Category Archives: Technology

High Altitude Research has inspired a lot of fascinating innovation from vital sign tracking to simulation

Kidney Function at Altitude: An Interview with Nephrologist Dr. Andrew Brookens

How much do you know about the role your kidneys play? Does elevation affect their function? How do your kidneys help you adjust to high altitude environments?

The remote mountain communities have a new hero. Altitude Kidney Health just opened their practice at Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, Summit County, Colorado this week. Dr. Andrew Brookens, a native Coloradan, grew up in the Denver suburb of Englewood, and spent years living at twice the altitude in Bolivia with the Peace Corps before dedicating his career to bringing his current legacy of accessible kidney health care back to Colorado. His passion for providing service to the Colorado high country and beyond and his appreciation for his cross-cultural heritage is powerful in a recent talk between patients and publicizing.

What do you want people to know about you and your background?

I was born in Englewood, Colorado, and I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be helping people, in health care. But the first job I took was as a waiter. I thought that was just great.

God bless you! I know just how valuable that is.

But it’s funny, because I don’t consider serving patients too much different than waiting tables and serving clients there. So, what I did was I had to sort out whether I truly wanted it. And I went to college out East, and I decided to do the coursework for medicine and medical school. But I decided at the end of medical school, I think there’s more to life than just going straight through and being a science junkie. So I got a degree in Public Policy and Spanish, and I lived in South America and did the Peace Corps for two and a half year.

I went to Cherry Creek High School in Englewood. I went to Duke University in North Carolina. I went to Bolivia [for the Peace Corps], which was great, because a second goal was to learn Spanish fluently. My grandfather is from Puerto Rico, my grandmother’s from Dominican Republic, and a lot of family speaks Spanish only, and I decided, you know what, I could just go straight on through and be a science junkie, or I can learn a little bit about the world, you know, some of this cross-cultural reality that is in my family. And I decided I just need to figure some stuff out for myself first.

And I’ve heard Bolivia is another undiscovered gem in South America.

Yeah, exactly. Bolivia is one of two landlocked countries in South America. And it has three main areas from the high plains — they call it the altiplano — but it’s up at about 12,000 – 14,000 ft. It’s intense. And it’s totally flat land, as you look out across the landscape. It’s like the Great Plains of the States, but flatter. And then there’s the mountain valleys and then there’s the Lowlands, which are tropical. And so I lived in the mountain valleys at 10,000 ft. And it’s beautiful, and I of course went there to learn Spanish, and I got placed in a village where Spanish was the second language. The first language was Quechua, so I had to learn Quechua to survive!

I did two and half years there doing youth education and local economic development. I worked with women weavers to help them sell their weavings, and market it in the cities. And I worked with the tourism committee to help bring more tourists to their lands, because agriculture was a declining economy, and we wanted to help them develop ways to generate income in their own villages.

I was going to take a new job back there, but I sorta decided to follow a lady back to Colorado, and I landed back in Boulder, where I was waiting tables again! So the relationship ended, and I had a chat with my brother, who’s one of my inspirations, and Peter said to me one day — I called him up and I asked him, “What are you doing?”– and he said, “I just took the MCAT,” and I had this visceral reaction, I remember getting sort of warm in the face, and thinking, “What are you taking the MCAT for? I’m supposed to be taking the MCAT!” And I had no idea I’d felt like that. But it was such a strong reaction, I hung up the phone with him, and I signed up for basically what was med school and the career for the rest of my life that night.

And so I did medical school at CU in Denver, and we were the first class to transfer out from the Denver campus to Aurora. It was a wonderful experience: the peer group, as well as experiencing the new campus and all of the things they had to offer afforded a variety of learning opportunities.

