high avalanche risk thwarted our summit attempts of Cayambe (18,996’, 5789 m) and Cotopaxi (19,347’, 5896 m). This winter (2019), we returned to Ecuador to attempt to summit Cotopaxi again, with a new and improved acclimatization plan and high hopes for better weather. Little Rock, AR sits at a mere 335 ft (102 m) above sea level … but we are lucky to have Pinnacle Mountain, with 750’ (228 m) of elevation gain to train on. A small mountain is better than no mountain!  My training plan entailed hiking Pinnacle Mtn 2-3 times during the week, and then hiking or mountain biking on the weekend for approximately 3 months. I also rock climbed at the climbing gym 2 days a week, but Cotopaxi is not a technical climb, so that was mostly for fun.  I took a week-long trip out to Colorado in September to reassess how my body reacts to high altitude.  During this week we rock climbed in Boulder Canyon, Idaho Falls, and climbed the first and second Flat Irons, as well as hiked up to Sky Pond at Rocky Mountain National Park, hiked Mt. Bierstadt, and hiked out to Crystal Mill with Dr. Chris. I chose not to run too much this year for training because I have a meniscal tear in my left knee that gets aggravated on long runs. 

We arrived in Quito, the capitol of Ecuador on December 30. Quito sits at 9,350’ (2849 m), so we took our first day pretty easy, and walked from our hotel to the older part of town with historic churches and cathedrals. Walking up the many flights of stairs in the Basilica del Voto Nacional got my heart pumping and legs and lungs burning! New Year’s Eve in the La Mariscal area of Quito was quite entertaining and a little rowdy, with fireworks, burning of effigies, and jumping over the fires. Our first day hike was up Rucu Pichincha (15,413’, 4697 m), a stratovolcano right in Quito! The TeleferiQo (a gondola) brings you up to 12,943’ (3945 m) where you begin the hike. The hike up Rucu Pichincha starts out mellow, on smooth trail with short steep, punchy climbs. Once you near the top, the steepness increases and the last few hundred feet involve very easy scrambling on sharp volcanic rock. The winter in Ecuador is typically the rainy season, so scattered showers and electrical storms are very common. However, we lucked out with perfect weather on Rucu Pichincha, and fantastic views of the big mountains – Cotopaxi, Antisana, and Chimborazo. The next day we drove to the base of the Ilinizas, and just missed the horse that was supposed to carry our packs up to the refugio. It was about a 3,000’ (914 m) climb up to Refugio Nuevos Horizontes, in relentless wind and dense fog. About half way up to the refugio, a lone figure emerged out of the fog. The horse that was supposed to carry out gear was carefully making his way down the mountain, such a surreal sight! We spent the night sharing bunk beds, packed like sardines in the tiny refugio (15, 696’, 4784 m). The next morning, the wind hadn’t let up, and the fog was still suffocatingly thick. A few groups had attempted an early morning ascent of Iliniza Norte, but said it was too icy and windy to summit. Our mountain guide, Alejo, suggested we traverse around the backside of Iliniza Norte to avoid the worst of the wind, and his advice was on point. The wind was whipping so hard at the summit (16,818’, 5126 m), we spent less than 5 minutes on top before beginning our decent back to the car. The wind was so strong on our descent (upwards of 60mph!), it knocked me off my feet several times. Next time I will use my hiking poles when it is so windy! We spent the next day resting and recuperating at Los Mortinos Hacienda, a cozy B&B at the edge of Cotopaxi National Park where we watched llamas graze, went horseback riding, and dined on fresh trout from a nearby river. 

