Category Archives: Technology

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

Aconcagua: an Athlete/Medical Scientist’s Narrative in Symptoms

“Day 10: I walked for maybe an hour up to Camp 3 (19,258’/5870 m) from Camp 2 (18,200’/5547 m). I became the slowest person. I had tunnel vision. It was bad. It took a lot of willpower. I do a good job of not telling people how bad I really feel. After about a mile, I told them I had to stop, and me and Logan turned around. We had that conversation,

‘I don’t think I should go up anymore. It’s not safe for me, and it’s not safe for the group.’

Barely able to move, about an hour above Camp 2.

“The others didn’t go all the way to Camp 3, but continue on a bit more. Angela said she got a headache really bad and couldn’t see out of her right eye. I had already pretty much decided — I was devastated — after two nights and two days of not acclimating. Alejo had a stethoscope and said my left lung was crackling. We thought I might develop some really serious pulmonary edema.”

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. She has climbed to some of the most extreme elevations in the Rocky Mountains, Andes and Himalayas. Last December, she flew down to Mendoza in Argentina for an ascent up Aconcagua.

Sacred in ancient and contemporary Incan culture, and the highest peak in the Americas, Aconcagua summits at 22,837′ (6960 m). Current statistics show only 30 – 40% of attempted climbs reach the top of this massive mountain in the Andes, in Principal Cordillera in the Mendoza Province of Argentina.

Sunset on Aconcagua from Base Camp.

The day following Keshari’s decision not to summit, she hiked back down to Plaza de Mulas (14,337’/4370 m) from Camp 2, carrying some of her colleague’s gear that he didn’t want to take up to the summit as he continued to ascend. Plaza de Mulas is a large base camp area with plenty of room for tents, available water, and large rocks that provide some protection from the wind as climbers take time to acclimate before continuing their ascent.

“Even though my oxygen [saturation] was low, I was functional. As you go down, everything gets better. The others continued up to Camp 3. They spent one night there, then summited the next day. It took them 12 hours.

“The day the others came back to Plaza de Mulas, I think that’s when everything hit me. I felt like a zombie. I did some bouldering and got so tired I had to sit down and catch my breath often, probably because I had been hypoxic and we were at over 14,000′.

“[The next day] we did the really long hike from Plaza de Mulas all the way to the entrance of the park. It probably took about 8 hours to walk all the way to the park entrance.

“We drove to Mendoza that night. I felt like my body was tired, but my muscles were functioning just fine. It’s hard to describe.”

They had done everything right and had taken every precaution. Each of Keshari’s colleagues boasted significant backgrounds in climbing and mountaineering, their cumulative accomplishments including Mt. Elbrus (18,510’/5642 m), Cotopaxi (19,347’/5897 m) and Denali (20,335’/6198 m), their ages 30 to 65. They weren’t initially planning to hire porters, “but they ended up carrying a lot of our stuff. In the end, it just makes sense to hire these porters to increase your chance of success.”

They gave themselves about two weeks to make the ascent and return. There was ample time for them to stop at each camp and spend time acclimatizing, including day hikes to the nearby peaks of Bonete and Mirador.

“Day 4 [we did an] acclimatization hike to Bonete (16,647’/5074 m), pretty much the same elevation of Camp 1. You look at the mountain and it looks pretty close, but … in mountaineering, you don’t do distances, you do time. Did the hike in mountaineering boots, which were heavy and clunky, but I learned how my boots actually work. You walk differently in these than a shoe with a flexible sole. The last part of the mountain is pretty rocky and it looks like you’re almost to the top, but you still have to walk an hour to the summit. It took about five hours to go up. We were walking slow, I felt fine. From the top of that mountain, looking away from Aconcagua, you can really see Chile and the Chilean Andes.”

Summit of Bonete.

All the way through their first week of climbing, including a day of resting and eating after their hike up Bonete, Keshari was feeling fine.

“Day 8, we made the push to Camp 2 (18,200’/5547 m). None of these hikes made me tired. I was plenty trained. We were carrying packs, but they were still pretty light, packed with stuff for the day. We spent the night at Camp 2, took oxygen mostly at night. [My] first reading at Camp 2 was low. We were at over 18,000′. I thought maybe I’ll just go to sleep and it’ll get better.

Looking down on Camp 2 covered in snow.

“Day 9 was a rest day at Camp 2 because the weather was really bad. All I did was sleep that day. If you’re gonna go to Camp 3, that means you’re gonna do a summit push the next day, because Camp 3 is so high. You’re just struggling to stay healthy. I felt really bad in the tent, but if I went outside to pee or walk around, I felt better. My pulse ox was still pretty low that day. That night, a snow storm blew in and it snowed a lot.” And it was the following day of their ascent to Camp 3 that Keshari made the decision not to summit.