During that experience, I got to travel to the mountains of Colorado and do a clinical rotation in Steamboat [Springs], which was fascinating for me. Because it was about seeing the community and not just seeing the next test and my studies. And as a guy who’s from CO, going out there and seeing what the mountains were like and what the needs were like … one of the docs who I worked with, who’s still in practice there, is this fascinating doctor who trained himself to do some specialty procedures because otherwise he had to send patients down for these procedures who couldn’t afford to spend the night in the city, and it was just complex. And he has pioneered the offering of some specialty services in addition to his general medical practice in that part of the state. It just opened my mind to this reality of what the need is in parts of Colorado and in many states, frankly, that don’t have access or aren’t right next door to a major medical center.

Was he a nephrologist as well?

No, he was a general internist, and he was doing gastrointestinal procedures: colonoscopies and things like that. So that kinda sparked a flame, and I decided to follow my soon-to-be-wife to Seattle where I finished my training. I did Internal Medicine residency, and then kidney, or nephrology, fellowship in Seattle, Washington. And at the end of five years there, my wife, who’s also from Colorado, and I had made a decision … we decided to go back to Colorado. And so we moved back to Colorado in 2016, I took a job with a large Nephrology practice in West Denver [Western Nephrology]. I loved my job, it was a great group of colleagues, and yet I still felt like there was more to pursue, going back to that same experience that I mentioned, which is we could be doing more for our patients who live in the far flung areas of the state.

To ask a patient to come in, driving six hours or five hours from Craig, for a 15 minute visit with me, it felt like the greatest disservice. Why would a patient conceivably wanna lose a day or two, trek all the way down here, pay me to see me, and then maybe return home, maybe not necessarily better off. I just didn’t feel like that was making sense. I don’t wanna be naive about it, but it was my deep-seated belief that we could do more to bring health care to Coloradans everywhere, no matter where they are. And that’s why I decided this is the time. So in late 2018, I decided to resign my position and set out to make this company, which is Altitude Kidney Health. This is the dream that I’ve had all the way back to the days when I thought I wanted to just help people and started waiting tables. I felt like creating a practice that delivers health care to Coloradans like I can no matter where the Coloradans are is … I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

So as I go through the community evangelizing our new Nephrologist, a lot of people don’t know the term “Nephrology”. What are some things about Nephrology that affect more people than they realize?

I love that. It’s a great question because a lot of providers don’t know some of the things that are most intimately related to Nephrology, too. The kidneys have their hands in tons of pots in the body. Not only do the kidneys clean your blood — so when you pee, that is a fluid that’s made by your kidneys and stored in your bladder until you pee it out. And what it does is it gets rid of waste products and toxins, everything from the breakfast burrito you had to the glass of wine you’ll have tonight.

But in the same way that it cleans toxins out of your body, it’s finely tuning electrolytes. If you watch the Gatorade commercials about electrolytes and things, the kidney has the job of balancing those electrolytes so finely that they really shouldn’t vary more than a couple iotas off normal, and that’s thanks to the kidney. Everything from potassium to acid levels in your blood, sodium levels and the amount of water that’s in your body.

When you feel thirsty, because you haven’t drunk, or because you just had this delicious, massive pizza, or you’re working out, that is your kidney in that signaling process. Kidneys help you understand that you’re thirsty and it’s time to drink.

In addition, kidneys control many functions. Up here at altitude, we know that patients make more blood cells. The kidneys are one of the first steps in the creation of blood cells, which are made inside your bone marrow. The kidneys signal that. We see patients with kidney disease not only suffer from imbalances of electrolytes and a build up of toxins as kidney disease progresses, along the lines of those two main functions I mentioned, when your kidney disease progresses, I see patients start to lose blood cells. They make less and less, and that’s because signals weaken coming from the kidney in patients who have kidney disease. I also see patients develop weaker bone structure or musculoskeletal disease from kidney disease, and that’s something that’s intimately regulated by the kidney because it helps to balance minerals like magnesium and phosphorus and calcium in your body.