The next day we drove up to the Cotopaxi parking lot, and slogged up the soft, ashy trail for an hour or so before reaching Refugio Jose Rivas (15,744’, 4798 m) at the base of Cotopaxi. At the refugio we ate some dinner, hydrated, and then tried to rest as much as possible. Alejo woke us up at 10pm and by 11pm we were on our way up the volcano. The skies were finally clear and calm after days of clouds and windy weather, all of the stars were out and we watched an impressive lightning storm down in Quito. We began the trek in mountaineering boots as the glacier starts about two hours uphill. While I felt fine the day before hiking up to the refugio, I had a pretty decent headache when we woke up. My right foot kept falling asleep in my mountaineering boot, and I was starting to overheat because I had too many layers on. This was the first time on the trip that I felt bad, and doubts about a successful summit started to creep in my mind. Alejo asked if I wanted to turn around, but even though I didn’t feel good, I didn’t feel bad enough to turn around. After about two hours of hiking, we reached the glacier and donned our crampons. And then I started to finally feel GOOD! As long as I kept switching my stepping technique, alternating between duck-footing, side-stepping, and French technique, my right foot wouldn’t fall asleep. The higher we climbed, the better I felt! About an hour away from the summit is when it really began to get steep. Alejo said it would be really steep, then a little easier, and then really steep again. We trudged on. And it got steep — really, REALLY steep. Just keep moving. Step up, rest, step up again, rest. Repeat. The mountain seemed to keep going up and up and up. But then around 8am we were at the top of Cotopaxi! I had seen photos of the summit, but seeing smoke coming out of the crater with my own eyes was mind-blowing. We ACTUALLY made it! We waited for Ian and his guide to summit, and then spent the better part of an hour taking photos and enjoying what Alejo said was the nicest weather he’d ever experienced at the summit. 

Ian brought along an Accumed Pulse Oximeter, so being the science nerd that I am, I measured my oxygen saturation percentage at various elevations over the course of the trip. While the percentage of oxygen in the air is the same, the fall in atmospheric pressure at high altitude decreases the driving pressure for gas exchange in the lungs, leading to lower oxygen saturation levels.  I measured my oxygen saturation level on my right index finger after being seated for approximately 5 minutes. The Accumed Pulse Oximeter is a small battery-powered device that measures the ratio of red light and infra-red light that is absorbed through the finger to calculate oxygen saturation levels.

Here is a table of my oxygen saturation levels at various elevations throughout the trip:

Day Location Elevation  (ft/m) O2 saturation (%)
1 Quito 9,350/2849 80
2 Summit of Rucu Pichincha 15,413/4697 75
3 Refugio Nuevos Horizontes 15, 696/4784 74
7 Summit of Cotopaxi 19,347/5896 57

Before reading too much into this very limited data set, there are a number of limitations with these observations I would like to point out. First, sample size is very limited, and I only took one reading at each elevation.  Second, pocket pulse oximeters are not very accurate below oxygen saturation levels of 70%, and ambient light interference (as we experienced at the summits of Rucu Pichincha and Cotopaxi) can interfere with accuracy. Also, the literature suggests that pulse oximetry utility is limited in diagnosis of acute mountain sickness, and that measuring oxygen saturation after light exercise compared to rest may be more predictive of acute mountain sickness. I believe that I did not experience altitude sickness at any point during this trip. I had a mild headache after sleeping above 15,000’ (4572 m), but that resolved once we started hiking up the mountain. We stayed at the summit of Cotopaxi for approximately 1 hr, and while I had a slight headache and was day-dreaming (more than usual), I felt pretty good overall and had no problems on the descent. Pulse oximetry is painless and non-invasive, and can be a useful tool in evaluating respiratory and other complaints at high altitude, but care should be taken to minimize erroneous measurements to avoid misinterpreting the data.

Keshari Thakali, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, AR. She is a cardiovascular pharmacologist by training and her research laboratory studies how maternal obesity during pregnancy programs cardiovascular disease in offspring. When not at work, you can find her mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking or paddling somewhere in The Natural State. She has a long-term career goal of merging her interests in mountaineering with studying cardiovascular adaptations at high altitude, and would appreciate any tips on how to accomplish this!

La Paz: Healthy Living At 12,000 feet

Dr Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja explains how lessons learned in La Paz can make space exploration easier

