The Home Remedy for Altitude Sickness? Sea-Level Living at 8000 Feet
Let’s say you’ve invested millions in a choice piece of Vail Valley real estate, only to discover that every visit to your dream home-away-from-home begins with a pounding headache coupled with nausea, dizziness, and dehydration lasting up to four days. Prone to the high-altitude hangover known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), you’re the mountain-town equivalent of someone who’s just bought a yacht, then manifests a propensity for seasickness.
So what to do? You can divest; you can swap your castle in the clouds for a villa on the French Riviera. Or you can hire Larry Kutt to give your home an atmospheric makeover.
Kutt is founder and CEO of Altitude Control Technologies (act-02.com), a Denver business that specializes in what it calls “altitude simulation.”
Using NASA-like technology, ACT equips rooms so that at the push of a button atmospheric conditions go from simulating sea level to mimicking Everest, or vice versa. ACT’s handiwork can be found in research labs at the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School, in flight simulators at the U.S. Air Force and Naval Air Systems Command, in training facilities (run by groups like the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Denver Nuggets, and Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project) where athletes work out and rest at different altitudes to enhance athletic performance, and now in mountain vacation homes whose owners are willing to pay almost any price to sleep soundly at altitude and forestall the onset of AMS.
“We just did a home in Eagle with an art museum and a planetarium for a couple that came up here, built their dream home, and the wife gets sick,” says Kutt, also cofounder of the School for Entrepreneurship at Denver’s Metro State University. “We did one bedroom, and they loved it so much they asked us to do another for their in-laws and bedrooms for their children. If you spend eight or nine million dollars on a house, you don’t want to come to your place and get headaches and nausea.”
But why just oxygenate the bedrooms? “Our board of medical advisers thinks that if you sleep in an oxygen-enriched environment, that’s sufficient to avoid altitude sickness,” explains Kutt.
One of those advisers is Dr. Peter Hackett, founder and executive director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, an emergency physician and Everest alpinist who’s regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on AMS.
“It’s tremendous,” says Hackett, who prescribes sleeping with oxygen—albeit typically via cannula from a rented cylinder or a portable O2 generator—as the gold-standard therapy for AMS prevention and treatment. “Your body thinks it’s back at sea level. If you have symptoms and you sleep in an oxygenated room, you will be cured. The main problem people have at high altitude, whether or not they have AMS, is trouble sleeping. An oxygenated room can help with that quite a bit.”
Hackett notes that commercial enterprises—from mountaintop telescope research facilities to high-altitude mining operations in places like the Andes—have been using oxygenated bedrooms in employee housing for years, but as far as he knows ACT was the first to apply this technology to the dream home.
An elegant solution to a common problem, it is, however, not uncomplicated. An air separator (a high-tech machine that strips oxygen and nitrogen from the air) is installed in the mechanical room of a home and is then plumbed to dedicated pipes that send oxygen into bedrooms. Special sensors monitor the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide, while a computerized controller continually adjusts the mix of gases, which changes as barometric pressure rises and falls and people enter and exit the room.
“When we’re done with a room, we’ll give you 15 minutes to see if you can find any trace of our technology,” says Kutt. “People here spend a lot of money on their homes; they spend a lot of money on décor and designers. Appearance is important.”
But not always price, which runs $20,000 for the average 200- to 300-square-foot bedroom. And homes in mountain towns like Vail and Aspen, where Kutt says ACT has done a half-dozen installations to date, tend to be anything but average.
“We’re doing a project in Aspen right now, and we met with the owner, and he says, ‘I want this in our bedroom. What’s that going to cost?’” Kutt recalls. “It was a huge bedroom, and I told him it was going to cost around $100,000. He said, ‘If that’s all it is, we need to expand it to the dance studio and the guest bedrooms.’”
Then there’s the Texas oilfield services executive who’s paying ACT $200,000 to oxygenate all of the bedrooms in the $12 million home he’s building on a hilltop above Avon in Mountain Star.
“I have several airplanes that I fly myself, and we can come from sea level, fly into Eagle, and get to 9,000 feet real quick,” says the Texan, who decided to splurge on the add-on after spending the night in an ACT oxygenated bedroom at a friend’s home in Telluride. “Whether it’s me, my guests, or someone in my family, I don’t want anyone to get altitude sickness for two or three days. We’re going to spend three to five months there a year, and I just want it to be a good experience.”
Need a celebrity endorsement? How about from Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, ruler of Dubai, and the 50th-wealthiest person on earth? ACT first oxygenated a bedroom at the sheikh’s Newmarket estate, then bedrooms in his Dubai palace, and then all of Godolphin, the UAE stables where the sheikh quarters $400 million worth of thoroughbreds.
“Talk about a challenging environment,” says Kutt. “You have indoor air-quality issues; you have outdoor air-quality issues; you have dust storms and sandstorms. If we can deal with horses, we can deal with humans.”
Even in the rarefied air of Vail.