And in addition, I think the kidney has its hand in a really key element that most providers are aware of but maybe patients not: blood pressure. Your blood pressure’s regulated in a tight range, and the kidney allows that; it’s the one that determines how long that leash is. How long can it go, how high can it go? Outside of that range, there may be other factors. If you’re truly dehydrated, maybe your blood pressure drops. Or there are other things that can cause your blood pressure to elevate, including aging, and this stiffening of your arteries. But even so, despite all these other processes, the kidney is the main determinant of your body’s blood pressure.

One of the key features I ask all of my patients is about blood pressure. It’s also one of the things we discovered we can do better for patients with because many times we’d ask patients to check their blood pressure, but they either didn’t know how to, didn’t have the system, or didn’t have the time to send the data back to us in the clinic. So that’s one of the things that we’re also [doing], in addition to trying to reach more patients: using a clinic in the mountains and Telehealth, so that we can see any patient any day. We also have a blood pressure recording system, so that way, patients who get one of these kits from us can simply step on a scale or record their blood pressure, and instantaneously, that data point is sent by bluetooth to our clinic.

I think that’s something, because what I’ll find is patients who don’t necessarily have known kidney disease, but they’ve maybe dealt with blood pressure for years, and they’ve found it harder and harder to deal with or control over the years. Those are patients who would greatly benefit from a kidney analysis or kidney care and blood pressure management. That’s what we can do.

Good segue: I wanted to ask you more about the tools that you use as a Nephrologist that might be distinct to your practice. Up in the mountains, we’re obsessed with pulse oximeters, because we’re constantly watching blood oxygen saturation. Is there anything else that you use specific to your practice?

The pulse oximeter is something we use also, especially because it relates to the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood or how much blood you have. And it also relates to how the kidneys are balancing and helping manage what your respiratory status is. So we look at that.

The blood pressure is the most important vital sign for me. Weight is the second most important vital sign for me. The reason that’s second most important is because many patients who get blood pressure or have heart disease, and patients who have certain types of kidney disease, will get swelling. I’ll sometimes see my patients gain 5 lbs. in a day or two, and that’s all from salt in the diet and swelling. So weight and measuring your weight, especially if you’re a person who’s swelling, is a big deal because these are patients who — we especially see it after a big barbecue or holiday meals, where food is delicious and salty — those are the patients who are most vulnerable. We’ll see those patients have a much higher risk of having blood pressure changes and even becoming sicker to where they are hospitalized. With close monitoring of their blood pressures at home, we can often take patients who’ve been in and out of the hospital once, twice, or even ten times in a year, and we can help them stay out of the hospital, just through close monitoring and prevention.

So what we do is our nurse at the clinic will often be in touch with the patients, monitoring their blood pressures and weights, and if the patients don’t notice it, she may notice and … reach out to [them] and tell them, “I’m concerned about the 5 lb. weight gain you’ve had in the past few days,” and then talk through it. If a medicine change is needed, we can make it there on the spot, or whatever else.

In addition, communication and close contact to patients. The Telehealth system we use allows patients to take a kidney appointment from the comfort of their living room couch or office. Or they could go to their local doctor where they live and get on the computer screen with them and have what is a video visit, kinda like FaceTime, and they can dial right into our clinic and access us. And that tool isn’t a clinical tool, but it is an access tool. Access is maybe half the battle. Using that and the remote vitals monitoring collapses the distances between us and our patients to minimal or no barrier.

Is there anything distinctive about how high altitude changes the physiology when the kidneys are concerned?

Love it. So, the kidneys balance acid in the blood. Many patients up at high altitude not only have lower oxygen levels, they may have higher blood counts in order to improve their oxygen-carrying capacity. Especially your typical person who comes up for a ski trip and they’re not used to the altitude. It takes a few weeks for your body to make the blood cells to compensate for that. So those people especially may struggle to survive or breathe up here at altitude. And so the pulse oximeter is helpful.