Since returning from her expedition, she’s reflected on some other variables. “I swear I was hyponatremic (an abnormally low concentration of sodium in the blood). We went through four liters of water a day with no salt in the food. I was having these crazy cramps in my abs and my lats and places I don’t typically get them. To me, that has to do with electrolyte imbalance. Next time, I’m taking electrolyte tablets, not just stuff to mix in my water.

“I’m not very structured in my diet. In general I eat pretty clean, but I don’t count calories. I eat vegetables, but I also hate going grocery shopping. I feel like I eat a pretty balanced diet. If I buy meat, I’ll buy a pack of chicken and that’s my meat for a week or two.

“On the mountain, in general, I felt like they fed us way more fiber. In Argentina, they eat a lot of meat. They’re meat-eaters. They didn’t feed us steak on the mountain, but … at Base Camp, I felt like they were overfeeding us. We had pork chops one night, but on the mountain, I felt like it was mainly lentils and noodles. Even though you’re burning calories, how your body absorbs them is different. They really try to limit your salt intake because they’re concerned about having too high blood pressure. At Base Camp, breakfast was always scrambled eggs with bacon and toast. Lunch and dinner were always three course meals starting with a veggie broth soup. They fed us like kings … I brought Clif blocks with caffeine in them for hiking snacks, Lara bars.”

I ask about her main takeaway from it all:

“I think I need more time to acclimate. I don’t know how much more time, but maybe more time at about 16,000′. Maybe take Diamox. Someone suggested I should have been on an inhaled steroid, especially because my asthma is worse in the cold. If I were to go next time, I would want a couple more days at 15,000 – 16,000′. Maybe the Diamox is something I would need to use next time.

“The nerd in me wants to measure pulmonary wedge pressures (via very invasive catheters; you could go through the jugular), nothing practical,” she laughs. “The pulse oximeter is the easiest tool.”

One last thing she’d do differently? One of her colleagues bought a hypoxic generating system from Hypoxico, “which I think puts CO2 back into your system; sleeping high, training low. That might have been the best thing.”

Keshari went sky-diving back in Mendoza the day after returning from their descent. “I was expecting a lot of adrenaline jumping out of an airplane, but there was none. I enjoyed the freefall, but when the parachute went up, I got really nauseous. Maybe I had just been stressed for so long, there was no more adrenaline left. I was like, ‘Where’s the risk involved in this?'”

An illustrated oxy-journey.

Keshari also summited Cotopaxi earlier the same year. Read her own account here.

robert-ebert-santos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you mitigate their symptoms on the mountain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you seen any rare or surprising complications?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you eat on the trail?

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

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

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

He laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

robert-ebert-santos

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

Physiology of an Automobile: Cars Need Oxygen, Too!

There are seven establishments up here in Summit County, Colorado that offer auto maintenance. That means you will be on a waitlist weeks out to schedule any work you need done during the peak seasons. I finally got an appointment at High Country Auto in Frisco after my SUV started shaking when I drove over 40 mph. My undercarriage was caked in enough frozen mud and dirt that it was causing the car to rock. According to Carrie, who started the business with her husband Steve in 1998, this is a relatively common scenario in the high country. Something else she sees a lot up here is people from sea level putting water in with their washer fluid, which easily freezes on colder days. “The only way to unthaw it is to leave it in the garage overnight,” she says.

This prompted more conversation about how cars respond to the extremity of the altitude, incline and lack of oxygen up here.

“A lot of people up here try to run 91 Octane, the high-octane gas. But we don’t have enough oxygen up here to burn it. So they gum up their fuel injectors, they gum up their fuel system because they’re running too high of octane.

“The other thing people think that they can do is they think that they can chip their car to make it go faster … they try to bypass parameters on the computer to make it go faster. But it doesn’t work up here, because you need to have more oxygen.

“The other problem, too, is that they load their cars down with ten million people and all their [stuff], and then they try to go up the hills. And their car can only go so fast, because it can only take in so much oxygen, it can only process so much, plus they’re already fully weighted down. And then they hit altitude and their cars are [struggling].” (Insert Carrie’s imitation of a car struggling.)

“It’s like a big … 500 lb. guy going up four stories, and he gets up the first floor and he has a heart attack. Well, why? It’s because he’s exerting himself at altitude. It’s the same thing with cars. If a car has a little bit of a problem up here, and then you load it down with people and you try to get it to go up to 12,000, it overworks the car. And a lot of people don’t realize that cars have to work harder up here, just like people do.”

So what do you have to do to “prepare” your car for a trip up to altitude?

“Don’t overload it. And don’t push your car. Don’t try to go faster. When you’re going up a hill, be nice to your car. It’s like when you’re going down a hill, try to go into 3rd gear to let your transmission slow you down, take your foot off the brakes.

“The problem up here is people try to haul their trailers with Subarus. I’ve seen fifth-wheels being hauled with little, tiny cars. It doesn’t work up here … it can’t get enough oxygen for the car to process it. The biggest mistake people make up here is they overload everything.

