Category Archives: Mountaineering

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

Spring Recap 2019

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

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

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

Metabolism at Altitude : Preventing Acute Mountain Illness through Strategic Nutrition

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

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

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

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

Rewarding views, in a tent at altitude!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compare your activity level

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

Increased basal metabolic rate (BMR)

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

Decrease in appetite

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

Muscle atrophy

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

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

Great foods for the back country:

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Naturopathic and Chinese Medicine?

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

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

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

The Mental Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Physical Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gear Game

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

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

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

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

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.

Rethinking Your Energy Supply

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

But what is a fat burner?

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

Why is a fat-burning diet better for climbing?

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

What does it take to become a fat burner?

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

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

Yes, yes there is!

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

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

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

WRONG!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Consult with your physician before drastically changing your diet

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

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

 

References

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

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

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