What happens is when the body breathes faster to get more oxygen, the kidneys compensate. So what you end up doing is … breathing more quickly to get more oxygen, and it also lowers the carbon dioxide and the acid levels in your body, so we end up often seeing that the kidneys … adjust the level of bicarbonate. And bicarbonate is simply baking soda, dissolved in your blood. That’s a kidney response. As you breathe more quickly, you get rid of acid, and then the kidneys will adjust by peeing out some of the bicarbonate or the baking soda.

When you breathe out acid, which is carbon dioxide in your breath, your body becomes more basic. Your body becomes more full of baking soda.

In addition, we also see the kidneys responding through blood pressure changes. I think blood pressure will often fluctuate. It’s probably varying by individual, but we see many patients’ blood pressure increase at altitude. And the kidneys are constantly adjusting and titrating that, too.

So, that being said, what do you advise in general to maintain kidney health?

A lot of patients who don’t have advanced kidney disease are advised, appropriately so, to hydrate well. Many patients might be told to drink more water, and I think, in general, that’s a great recommendation. Many patients who are constantly light-headed or dizzy or dehydrated or don’t drink enough water, they could know it because they’re feeling [that way], or even had an episode where they blacked out or passed out and fell down. These are patients where a little bit more water — I’d even add that saltwater, so broth or a soup — is a great way to treat that, by giving yourself more salt and water, which helps to elevate your blood pressure.

Now, the caveat is patients who have swelling and heart problems would be well-served to avoid extra salt. If it gets more tricky, and patients are thinking, “… this is really too confusing,” that’s where we often recommend having a chat with your regular doctor, and if need be, with a kidney doctor to sort out a personalized recommendation.

The converse recommendation is also true. In patients with advancing kidney disease, hydration is good, but minimizing salt is the most important thing you can do. For patients who have known kidney disease that’s moderate to severe, minimizing salt intake is the number one recommendation.

The number two recommendation for patients with known kidney disease, as well as for patients generally, is “less is more”. I have a number of patients that come into the office who take two Advil or two Aleve, … and maybe they take it two times a day or four times a day. And unbeknownst to them, they’re scarring their kidneys down. Just from taking regular over-the-counter pain relievers. Tylenol has its own risks, but it is far safer as a pain reliever than Advil, Ibuprofen, Neproxin, Aleve, and Motrin and things like that.

Along those lines, many patients will come into my office and I ask them all to bring pills that they take. They may come in with a grocery bag full of twenty supplements, because they go to a naturopath … not to knock on naturopaths. I’m a person who deeply believes in the value of some of these alternative therapies and non-Western therapies. But at the same time, I often see patients in my clinic who, by the time they’re taking more than a couple supplements, are putting themselves at big risk of the two supplements or multiple supplements interacting with each other, or interacting with their life-saving vital medicines that they take, prescribed by a provider. The more pills you take, the more chance there is for a bad reaction. So in general, I find that [with] patients who come to me with kidney disease, I often find myself recommending that they reduce or eliminate supplements. Because some of these supplements are known toxins to the body or kidneys, even though they may help you with cholesterol or libido or something like that. But most supplements are not proven, not tested, and they’re definitely not signed off by the FDA. And that is risky to patients.

Speaking of medications, we often advocate for people who are prone to altitude sickness to be on Diamox pretty regularly. As far as we know, it’s very low-risk as far as side effects go. Does it pose any particular risk when it’s taken often?

The two things Diamox does, that I understand, to help you with altitude sickness is it gets rid of fluid — it’s a diarrhetic — and it also gets rid of bicarbonate, the baking soda in the body. It actually helps that process of adjusting the body in response to going up to altitude. For patients who hydrate well and don’t have that risk of falling down from low volume or depletion, commonly known as dehydration, Diamox should be fairly safely tolerated There are not a lot of known allergies.

Recently, I’ve come to know a couple people who have lost or donated a kidney. Have you ever encountered patients with “phantom pains” where a kidney used to be?