Another little thing you can do to take extra care of your car up here, she mentions, is let it warm up for two to five minutes when you first start it up in the morning. As the water freezes, all the fluids tend to gel, and it’s in your best interest to get these fluids warm again.

“When it’s 20-below, it takes a lot for the car to warm up. Just like us getting out of bed,” she laughs.

“This is not the place to push your car. If your car is gonna break down, it’s gonna break down up here.”

And if you’re an ASE-certified Master Technician, Carrie’s been looking to hire more mechanics for much more than they’re paid in the city. There used to be over 20 repair facilities in Summit County, but since it’s dwindled down to under 10, there is plenty of work for qualified mechanics up here.

And if you need your own blood oxygen, blood pressure, or undercarriage checked out, Ebert Family Clinic offers the former two for free!

robert-ebert-santos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Colleague Scientists:

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

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

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

robert-ebert-santos

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

Wilderness Medicine & Medicine for our Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the bad news:

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

Can you see the Rocky Mountain big horn sheep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop relying on your car for everything.

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

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

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

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

robert-ebert-santos

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

Accessibility at Altitude

How accessible are the places you go?

This past weekend, volunteers from Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco teamed up with the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence for No Barriers, a non-profit program that, among other impactful things, works to empower people with disabilities and bring communities face-to-face with what it means to be accessible.

This particular program, called “What’s Your Everest?“, takes place every year at various outdoor venues, connecting people with all sorts of disabilities with their ropes teams who assist them in ascending literal mountains. This year, held at Arapahoe Basin on the Continental Divide, participants navigated narrow, single-track trails over large rocks, through forest, up increasingly steep inclines to reach a summit well over 12,000′ (3657 m).

Volunteers and organizations across the state contributed to this weekend’s success, including STARS, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, providing a fleet of adaptive equipment to facilitate the ascent.

Some of the adaptive equipment provided at the No Barriers hike at Arapahoe Basin: we saw people on all kinds of apparatuses from hiking poles to one-wheelers to three-wheelers equipped with every kind of pedaling, wheeling, steering and braking device!

I imagine most people associate accessibility with wheelchair access in a restaurant, braille menus, audio signaling at crosswalks, ASL interpreters … this is just the tip of the iceberg. I promise you have never seen gear like adaptive equipment, and even if you have, you haven’t seen all of it.

How do you navigate a wheelchair up a mountain when it’s wider than the trail?

How do you operate or steer a wheelchair if you cannot grip the wheels or handles?

How do you navigate a trail without sight?

One of a fleet of adaptive cycles used for our No Barriers ascent and descent of Arapahoe Basin ski area. This particular apparatus allows the user to steer using pressure against a chest pad while “pedaling” with their hands. You can’t brake while using your hands to pedal!

None of this is easy, and even the current adaptive equipment has inherent flaws. It’s important to recognize that each person’s disability is unique, and can’t always be compensated by the same equipment produced for the next person.

Our ropes team with Leo in a wheelchair engineered for off-road ascents. Handles in the back for pushing, a handle inside either wheel for moving the wheels, steering and braking — but what if your disability prevents you from gripping the handles??

How do you start thinking about accessibility?

Accessibility is about cost. Adaptive equipment is expensive. Custom-making a recumbent bicycle that allows you to pedal without the use of your legs or feet is thousands of dollars, and people who need this equipment to partake in activities everyone without a disability enjoys should not have to pay more for being disabled.

Accessibility is about comfort. After volunteering at this year’s annual Colorado Youth Leadership Forum, where young adults with disabilities are empowered and educated about advocating for themselves and living independently, I realized you cannot expect people to stay focused and engaged in your programming if the room is too hot or the provided meal is unfulfilling. If someone without a disability is distracted by the temperature, you can be sure the attention of someone with autism is long-gone.

Accessibility is about time. Whatever expectations you apply to the amount of time someone needs to put clothes on, eat, use the bathroom, speak a sentence – forget all about it. People with disabilities often need more time. If someone needs more time in the bathroom or walking/wheeling to a destination, adjust your expectations and wait. Your impatience and intolerance is not improving access.

Two teams taking a break half-way up to Black Mountain Lodge at Arapahoe Basin ski area, after navigating some of the narrowest portions of the trail.

Accessibility is about language. Learn sign language. It is just as much a part of our culture as spoken English and Spanish. People with hearing impairments often learn to read lips because they are taught that their hearing counterparts can’t be bothered to learn a form of communication other than one spoken language. And this isn’t just about being deaf. Having a disability sometimes means you have a speech impediment, or that your brain doesn’t organize thought and speech the same way others do. Communicating effectively takes all forms for all disabilities: physical, mental and emotional.

Northwest Colorado Center for Independent Living (NWCCI) Independent Living Coordinator Carlos Santos hauling down the mountain at Arapahoe Basin ski area on an adaptive cycle after making his ascent to over 12,000′ on foot with hiking poles.

