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Three people hiking up a steep and rocky mountain side surrounded by evergreen trees
Chantelle Shoaee, director of Always Choose Adventures, right, walks with fellow hypoxic hikers Audra Lilly, center, of Littleton, and Mike Goldblatt, of Evergreen, June 29, 2023, outside Idaho Springs. The hikers are hypoxic requiring supplemental oxygen every day due to medical issues. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

Chantelle Shoaee will have a question for you if you decide to visit her: “What kind of car do you drive?”

Unless you’re one of her buds, perhaps one of her Hypoxic Hikers, the reason she’s asking may shock you. Rough mountain roads, the kind that flummox those who don’t drive Subarus — and yes, there are a few — lead to the little base camp where she lives and runs Always Choose Adventures

Shoaee lives at 10,000 feet in a rural spot above Idaho Springs. She also has hypoxia, a condition defined by low levels of oxygen in the body. 

Doctors tell hypoxic patients to move out of Colorado. At Denver’s elevation, around 5,280 feet, there’s 20% less oxygen than at sea level. Whenever she’s walking around, Shoaee receives oxygen through a tube in her nose, called a cannula. She punctuates her sentences with puffs from her tank that sound like a gasp.

Oxygen is as much of a treasure to her as the gold from the long-closed mine on her land. And yet, she lives at twice the elevation of Denver, a space so devoid of O2 that most flat-landers have trouble sleeping. 

It seems like a mismatch, like a penguin wobbling through a desert. And yet, Shoaee climbs 14ers at speeds that would smoke a weekend peakbagger. 

She wears a backpack comfortably and even helped design a pack being developed by Osprey, a Cortez-based gear company that specializes in hydration bladder vests and packs for bikers, hikers and ultrarunners. 

a black backpack with oxygen tube visible
The backpack Chantelle Shoaee helped Osprey design has openings where oxygen tubing can be threaded and is engineered to comfortably hold an oxygen tank or concentrator. The final version should be out by the end of the year. (Provided by Chantelle Shoaee)

Shoaee’s pack fits oxygen tanks. The innovation could be a boon for hikers tethered to a cannula: Most of them are anchored to heavy oxygen tanks or concentrators.

Limited by physical condition, not perception

Shoaee loves the mountains, elevation be damned, and her strong body, balanced by a pair of powerful thighs, shakes with good-natured laughter when someone asks why the hell she lives so high. 

“Look around,” she answers. 

She doesn’t care that she lives in a small trailer, or that the property needs a lot of work, or that the roads that lead to it could overturn a Jeep. She’s immensely proud of where she lives, even though she knows, one day, she will have to leave. 

Until then, Shoaee wants to run her organization, Always Choose Adventures, which helps people of all ages, backgrounds and, most importantly, physical abilities, experience the outdoors. She and her Hypoxic Homies, a group of hikers like her, all acknowledge their limitations the condition puts on them, but they don’t want to be limited by any kind of assumptions about their ability, or medical insurance, or misdiagnoses. 

There are more than you might think: Shoaee puts severe limits on the money she makes so she can stay on Medicaid, which pays for her portable oxygen. Her place was affordable because it was in poor condition, and because she sold her townhome, buoyed by the skyrocketing market. Quite frankly, it looks like a bargain, even if the land around it looks priceless. 

“I live in poverty,” she says, “so I can breathe.” 

A hermit, not a hiker

On doctor’s orders, Shoaee’s parents kept her inside when she was a kid. She was born with tracheoesophageal fistula, an abnormal connection between the esophagus and the trachea, and low-functioning lungs. 

She felt a void that wasn’t filled until she founded Always Choose Adventures and sought treatment with National Jewish Hospital, where doctors told her her birth defects were never addressed properly: Her trachea collapses up to 90% of the time. They put her on oxygen to use while adventuring and it’s made all the difference. 

A women puts an oxygen tank inside her backpack outside her car
Chantelle Shoaee, director of Always Choose Adventures, replaces a fresh supplemental oxygen tank in her backpack before a hike. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

She’s still hypoxic, but she believes many other Coloradans are, too, and don’t realize it. We all need oxygen, and without enough of it, we get confused, restless and anxious, and have bluish skin, a rapid heart rate and difficulty breathing.

Breathing problems can cause hypoxia, but it isn’t limited to them. Shoaee tells story after story of visitors who come from sea level and don’t feel right. Colorado’s thin air isn’t kind to those who are accustomed to drawing in gluttonous gulps of oxygen with every breath. Just the other day, she checked the oxygen levels of a visitor by using a finger sensor. 

“She was hypoxic as fuck,” Shoaee said, using one of her favorite phrases. 

Many others with asthma struggle here, Shoaee said, and even those seemingly in good health may wonder why they’re anxious all the time and don’t sleep well. They’re probably hypoxic, Shoaee said. Colorado is a hard place to live. 

The condition is more common now after the pandemic. One of Shoaee’s best friends, one of her Hypoxic Homies, is Audra Lilly, who works as a pediatric nurse practitioner. She was diagnosed with lupus in 2015 when she was living in Dallas. Exercise helped lube her joints: The more she did it, the better she felt. She moved to Littleton to be in a place where she could do outdoor activities all the time. She took up trail running and felt better than she had in years.