That’s a great questions for a couple reasons. Phantom pains occur. There are some rare cases where patients who get phantom pains from surgical removal of an organ would be well-served to return to the surgeon, or a provider that they trust, and discuss about whether they would benefit from repeat imaging.

It’s possible that a fluid bubble, what’s called a seroma, or a complication, like an infection … could arise in that space. Most of the time, phantom pains are things we don’t have a good response for. Again, I think a “less is more” approach is good. And that’s actually why I recommend complementary therapy. In addition to taking the Tylenol, I have many patients that find their pains relieved by acupuncture or massage or other things that don’t put yet another pill in their body.

But it brings up another important topic: patients who progress along the spectrum of kidney disease to more severe kidney disease, where their kidneys start to shut down and are no longer working enough to support them, need some sort of advance therapy known as dialysis to treat them. And not everybody wants or needs dialysis, but for those who do, transplant is a great option. So we often refer patients promptly for transplant evaluation, because the waiting list for transplant is often many years. Standard around the country would be in the order of 3 – 6 years, and in some states, it’s going to be closer to 10 years.

But live donation of an organ, a kidney, is one of the future visions I see for patients with kidney disease. Dialysis is a therapy that is truly invasive: timewise, personally, personal space, blood … it’s really hard on patients, but it’s something that like any skill you learn, like riding a bike, can be learned. I can imagine a world … [where] most of us will be able to donate a kidney and will never know we lost a kidney. We won’t feel it. We won’t suffer the medical consequences of it. And the national transplant registries have changed the order of prioritization of organs such that if you are a person who donates a kidney, in the future, if you suffer a kidney failure yourself, you have a higher priority level for receiving a transplant, because of the gift you gave earlier in life. And that’s really important because a patient who’s facing years of dialysis on that wait list for a transplant, if they ask their friends and family members whether they’d consider being tested to see if they’re a candidate to donate their kidney, I imagine a future world in which few or no patients are on dialysis. The moment a patient is seen to be heading toward needing dialysis, they are prepared for a live kidney transplant, and then they get paired up with somebody across the country or even somebody in their own backyard … who can donate. Once you get a transplanted kidney, you have to be on medicines that control the immune system, but you never have to spend a day thereafter in a kidney dialysis center. And that’s a really useful thing, because many patients don’t have the time, or they risk losing jobs or spending time with their loved ones because of the amount of time they spend on dialysis.

So, the kidney phantom pains are an issue, but truly patients who donate organs are patients who have given the gift of life, and most of the time don’t suffer a single side effect or consequence of that donation. And they should feel like they have the right to follow up with the surgeon or the team that helped them facilitate that to get their needs met or their questions answered, including phantom pains. Because often, that’s something worth looking at.

What do you enjoy doing in your freetime?

I am father of a four-and-a-half year old, so there’s nothing better than spending time with my wife and my son, who I’m now trying to teach to play tennis and ski, because those are my two favorite activities.

Last question: do you have a favorite ski hill?

I don’t. I used to. I grew up skiing Vail and Beaver Creek, but these days, we do everything we can to avoid the I-70 ski traffic on ski weekends. And if that means going to a Front Range ski area, or a ski area off the beaten path, we love exploring the deep reaches of the state. Any day I’m not on my skis or with a tennis racket, you can find me on a road cycle if I’m not at work.

We’re excited to be here. We’re a growing company and have hired another Nephrologist in our practice (Dr. Eileen Fish), so we are always looking to see how we can help communities solve their needs for kidney health.

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

Athletes vs. Amateurs: Observations of an Altitude Expert

Ski America is a company that has organized accommodations and itinerary for international athletes and vacationers at ski areas around Colorado since 1988. The Omori family, Ski America’s founders, lead their clients on tours of Colorado’s most renowned mountains, including Aspen (8,040 ft.), Vail (8,120 ft.), Beaver Creek (8,100 ft.), Copper (9,712 ft.), Keystone (9,280 ft.), Breckenridge (9,600 ft.) and Arapahoe Basin (10,780 ft.).