Accessibility is about attitude. Sometimes, people with certain disabilities can be very loud and blunt. Sometimes, they can walk, but with a limp. Sometimes, they speak very slowly. This does not mean they are rude, drunk, can’t think for themselves or can’t express their own opinions. Accommodating these situations means being prepared to shift your expectations and perspective.

I’ve been scolded by people sitting behind me at an opera for whispering translations to my blind companion next to me, before headsets with translations were provided. I’ve helped my friend into an outdoor trash elevator to get from the street level to a downstairs bar. And there was still a step onto the elevator platform. I’ve witnessed someone being thrown out of a bar for being “too intoxicated”, when in reality, he was just paraplegic and walked with a limp. And how is someone in a wheelchair supposed to use a port-a-potty at an outdoor music festival?

Is this the best we can do?

Our indoor establishments are barely held to any minimum standard of accessibility. Why are we doing so poorly, and why does access stop when it comes to the outdoors?

Ebert Family Clinic’s team, Medicina Para Montañeros, ascending the final 100 meters at Arapahoe Basin.

I continue to learn more and more about what it means for any particular event, establishment, activity or location to be truly accessible and inclusive, and it is important to me that my friends and family with disabilities are able to partake in the same experiences that I enjoy. I’ve realized that recommending a place that is “accessible” depends a lot on the disabilities present. Determining whether or not someone in a wheelchair can navigate a trail depends on what kind of wheelchair they are in as well as the grade and width of the trail.

12,500′ after hours of hiking, pushing, pulling, wheeling, carrying our way up to the top of Arapahoe Basin, discovering that ‘what is inside us is truly stronger than what is in our way’.

Accessibility is about problem-solving. It is up to all of us as a community to find solutions that enable our friends and family with disabilities to interact as freely with our environment as those of us without disabilities, both indoor and out. I encourage anyone and everyone to start with a simple visual assessment: take a look around you, next time you are on a hike, in a brewery, by the lake, at the farmer’s market, at your favorite coffee shop and ask yourself if your disabled counterparts would be able to join you. Start there.

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Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

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

What’s Going On in La Paz?

The 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium was held this year in La Paz, Bolivia, in February and March. La Paz, sitting at 11,942 ft. (3640 m), is home to one of the world’s leading researchers of the effects of chronic hypoxia, Dr. Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja, with whom Colorado’s own Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos was able to meet with during her attendance of the symposium. You can refer to her previous article on the gathering of experts from over 16 countries for her own account of Dr. Zubieta-Calleja’s impressive work.

Below is the renowned Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s own account on video of his introduction to the experience of hypoxia and altitude with Dr. Zubieta-Calleja.

Always keep in mind, there are many physiological reactions going on when your body and brain are at altitude, and the higher the altitude, the more extreme the effects. Benefitting from a hypoxic environment isn’t as simple as staying hydrated. When we talk about chronic hypoxia, we are typically referring to a population who have spent many years in a high altitude environment.

robert-ebert-santos
Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

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

Technology in Health Care: Interview with Family Nurse Practitioner Tara Taylor

After over a decade of serving pediatric patients in the high country communities of Colorado as Ebert Children’s Clinic, we opened up our health care practice to serve the needs of the adult population several years ago. As Dr. Chris can attest to, the world of health care has grown and evolved incredibly since she first opened up her practice in Colorado in 2000, and we all continue to learn from the providers we welcome to our team as well as the students we mentor.

Family Nurse Practitioner Tara Taylor.

This past year, we’ve had the pleasure of having Tara Taylor, FNP on our staff. She’s brought a wealth of knowledge and unique experience from having practiced on a medical campus much, much larger than our little mountain clinic, and her insight into everything from patient care to our own high altitude research projects continues to be an invaluable asset to both our practice and our community. She was so gracious one afternoon to have a chat with me between patients:

How did you find yourself in Colorado’s high country health care community?

So, I have actually lived here since 2004, so I’ve lived here 15 years. I came out here for 6 mos to ski, and stayed for 15 years. I found myself loving it, bought my first house and decided to stay out here. I’ve actually commuted down to Denver all this time, because I had originally started in New Jersey in 2002 in Critical Care. So when I moved out here I wanted to be in the mountains, but I also couldn’t do Critical Care up here at that time. So I decided to commute down to Denver for three 12-hours shifts a week, and then live up here four days a week. So I had an apartment in Denver … when I went back to NP school, my goal was to work and live in my own community. I think that’s huge for me … and not only be serving the population of Denver, but to be serving the people of my actual community.

How long had you been practicing in Denver?

Since 2005, because I worked 6 months at Keystone Clinic, so I’ve been in Denver working for 14 years  prior to this in the ICU. And I’ve worked at Children’s hospital in the pediatric ICU, burn ICU’s, bone marrow transplant, open-heart surgery, neuro-trauma, multi-system trauma, all of it.

How is it different working up here, for a small clinic, at that?