I just returned from the “Chronic Hypoxia” conference in La Paz, Bolivia at 12,000 feet elevation (3,640 m). The sponsor and organizers were Drs. Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja and his daughter Natalia Zubieta De Urioste who run the Institute of High Altitude Pulmonology and Pathology there. Presenters and attendees came from 16 countries covering topics ranging from molecular biology to genetics.
Dr. Zubieta previously published a scientific analysis of centenarians living at various altitudes. He compared Santa Cruz, Bolivia, at sea level, with La Paz/El Alto, each with populations of over three million, and found there are eight times more people over 100 years old at high altitude. (BLDE University Journal of Health Sciences, see blog post 1/5/18) Since his father Gustavo Zubieto Castillo founded the institute in 1970, they have been advocates of the health promoting effects of a low oxygen environment.
A presentation on “BioSpaceForming” even identifies chronic hypoxia as a “fundamental tool”, that “gives humans and other species an advantage on earth and beyond.” Dr Zubieta explained that the space station is engineered to have the barometric pressure (760 mmHg) and oxygen content of sea level. When the astronauts change into their space suits to work outside the ship they experience a pressure drop of over 200 mm Hg in a laborious process of donning the suit. Seeing that millions of inhabitants are healthy at 486 mm HG in Bolivia, he advocates that maintaining lower pressures and lower oxygen levels in the space station would be economical and promote the health of the astronauts. Several altitude scientists see this as a future that “uncouples biology and physics.

P.L.A.Y. AT ALTITUDE CAMPAIGN

This summer, as part of my RN to BSN program with UCCS, I needed to complete a public health course with clinical. I decided on an unusual path by joining the team of pediatrician and public health activist, Dr. Ebert-Santos.

Dr. Ebert-Santos has been the primary care giver for my two boys, now 8 and 4 years old, since birth. I would venture to say that Dr. Chris, as we call her, is known by most families in Summit County. Not only are we a mountain community but we are a community committed to growing in mindful ways. A lot of thought goes into how we operate our community events and care for our families. Dr. Ebert-Santos has been very active on more community issues than I can address here. But, let’s include water quality, health insurance/coverage initiatives, and pretty much every community health walk for a cause, healthy community eating and garden initiatives, bike to work week, trail maintenance…you get the picture. For these reasons, I finagled my way into her office this summer.

Our community is one of the healthiest in the nation according to national statistics. We are one of the lowest on obesity, adult diabetes, and hypertension. For this reason, along with the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, we have a lot more people moving here than ever before. “Summit County has recently exceeded a permanent resident population of 30,000. This is a 28.7% increase in full-time residents since 2000” (Summit County Colorado, 2017).

One major health issue that Dr. Ebert-Santos is bringing to light with her current research shows that high altitude kids are often born at lower birth weights, catching up on the national growth charts within the first few years. These babies are not unhealthy by high altitude standards. The problem is that statewide and nationally, we have yet to set standards specific to high altitude children. Dr. Ebert-Santos is making a big push to address this.

Dr. Ebert-Santos is also the doctor most likely to check your newborn for wellness and release them home, safe and sound, following birth. Many of our mountain babies go home with an infant oxygen tank that you will see parents wearing as backpacks. Dr. Ebert-Santos has been collecting and analyzing data on high altitude kids for years now. At higher altitudes, we have lower air pressure and that means decreased bioavailable oxygen. While many people are aware that acute mountain sickness and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) are potential obstacles to overcome when travelling up into the Rockies, many people do not know that our resident children, who haven’t even travelled down from altitude and back up, are also prone to these illnesses. High altitude pulmonary edema in children living at altitude can follow the sort of respiratory infections that kids are prone to catching as they make their way through school while their immune systems are developing. This is often entirely treatable with oxygen alone.

The problem Dr. Ebert-Santos has identified is that, assuming residents are acclimated and therefore unlikely to have HAPE, kids here are often diagnosed with pneumonia instead of HAPE. Treatment of pneumonia often involves a hospital stay with antibiotics and other medications on board. Dr. Ebert-Santos sees dozens of children each year who have what she would like others in the medical community to recognize as Mountain Resident HAPE. With proper diagnosis, these children can be treated with oxygen and improve within a matter of days. Awaiting recovery from pneumonia when there is no pneumonia present can be detrimental to children.

Dr. Ebert-Santos will have her research published this year in the Journal of High Altitude Medicine and Biology. I had the fortunate experience of working this summer, with Dr. Ebert-Santos and her dedicated team, to create a public health message relevant to her work. Office manager Meaghan Zeigler, who has a master’s in public health, was invaluable to my education there.  I was happy to find that our local oxygen companies were ready to join in this effort to educate the public. Big thanks to Summit Oxygen Inc. in Frisco, AlpinAire in Breckenridge, and AeroCare in Silverthorne! Below you can see the acronym I created to help high altitude families recognize the signs and symptoms of high altitude illnesses, including HAPE and Mountain Resident HAPE.