Ryoko and Jimi Omori

Jimi Omori started Ski America as a tour operator for Japanese skiers and snowboarders. Ryoko joined in 2005, and now Ski America’s service is more than tour operating, assisting from first-time skiers of age 3 to professional racers. With over 30 years of experience guiding amateur skiers and international athletes alike, the Omori’s have made some fascinating observations of how people adjust to the high altitude environment of the Rocky Mountains.

The other day, Ryoko shared some of their valuable insight and experience with me over a cup of tea:

How long do your clients typically stay at altitude?

So we have two different kinds of customers. In November until early December, we have a lot of Japanese racers from Japan. They are high school kids, college students. They stay two to four weeks here, in Frisco or Copper Mountain. Then, from December to April, we have clients from Japan who stay in Vail or Aspen. Most of them are senior skiers, over 60 years old. They stay about a week in Vail or Aspen. Six nights is very average.

How often do you get repeat customers?

Quite a lot. Not all of them come back every year, but more than once. I would say, 70%.

Do you see new customers every year?

Yes.

How do you advertise in Japan?

Word of mouth.

How do you prepare your customers for the altitude?

When I set up the reservation for them, I send them the lodging confirmation and shuttle confirmation, how to get to the Colorado Mountain Express counter at Denver International Airport. With that information, I also send how to get ready for this altitude by e-mail to every customer: Don’t stay up all night before coming over here, don’t overwork before coming here, most importantly, don’t catch a cold before coming over here. That’s the most important thing. And keep yourself hydrated on the flight and on the shuttle. You can always stop at a restroom on the way from the airport to get here. Do not drink a lot [of alcohol] on the flight, and especially on the first night staying here. I encourage them to drink two liters of water a day.

They are so excited to be here, so they tend to forget about the altitude, because there are all the trees, it’s not above the tree line here. In Japan, [this elevation] is way over the tree line. So I always remind them, “You are going to be almost [at the elevation of] Mt. Fuji. So, move slow the first and second day of staying here.”

What about conditioning, physical exercise to prepare? Are they athletic?

They’re pretty much athletic. They’re avid skiers. They ski in Japan regularly. So I do not give them any athletic advice in Japan.

Do they come straight from Denver up to elevation, or do they stay in Denver a certain amount of time?

No. The flight arrives at 12:30 or 1 pm, so it’s very convenient for them to get on the shuttle in the afternoon, and they will be here before 5 or 6.

Do they ski the next day?

Most of them, yes.

What about oxygen or medication? Do you ever tell them to bring ibuprofen or anti-nausea medication?

No. But if anything happens here, I recommend taking [something] for a headache, like Advil.

What is the earliest sign that something might be wrong or that they need medical attention?

Headache. Or sometimes nausea. We had 150 racers last November, and out of 150, I took 5 kids to the clinic for altitude sickness symptoms.

Is it at the beginning of their stay?

Very beginning. [Typically] the second day of skiing. They are okay on the first day. They do not notice anything on the first morning, so they feel, “It’s okay, let’s go skiing!” and spend the day on the mountain, and they have jet-lag, and they can’t sleep well on the second night. And on the second morning most of them notice the symptoms. Those are the Copper clients. And I have 350 guests from Japan staying in Vail and Aspen. Last year, I didn’t see anyone get sick. So it’s only in Summit County, because it’s much higher.

Do you think there are any other correlating factors, like their age or where they’re from?

Age. The racers are from middle school to college, so they’re young. Their hormone level is not stable. And they are staying with their other teammates, apart from their parents, so it could have some emotional factors affecting them, too. But at the same time, the racers have a lot of muscle that needs a lot of oxygen. The higher metabolism that younger kids have [make them] more prone to high altitude sickness. The clients who stay in Vail or Aspen, they are much older, like, 40s, 50s, 60s. And they’re not as athletic as the racers. They do not do any training. So their basic metabolism is low, so I believe they do not need as much oxygen.