This is a huge change … I’m still working down there once a month, so I get to go down and play and enjoy that type of intensity. But at the same time, coming back here, I think that the critical care aspect … it still plays a role here. And in my letter, when they said, “Why do you want to go from [being] an ICU nurse to family practice?” … I said for so long, I’ve seen patients in the ICU [whose] admission or … critical portion of their admission could have been avoided if they had better focus on primary care and had their needs met. If they had been on the right medications, if someone had spent the time — and sometimes it’s because of their own compliance — but with adequate primary care, we’re avoided what I was seeing in the ICU. 

Now, being in primary care, I get the stimulation I need from the independence of it, making these decisions, and I really enjoy finding out what’s going on with the patient, deciding what tests to run, and getting back these results and being able to properly refer them. I enjoy the time that I’m able to have with those patients here at a private practice. So each patient gets the time that they need to be properly cared for. 

And I’m just seeing extremely sick patients. I’m not seeing a lot of sore throats and earaches, unless you’re 2 years old; besides that, the adults have really complex diagnoses that require a lot of thought. And in its own respect, it’s critical to me.

Great segue: what are the greatest challenges you’ve seen practicing up here?

I think some of the biggest challenges that I have seen up here is limitation of services. That’s why this clinic is bringing up Nephrology, … [expanding] mental health services here, and then, to bring in … pain management specialty, and give them a place to practice … It’s really hard for these additional specialties. We have Cardiology up here, we have Pulmonology, but some of the smaller things like Rheumatology for rheumatoid arthritis, for osteoporosis and kidneys … how do you establish your practice up here? So hopefully, as focused as [Ebert Family Clinic] is in the community about being able to provide the care we want for our patients …  we’ll be able to get that door open for those specialties and help them establish their practice up here, which is our goal.

How do you get connected to these services like Genomind?

[This patient] came to me with Genomind. I had not heard of that before. He said, “I got on the right medications because this genetic testing gave [Compass Health] the ability to treat me properly.” [Certain health care providers in Denver] require it, almost, for every patient walking in their door as a prerequisite to help them make medication decisions. 

Genomind is a swab in the cheek. I think it’s huge, because we’re not able to “draw” neurochemicals. We’re not able to draw your blood and say, “oh, look, you’re deficient in serotonin.” Because that’s not an option, what’s the best way for us to figure out what’s the best medication for you? Because medications are very specific to what they’re treating. So the only thing we’ve been able to do for the last decade is to guess; to put you on something, and if it doesn’t work, then we know that’s not the thing. And that’s a terrible process, because it leads patients to trying five medications, over a ten-year period, and finally we get them on the right thing. But how frustrating that is for patients; they lose confidence in their providers, they lose confidence in the system, they feel neglected, they feel frustrated. And to have that stamina to even go through that process … I think we have a lot of patients drop off. [They] end up saying, “Forget it. Medications don’t work for me.” Then [they] become non-functional … their quality of life is hindered by their [unwillingness] to spend ten years trying five medications.

That is not the best process. And I think the people that went ahead and engineered Genomind said, “What else can we do? What if we went back to genetics? What if we went back to genes?” We can swab a 1-day old infant or a 95-year old man, and we are going to get their genetics. And when they did the Human Genome Project, and we got our entire genetic profile as human beings, the science behind Genomind was they were able to take anyone who’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia, people who are known bipolar, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, took their DNA … laid them over each other, and said, “What gene is predominant in all these patients?”

So they were actually able to use hundreds of thousands of mental health patients to establish what genes these were that led to the cause of their mental illness. So now we’re able to send off DNA with a swab in the cheek. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s what we have.

Is this better than nothing? There’s so much controversy about this test. How can you think this is controversial when you come from a science background as a provider, as a physician. You’ve got this, or you have nothing to guide you for the mental health of these patients. If we have this over nothing, I will take this.

[Genomind testing] is not only [about] mental health disorders, but also [for] people [suffering from] eating disorders, difficulty losing weight, ADHD, alcohol addiction and propensity for opioid addiction. It would identify what patients we may never want to start on narcotics if at all possible. It tells us, “Don’t start this patient on this particular drug because they’re at risk for gaining weight with this drug, like as an atypical antipsychotic.” It would tell us which medications an alcoholic would respond to best, if they were wanting to quit drinking and needed medication assistance. We have a lot of kids who seem like they’re ADHD, but really they have signs of anxiety and depression as well. And it’s our job to distinguish [whether] it’s the ADHD that’s causing the depression and anxiety, or it’s the depression and anxiety that’s causing the inability to focus? It’s absolutely fascinating! I want the community to know that we’re offering that here at the clinic.

Is Genomind available to children?

We can test anyone of any age. We can swab the cheek of a one-day old. I actually had a mom in here that said she was tested positive for both genes for the lack of ability to metabolize L-methylfolate, which causes bipolar disorder or mood instability. She came in here with her 4-month old son and said, “When can I get him tested to know?”

So I actually asked Genomind, and Genomind said you could test a brand new newborn baby, which at some point may be the standard of practice!

