11,000 Feet of Purgatory – An AMS Mountain Tale

A Love of the Mountains

I started snowboarding in earnest when I was 25 years old. I started the day on the kid hill. I couldn’t stand up, I constantly fell over, 5-year-olds were gliding by me and cutting powder so it flew in my face (I may have embellished that but its how it felt). Needless to say, I loved it. By the end of the day I could stand up, occasionally slow myself, and when all else failed throw myself to the ground. To say the least, this was one of the best experiences I’d ever had. Being able to ride up the mountain on a lift, get off without falling, and look out and see the view from the peak that first time were something I’ll never forget. The mountains had instantly smitten me.

Fast forward to the next year and to say I was obsessed was an understatement. I was constantly watching videos about snowboarding. I wanted to know the history of it, the big names, and the legends of the sport. I also wanted to get on a mountain as much as humanly possible. I was in Colorado and Montana every chance I could get, with the goal of acquiring 30 days on the mountain per season. It also meant more boards, better goggles, and a new shell and pants. I immersed myself in all things snowboarding. When I did finally get to the mountain, I was focused on how to maximize my snowboarding experience–I would go to bed early, try to eat well, and recover at the end of each day so I was in peak condition for the next. That meant at the end of each snowboarding day I hydrated and spent time in the hot tub with my friends and family and looking out on the amazing landscape. By my third season in a row, I was convinced I should probably just move to the mountains permanently.

Five years after I began snowboarding, I had one of the worst mountain experiences of my life. At 30 years old, I never expected to find myself gasping for air on the side of a mountain wondering if I was hyperventilating, exhausted, or dying.  Nonetheless, that’s exactly where I was. I’d been snowboarding seriously for several years now and had never felt anything like this.  Fatalistic fears started to seep into my mind, mixed with the immediately panicked feeling of being able to breathe but never catching your breath.  I was at 11,000 feet when all of this transpired and all I knew to do was to dig the edge of my snowboard into the side of mountain, stop, and hope. Slowly but surely I was able to get enough air into my lungs that I rode down the mountain a little ways, stopped, and continued this pattern until I was back to the base. When I got back to the house that night I was a little spooked but I was confident that would be the end of–I was wrong. That night I had one of the worst nights of sleep I’d ever had and I felt exhausted the next morning.  It was the better part of three days before I felt “right” again.  Needless to say, my week long trip was ruined.

AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) sounds serious and it was an acronym I didn’t hear for years after my own experience. Even then, it didn’t immediately ring a bell as something I might have had personal experience with, but there it was.  I was fortunate. Despite my symptoms, I was young, healthy, and active, and was able to overcome the issues relatively quickly.  I think the lasting impact this had on my trip though was what a waste of a week it had been on the mountain.  I’d spent most of the time feeling sick and not wanting to do anything. And this was a trip I spent my entire year planning around and anticipating. In my own way, I vowed to never let that happen to me or anyone else I knew ever again. Granted, I didn’t know how I was going to accomplish that feat.

Bluebird is Hatched

When I was first approached about the idea of Bluebird Oxygen, I was excited to jump in and present a solution to a silent but devastating problem. Bluebird Oxygen was more than just an idea among friends, it really was a lifestyle—an ethos.  Each and every one of us had in some way been touched by AMS.  As a result, it forever changed our relationship with the mountains.  It brought a new awareness that we’d never had before, and, frankly, never wanted.  But with awareness comes knowledge and with knowledge comes truth.  That truth is that none of us ever wanted to spend another day on the mountain feeling the way we or those around us felt.  Josh McCreary did an excellent post entitled Altitude: Let’s Elevate the Conversation which addresses the underlying fear that often accompanies a conversation about AMS. Contrast that with Bluebird’s approach of having a strong, positive, outlook on preventatively addressing AMS so that in never again holds sway over mountain experiences. In addition, one of our partners, Breckenridge Grand Vacations recently did a symposium (in blog form) of the risks and solutions for AMS entitled, “Don’t Let Altitude Sickness Get you Down.” I’d highly encourage you to dig into this if you have any questions about AMS as it is extremely well done and thorough.

With all this said, I think its important to bring that down to a personal level—in other words, what’s in it for you?  At this point you’re likely thinking “this guy is just trying to sell me something.” You’re right, I am.  Bluebird’s goal is to sell you on an excellent vacation in the mountains.  It’s to have you reminiscing for years about the special moments and memories you made vacationing in Colorado.  That’s why Bluebird Oxygen exists, to help you focus on what’s important in the mountains: being in the moment.  I can promise you, that won’t happen if you’re suffering from a nagging headache, are nauseous, and just feel drained each day on the mountain.  With Bluebird Oxygen, you can make every day a Bluebird day and never look back.

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