Does anyone come from a high elevation in Japan, or is it mostly sea level?

Mostly sea level. Only some of them are from Nozawa, it’s about 1000 m (3,280 ft.), so it’s much lower than Denver.

Nozawa, Japan

Is there a difference between the guests that come from Nozawa and the guests that come from sea level?

No. Whenever I see the doctor in the ER, or the Copper clinic, they always say it’s dehydration. No matter how much we tell them to keep hydrated, it’s not enough.

So what does the ER or clinic often give them besides fluids?

Oxygen. And they say it’s okay to take over-the-counter headache medication.

How long is their visit to the hospital? Is it just a couple hours, or do they stay overnight?

Just a couple of hours, or less than that.

Do they ski the next day?

Most of the time, the doctors say not to ski the next day. We carry a pulse oximeter in our office. We have 20 of them. We do not do this for the Vail clients, because they don’t get altitude sickness. So we only do this for the guests staying in Summit County. When we [check them in], we distribute pulse oximeters, one per room. We encourage them to measure [their oxygen level] every morning. Then, after the doctor’s visit, the doctors say it’s okay if your oxygen level is over 90%, 20 minutes after getting off oxygen.

What’s the lowest you’ve seen the oxygen level on any of your skiers?

38. [He was] 15. He was at the ER. He was transferred to Denver by ambulance. He was there about three nights, and he went back to Japan.

Was that the only time somebody had to go back to sea level?

Yes. But it sounds like he had a heart issue, which we didn’t know [about].

Have you witnessed any other factors that help them acclimate more effectively?

I encourage them to eat carbohydrates instead of getting a lot of oily foods. If you have a lot of french fries, it’s very oily, it will take more time and blood to get to the stomach. So the blood flow doesn’t go through the brain [well].

What about caffeine or other holistic remedies?

No. We have some repeating guests who had … symptoms in past years, and we encourage them to visit a doctor in Japan [who] can prescribe … Diamox. One of the ski coaches [from Japan] … has to be here with his team. He has no choice. And he’s [had] a lot of altitude sickness in the past. So we told him, “You should see a doctor and get Diamox prescribed, and start taking it before leaving Japan,” and it’s been working great.

A young skier shreds her way down a snowy back bowl on a powder day.

Is there a routine that your clients do to prevent feeling this sickness?

Just check blood oxygen level every morning.

Of the clients that come here regularly, do they acclimate quicker each time?

They learn. We always see lower numbers of altitude sickness patients, because they learn what they need to do, like drinking a lot of water and checking their blood oxygen level. And only the numbers can tell. Even if they feel good, if the numbers are bad, if they go skiing, they will have a problem. Especially for the young kids. They [don’t] trust what you say. As the years go by, the coaches will learn, and the kids will learn what they can and what they cannot do.

Is there anything different about the philosophy of treatment in Japan vs. the US?

You know what, we do not have altitude sickness in Japan. Only if you climb up Mt. Fuji, in one day, it could happen, but not everyone does that. The highest elevation of one ski area in Japan is about 2000 m (6,561 ft.). No one has experienced high altitude sickness in Japan.

When I climbed Mt. Fuji, I saw a lot of people with cans of oxygen that you can spray. Do you ever use or recommend that?

No. I don’t think it works. If you breathe it for five minutes, it will work for five minutes. So I guess it’s very effective if a ski racer uses it right before the start [of a race]. I believe some of our Vail clients [have seen] the bottle and have purchased it, but I’ve never heard anything about it, good or bad.

Smiles and high spirits all around

In closing, I asked Ryoko if she’d noticed a change in her own physiology since living at high altitude, to which she replied that she is always impressed by her increased stamina and speed when she steps on a treadmill back at sea level. I asked her if she ever experiences symptoms upon coming back to a high altitude from sea level. “No,” she says, laughing. She doesn’t typically engage in any strenuous activity the first day or two after travelling, “because I’m lazy,” she says.  