But at this point, it’s hard to want to test that child, because we’re not able to treat that child [without symptoms]. Once that child becomes 6 or 8 years old, and they are having mood instability, they are showing signs of some sort of mental illness, we do realize we are able to identify this in children. We don’t need to wait until people are 18 to say they must have a mental illness. We are identifying that in the behavior of hyperactive two and three year olds, and we’re seeing them grow up to be bipolar adults. So we are seeing early signs and symptoms of mental illness in these children. 

Could we test a 6-year old who is showing signs of something and have them be positive for these genes and be able to supplement them with L-methylfolate or an approved psychiatric medication in the pediatric population based on their genetics? This is absolutely going in that direction. Genomind said they’re 100% approved for adult and pediatric testing.

How do you find balance for yourself and maintain a healthy lifestyle?

Tara with Dr. Chris (center) and Kristen Duffy, A/GNP, at Ebert Family Clinic.

Working at this clinic actually provides me with the exact hours I need to have good work-life balance. That’s extremely important to Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos. When I started working here, she said, “What are your husband’s days off?” And I said, “Sunday-Monday,” she said, “Okay, well you’re not working Sunday-Monday then.” I just honestly couldn’t believe it, that my happiness was that important to her. I work reasonable hours. [Dr. Chris] provides me with the days off that will match my husband’s. I have great quality of life due to my husband. He’s an amazing person, wonderful and spirited, and we get along great. So we have that, and we have our two dogs, and we live a comfortable life up here. We love to do all the great stuff that Summit Countiers do: snowboarding, hiking, biking, camping, just getting outside in general together and playing with our dogs. And that’s what’s most important.

What have been your greatest takeaways from working in Summit County so far?

I think it’s running into that patient at the supermarket who, I know in the back of my head I have their diabetes controlled. To know that I’m specifically helping patients in my community. That I’m doing yoga next to someone [whose] blood pressure is controlled now because of me. I think that’s something really special and it’s not something that I had before when I worked in Denver, and I would come home and I would never see those people again. And then, having the opportunity in this clinic to deal with so many pediatric patients, since this was originally a pediatric clinic [before] expanding to adult services as well, which is amazing. But the amount of pediatrics in this clinic really improves both my exposure to every age group. I love kids. To have patients hug me in this office who have had a very challenging diagnosis … that “thank you” from patients is something I cannot replace.

Tara continues to be a passionate advocate for mental, women’s and sexual health, and a valuable resource as a health care practitioner. Ebert Family Clinic is proud to have her.

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Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

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

Portrait of a High-Altitude Athlete: The Ultra Mountain Athlete

Yuki Ikeda has been a professional cyclist for the past 10 years. He’s won titles in both Japan and the US. Interestingly enough, however, he come to Colorado to study at Metro State in Denver in order to play pro basketball. He is now known as an Ultra Mountain Athlete, not only biking, but running races up to 100 miles at altitudes over 10,000 ft. Over some decaf coffee on a warm Sunday afternoon at Gonzo’s in Frisco, he tells me he tried out every semester for the college team and failed. He had never really explored outdoor recreation growing up in Japan, because he had been so focused on a career in basketball.

He started taking some classes on outdoor sports while he was in Colorado, at Metro and then at Red Rocks Community College: rock climbing, cycling, backpacking, kayaking … He ended up staying in Colorado after graduating from Metro. “At that time, I was so into mountain biking,” he says. “I decided to pursue my career in mountain biking.”

He started racing in 2002. It took him five years to accumulate sponsors and become a full-on pro. “After every season, I sent my resume — racing results and what I do — to so many teams [to see if] they [would] accept me or not.”

Ultra Mountain Athlete Yuki Ikeda

But he started to get burned out. While he was still improving his stats, he was noticing that he couldn’t maintain the lead against some up-and-coming younger racers. “I was mentally very tired the last couple of years. I was kind of frustrated. Last year, after the season, I was so bummed out, I didn’t want to ride my bike, and I didn’t feel like starting training for the next year, so I stayed away from biking. I didn’t even touch my bike for a month.”

“But I still wanted to do some exercise. I just followed my wife, running, then I kind of joined the local trail running community. They showed me where to go and where to run, and I just loved it. I was so into mountain biking only, I thought doing other sports might cause injuries and effect my career. But it was the opposite.”

His new love for running turned his career around. “Physically, I don’t know [if it has improved my biking] yet, but mentally it helped. Now, my training is still 60 – 70% cycling, but not all the time. When I get on the bike, my brain is still fresh. Before, I rode my bike every day, pushing hard every day. It burned me out.”

Last month, he ran his first ultra running race, 50K. “Last October, I got sore from just running only 5K. Now I an run 50K, so that’s awesome.” He won.

Ultra Training at Altitude

I ask him how he trains for these races. Every summer, he comes to Colorado, staying in Frisco or Breckenridge to train in preparation for a series of races at altitude. It usually takes him 10 days to almost 3 weeks before he can do the same workouts he does at sea level in Tokyo.