Stay safe and keep breathing Summit County!

Juli Joyce, RN

 

Can I take my child up a 14er?

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

Rianne Smeele, BSN, RN, Regis University FNP Student

Slumber Up: Sleeping at High Altitude

 

Does high altitude affect sleep quality? The answer is that for some, it does. If you’ve ever quickly arrived to the mountains on a ski or summer getaway, you may have experienced fitful and non-restful sleep. Individual responses to high altitude may vary, however there is an understood physiological basis for sleep disruption at altitude.

 

A phenomenon known as “periodic breathing of altitude” is commonly experienced above 2500 m of elevation (about 8200 ft) in those not previously acclimatized [2]. This is a common sleep elevation in Colorado mountain towns such as Frisco, Colorado (proud home to this blog!). Periodic breathing of altitude may be more likely to occur as sleeping altitude increases. Here’s the science behind it:

 

The decreased atmospheric pressure at altitude results in less oxygen driven into the lungs and through to the bloodstream. The body attempts to compensate by increasing the rate of breathing (tachypnea), which also causes more carbon dioxide to be exhaled. Chemoreceptors sense the decrease in carbon dioxide and signal the body to stop breathing temporarily (apnea) to correct the imbalance. Alternating cycles of tachypnea and apnea continue to occur during sleep. The result is decreased REM sleep, which is a critical restful and rejuvenating phase [2].

 

Worried about your next sleepless night on a mountain trip? Fortunately, there’s acetazolamide (Diamox). It is a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor that works by eliminating bicarbonate in the urine, which is a base. The body subsequently becomes more acidic, and that acid in the bloodstream is readily converted to carbon dioxide. The body is “tricked” into thinking that there is plenty of carbon dioxide present in the bloodstream, and periods of apnea during sleep may be reduced or eliminated [3].

 

To help prevent periodic breathing of altitude, adults can take acetazolamide preferably starting on the day before ascent or on the first day at altitude. Adults typically take 125 mg twice a day until either 3 days at altitude has been reached or descent back down has occurred [1]. Ask your healthcare provider about what’s right for you. Consider acetazolamide next time you’re sleeping up high, and get that refreshing sleep that allows you to better enjoy the things you love at altitude!

 

-Justin Murphy, PA-S

Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program

Clinical Rotation- May 2017

 

References

1) Athena Health (2017). Acetazolamide generic. Epocrates Online. Retrieved from: https://online.epocrates.com/drugs/12701/acetazolamide/Adult-Dosing

2) Gallagher, S. A., Hackett, P., & Rosen, J. M. (2017). High altitude illness: Physiology, risk factors and general prevention. Up To Date, Topic 181,  Version 20.0.  Retrieved from: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/high-altitude-illness-physiology-risk-factors-and-general-prevention?source=search_result&search=high%20altitude%20sleep&selectedTitle=2~150

3) Winter, C. (2016). Sleeping around: How to sleep at high altitude. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sleeping-around-how-to-sleep-at-high-altitude_us_5806da29e4b08ddf9ece1228?ncid=engmodushpmg00000006

Live High Train Low- What’s an athlete to do?

I just came across this study in the literature from a couple years ago

Optimizing Altitude for Live High-Train

Low (LHTL) Training

Chapman et al (2013) hypothesized that athletes living at

higher altitudes would experience greater improvements in sea

level performance, secondary to greater hematological acclimatization,

compared to athletes living at lower altitudes. After

4 weeks of group sea level training and testing, 48 collegiate

distance runners (32 men, 16 women) were randomly assigned

to one of four living altitudes (1780m, 2085m, 2454m, or

2800 m). All athletes trained together daily at a common altitude

from 1250m to 3000m following a modified LHTL

model. Subjects completed hematological, metabolic and

performance measures at sea level before and after altitude

training. Upon return from altitude, 3000m time-trial performance

was only significantly improved in groups living at the

middle two altitudes. EPO remained elevated after 72 h except

in the 1780m group. Erythrocyte volume was significantly

higher in all groups but not different between groups. These

data suggest that a 4 week LHTL altitude camp at 2000m to

2500m is optimal for sea level performance.

 

HIGH ALTITUDE MEDICINE & BIOLOGY

Volume 15, Number 1, 2014

ª Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

DOI: 10.1089/ham.2014.1513

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