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

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.

“Home Remedy” by Ted Katauskas

Colorado Summit Magazine Summer-Fall 2016

In the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Colorado Summit there is an interesting article entitled “Home Remedy” by Ted Katauskas.  A company, called Altitude Control Technologies, in Denver can install an air separator that continuously controls the amount of oxygen in a room based on barometric pressure and people entering and exiting that room.  So far, these devices have been used commercially and are now beginning to be used in high-priced dream homes.  There are medical implications of this technology for possible treatment of high altitude illnesses such as hypoxia or HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema).  For children, the implications would be adequate perfusion of oxygen to the organs to carry out life’s functions and promote healthy growth.  Imagine being able to treat hypoxia in the home by simply the push of a button.  Currently, this technology is very expensive.  It does beg the question, could an air separator be subsidized by insurance, or added into the construction of a new home?  Certainly, this technology holds promise for possible future treatment. 

Submitted by Joe Brath, NP Student from Georgetown University rotating Summer 2016

Oxygen conditioning: as easy as Air conditioning

IMG_0747 (2)Imagine increasing the amount of oxygen in a room with equipment no more complex than an air conditioner. This is the future of high altitude living. This is already happening in some academic and industrial sites at high altitude, such as mines and research telescopes.   Every one per cent increase in oxygen concentration is like descending 300 feet. An increase of five percent can improve sleep and brain function. This could be important for sensitive populations such as newborns and people in critical jobs where an increase in errors could have catastrophic consequences. British physiologist Joseph Barcroff interviewed residents in 1922 in Cerro de Pasco at 14,210 feet and found decreased cognition he termed “bungling”.  Maybe I should install oxygen conditioners in my office at 9,100 feet!

Information from the Journal of High Altitude Medicine and Biology, Sept 2015. John West

Does sleeping on oxygen at high altitude improve athletic performance?

I have read many scientific studies on athletic performance at altitude. Active high altitude residents are always looking for ways to improve. As we age we experience a loss of speed and endurance, even with regular training. Some of this is inevitable, but how can we know if there is something else affecting our fitness?

I started sleeping on oxygen 9 months ago because of high blood pressure, which was instantly cured. Now I find that my strength and endurance have improved during the last few months. For example, I was rowing 13400 meters per hour with several brief pauses last fall, and now I am at an all-time high of 14100 m per hour with one pause. My running feels better, I’m back up to 6 miles from 4.

There are other factors that could influence this. In 2012-2013 I was on 17 pills including prednisone and had four surgeries for tongue cancer and myasthenia gravis. I was able to continue working out daily although part of that was less intense, such as yoga. I also had rotator cuff surgery. So my current fitness improvement could just be a rebound from overcoming those health conditions.

The only way to know for sure is to do a randomized controlled double blind study of athletes performance on and off nightly oxygen, or study the same athlete with and without oxygen. This is not an immediate effect, so months or years of observation and measurements would be needed.

In the meantime, if you live above 2500 meters/9000 feet and are losing stamina or strength consider having a night time pulse oximetry test to check for hypoxia during sleep.

when to stop using oxygen after an illness

Several parents returned to the clinic this week with their children on oxygen after respiratory illness. Our protocol has been to discontinue the oxygen when their saturation is above 89 in clinic. Now that many parents have a home pulse oximeter, children are using oxygen for longer periods. Measurements at home may be fine during the day, and the child attends school, then decreases at night so parents continue oxygen. since most oxygen equipment is rented by the month, this is not more expensive. I think it helps the lungs to heal, possibly reducing future problems such as pulmonary hypertension.

New information comes from one of the students rotating here at Ebert Family Clinic: Justin Lockwood, a pediatric resident. He reports that even in Denver some children require oxygen during respiratory illnesses that do not get a diagnoses of asthma or pneumonia.