Threshold power key. Threshold power is the maximum power you can sustain for about 60 minutes. He has a power meter on his bike that measures the power he exerts in watts. Recently, he has also been wearing a similar device on his shoe for when he runs.

“In Tokyo, my number is 310 watts, but here, it’s almost 270 to 280. I just did a threshold test last week. So that’s almost 10 to 12% lower. But still, if it’s within 10 to 15%, that’s very good for this altitude. But I usually take the test after a week or 10 days after I get here. I cannot push myself hard enough [before that]. Even [if] you’ve adjusted to this altitude, your power number is still lower than at sea level. I feel like I’m weak, but you have to accept it. That’s just how it is.”

His next race is part of the Leadman series, consisting of 5 mountain biking and trail running races in Leadville, Colorado. This next one is 42 km. Originally, the trail takes the runners over Mosquito Pass, which is at over 13,000 ft. But this year, there is still so much snow that the trail has been re-routed, so the runners aren’t sure what to expect. But the race starts at over 10,000 ft.

To train for this, he’s been running and biking six days a week. Every morning, he measures his blood oxygen saturation using a pulse oximeter. The first morning he arrived in Frisco, it was at 92. After a couple weeks of acclimation and training, it’s pretty reliably at 96 every morning.

Pacing

Yuki claims the most difficult part about running these long races is pacing. His coach encouraged him to run “negative splits”, increasing his speed toward the end of the race. “At my first 50 km race, even though I won it, I could have paced myself better. I just went too hard at the beginning [to] take the lead and paid for it later in the race. I was so trashed after the race, I couldn’t even stand and walk.”

“My coach is saying to be careful about [hitting the wall] at altitude. It’s so hard to recover. It takes almost five times longer than at sea level. I need to pace myself, especially for running 100 miles,” Yuki says, referencing the Leadville Trail Run in August he is also preparing for: 100 miles at altitude. “I’m so excited, but at the same time, I’m so nervous. Even finishing is questionable at this point.”

Acclimation

His secret to acclimating comfortably and quickly is actually movement. He says he feels the affects of the elevation more when he’s sedentary. In order to get more oxygen to his body, he has to get his circulation going. “The first week, I feel better when I exercise than when I just sit [around]. “

Also, beets. And red bell pepper. And arugula.

He eats a limited portion of these every day he’s at altitude. These vegetables provide a lot of nitrates, which your body processes into nitric oxide, facilitating blood circulation. At altitudes over 8000 ft., where you have access to about a third of the oxygen available in the air at sea level, the key to supplementing the oxygen your body requires is increased blood flow. After a certain amount of time, your body starts creating more oxygen-carrying red blood cells to counter the deficit, so getting the blood moving is literally vital.

According to high-altitude growth and development expert Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos, nitric oxide is often the way newborn babies with complications at altitude are treated. Hypoxia (the state of receiving less oxygen than is normal at sea level) causes pulmonary vessels (in the lungs) to constrict. Putting these infants on nitric oxide gas dilates the pulmonary arteries and improves some types of respiratory distress.

There are powders marketed to aid the food version of this nutrition, including BeetElite, Yuki’s product of choice, which he’ll add to his sports drinks in addition to consuming about an ounce of roasted beets. But portion control is also important, as too much nitrate can also have a negative effect on the body.

Running Recovery

Yuki is learning that he has to deal with an interesting phenomenon when it comes to his ultra running races: it’s tough on his guts. When it comes to his diet, he doesn’t typically change anything for recovery after a long event. “But I think my guts are more tired, because your body is bouncing so much from running.”

When running these incredible distances, he fuels his body with an energy gel every 20 to 30 minutes while running. “It usually has about 100 to 120 calories. It’s a dense energy. Then you take them for five hours, continuously, so it also tires out your guts. During the race. You have to maintain your blood sugar and keep your muscles moving. My muscles are tired, but also, my intestine and stomach are tired.”

“Even water is hard on my stomach [after running a race]. I’m kinda worried about running 50 and 100 miles. I’m not only worried about my legs, but even my stomach. I’m not used to [consuming] energy for 20 hours, eating and running at the same time.”

In Japan, hot springs and bathing are also a huge, sacred part of the recovery and health ritual. He takes a hot bath almost every day, “especially in winter,” he says. “It helps me to sleep at night.”

Sleep

The first week he spends at altitude in Colorado, he finds it harder to fall asleep. “I used to take one or two melatonin capsules every night, but it’s hard to tell if it helped. I just go to bed early, like 8 or 9, even if I cannot fall asleep. I just take the time to lay down and recover. [I try to sleep] at least 7 to 8 hours a night, but sometimes it’s hard. If I can’t get that amount of sleep, I usually take a nap after training.”