“I needed a place where I could be outdoors all the time and live a healthy lifestyle,” Lilly said. “Dallas wasn’t that.”

But her job left her susceptible to the pandemic, and sure enough, she got COVID-19 in November 2020. It ravaged her body, forcing her into the hospital for weeks. At one point, doctors asked her if life support was OK. She refused, preferring to battle it on her own, as she did with lupus. Lupus can be as mean as COVID: Her joints stiffened in her hospital bed, so she dragged her huge oxygen tank behind her and walked around her room. 

She now uses oxygen to hike and run, though not as much as she used to. She met Shoaee in a hypoxia support group on Facebook. 

“When I asked for advice on hiking and running, people would tell me not to do it, especially doctors,” Lilly, 41, said, “but Chantelle was like, ‘I’ll go with you!’” 

Three people with breathing tubes below their nostrils hike in a forest with wildflowers in foreground
Chantelle Shoaee walks with fellow hypoxic hikers Audra Lilly, left, of LIttleton, and Mike Goldblatt, of Evergreen outside Idaho Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Yes, Lilly sees the irony in moving to a state because of health problems and now may need to leave it one day because of health problems. But she is determined to stay as long as she can. 

“Honestly, when I put my oxygen in, it goes away,” Lilly said. “I’m getting back to where I was before this happened.” 

Anxiety or breathing problems?

Doctors at first diagnosed Lilly with anxiety. It’s a common misdiagnosis among those with hypoxia, and an understandable one, given that the two are connected: Not being able to breathe causes anxiety. Anxiety can also cause breathing problems such as hyperventilation. 

That’s a problem because doctors have to write a prescription for oxygen, said Mike Goldblatt, 67, of Evergreen. Goldblatt is hypoxic and doctors don’t know why. He was an arborist and guided fly-fishing trips and hikes. He also coaches and chases around his grandkids and plays golf and music in a band. Evergreen is at 7,400 feet and Goldblatt has no desire to move. Oxygen, which he uses when he’s active, makes his life far more normal than it would be otherwise.

“It feels a lot better,” Goldblatt said. 

But it irks him that oxygen is only available with a prescription. Patients also generally must choose between the portable tanks they use to hike and the large tanks that anchor many patients to their homes, Goldblatt said. 

“We are staying active,” Goldblatt said, referring to the hypoxic hiking group, “but 90% or more pulling oxygen aren’t. They don’t realize they can get out.”

Insurance, he said, tends to restrict patients from portable tanks or limit them to a few per month, unless they fight. Medicaid doesn’t do this, at least for Shoaee, which is why she restricts her lifestyle to stay on it. 

“Safety is what they call it,” Goldblatt said, “but it comes down to money.” 

These are things that won’t be solved soon. But there are issues Shoaee believes she can address now. Carrying oxygen is a problem. A couple years ago she began talking to Osprey about designing a backpack specifically for oxygen carriers. 

“The kinking is the most annoying part,” Lilly said. “Chantelle, can you fix my tube? I’ve already been kinked up twice today.” 

Kinking, of course, restricts oxygen flow, and the tubes get tangled. Lilly has a story about her tubes getting tangled while on a ski lift.  She eventually had to be carried down by ski patrol because she needed the oxygen boost at the high elevation. 

“I was so embarrassed,” she said.

“Life-changing for people on oxygen”

Tanks are heavy, with the mobile tanks weighing up to 15 pounds. The tanks alone make a daypack weigh more than if it were stuffed with overnight gear.  

The Osprey backpack, Shoaee said, solves both issues. There are holes in the pack where hypoxic hikers can thread, and therefore secure, their tubes, and the bottom of the pack has more padding as well as straps to hold the tank in place and distribute the weight evenly. The final version should be out by the end of the year. The pack is an affirmation that people are paying attention. 

A woman and a man hug with breathing tubes hug each other at a parking lot
Chantelle Shoaee hugs fellow hiker Mike Goldblatt after arriving back to the trailhead together outside Idaho Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“It will be life-changing for people on oxygen,” Shoaee said. “We aren’t saying you have to hike a 14er. You can walk around the block now. This makes it possible. There’s so much annoying stuff about this illness. A backpack shouldn’t be one of them.” 

Shoaee founded Always Choose Adventures because of her experiences, but the organization tries to break down barriers for all kinds of marginalized groups in the outdoors, not just the hypoxic. Gerry Roach, the mountain master and author of many guide books, including iconic versions for the 14ers, the Centennials, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks, is the board president. 

But she hopes to use her talents to raise awareness about hypoxia and maybe one day solve some of the other issues oxygen carriers must face when they venture outdoors. 

“Could we do a hypoxic 14ers day?” she asks her group.

First, though, she wants to go on a little hike to a lake near her property. The path is steep — at one point she protests to her friends when they leave some distance between them and her — but eventually they do reach the top. She puts her hands on her knees. 

It’s hard to live so high up, but the views are spectacular, and the air is fresh.

She straightens up and breathes it in.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @DanEngland