This may sound obvious, but sleep is when your body does most of its recovery, both mentally and physically. Sleep experts and studies have proven that the body and brain visibly deteriorate after so much sleep deprivation. And at altitude, with less oxygen available to supply a body in constant motion, sleep may be more important than ever.

Plant-based Nutrition

Yuki isn’t the first high-altitude athlete I’ve spoken to who advocates for a plant-based lifestyle. In a recent blog, skier and duathlete Cierra Sullivan also tells us about how a plant-based diet seems to make a big difference.

“When I used to like and eat animal products a lot, my recovery time was slower than now. It was hard to digest animal fats. I believed that they had a lot of good protein, but it was so hard on your body and digestive system,” Yuki says. “It took time to change my diet, but I now feel more comfortable with my plant-based diet, physically and mentally.”

Live High Train Low

Another recurring theme among high-altitude athletes.

“One of my sponsors has an altitude tent. They leased it to me before the competition, so I used it about a month. I slept in the tent, set at about 3000 m, then I train at sea level. I think it helped a bit, but it might be too short to tell. It tired me [out], though. I think I needed to do it longer before the competition, like, two or three months. I couldn’t train well, because I felt tired all the time. But I think for altitude training, I think this elevation is almost too high. Because you cannot push to your maximum potential. For example, for cycling, I can push up to 1000 – 1200 watts at sea level, but I cannot hit that number here, so I cannot train in that range here. I can lose that high power if I stay longer here. But it depends on your [goal]. My [goal] is winning the Leadman series, that’s why I’ve come here to train.”

This is partly why Yuki will lift weights once a week when training at altitude, “to maintain my high power.” With such limited access to oxygen, athletes up here can’t reach the same “punching power” that they can at lower elevations, so lifting may help maintain that power. “Very short, maybe 45 minutes, once a week, just to maintain. Weightlifting is still supplemental for your specific sport, so I don’t want it to affect my training on my bike or running. For race week, I don’t lift weights, because lifting weights takes time to recover.”

Keeping It Fun

“My trick to keep going — the best way to improve yourself,” Yuki adds, in a final reflection, “is to keep it fun. If you’re not having fun, I think that’s not good. Last year, I almost lost my motivation as an athlete. I almost thought about quitting racing, but I still love the sport. Trail running helped me mentally and physically, and my motivation came back, even for cycling. Having fun is the key to keep going.”

Ultra mountain athlete Yuki Ikeda with high-altitude researcher and writer Roberto Santos at Gonzo’s Coffee in Frisco after an insightful afternoon interview.

Thank you, Yuki. I completely agree. And best of luck with that 100-mile trail run at 13,000 ft.! Keep track of Yuki’s race schedule, social media and stats at http://yukiikeda.net/

robert-ebert-santos
Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

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

Nocturnal Pulse Oximeter Study

    “I’ve never had a patient with a normal overnight pulse oximetry study,” said Tara Taylor, Family Nurse Practitioner at Ebert Family Clinic. She has been a provider there for a year, after 14 years working as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Swedish Hospital. Of course, the study that tracks oxygen and heart rate during sleep is usually performed on patients with symptoms such as snoring, fatigue, poor-quality sleep, attention deficit, depression, or high blood pressure.

    What is normal for healthy adults at altitude? When would sleeping on oxygen help cure or prevent some of these symptoms? Do we even notice when we’re being deprived of oxygen while we sleep?

These are the questions addressed in a new investigator-initiated research trial at Ebert Family Clinic. The catalyst for the study was a conversation between Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos and Annette Blakeslee FNP at the 7th World congress of Chronic Hypoxia in La Paz, Bolivia in February. Annette is the provider for the US Embassy staff at 12,000 ft elevation. State department officials spend months or years on assignment there, and Annette wanted to know when she should be concerned. Local residents living at altitude for generations are adapted, while people living in La Paz and Summit County for months or years are acclimatized but still at risk for conditions caused by the low-oxygen environment.

    The study, called “Overnight Pulse Oximeter Study at Three Altitude Sites”, will recruit healthy adults ages 20 to 65 years. Participants will fill out a health questionnaire, take home a simple monitor worn on the finger and wrist to wear during sleep, and return the monitor the next day. Ebert Family Clinic staff will download the data for further analysis. Participants will be notified by a provider regarding the results of their study. De-identified data will be transferred to Excel spreadsheets from which graphs and charts can be generated.

    Besides dividing participants into three different altitude ranges between 7,000 and 12,000 feet, data will be analyzed by age groups and symptoms. “Everyone responds to altitude differently,” states Dr. Ebert-Santos. “There are hundreds of chromosomes that affect our ability to adapt. Many studies show the benefits of living in a low-oxygen environment, but a small percent of us will do better sleeping on oxygen. We are hoping this study will establish normal values and suggest who should be evaluated further.” — Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos

For more information, or to become a participant in this sleep study, residents of altitudes 7,000 ft. or above in Colorado for at least 6 months and between the ages of 20 and 65 years old should call Ebert Family Clinic at (970) 668-1616.