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First ascent: Inventors' product to get high altitude test
The cold-weather face mask worn by John Sullivan Jr., right, and developed by him and his son, John Sullivan III, will be worn and tested on an expedition to K2 at the end of June.
TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Talus Outdoor Technologies co-founders, John Sullivan III, and father John Sullivan Jr., have never been in a rush to push their invention into the marketplace.

Both men wanted the ColdAvenger extreme weather face mask to be just right.

"We also wanted to see it validated by athletes who understood its value in cold climes," said Sullivan Jr. an Arizona physician and toxicologist.

Two years and some 300 prototypes later, father and son feel closer to perfecting the technology that raises the temperature of air breathed in through their mask by 40 to 60 degrees, and allows users to avoid cold weather respiratory trauma, and remain outside longer.

And now, the locally developed face mask is poised for an awfully big adventure.

At June's end, the ColdAvenger will make its maiden ascent up the rocky ice shelves of legendary mountain K2, wrapped securely around the jowls of eight expert climbers.

The masks are packed and ready to accompany the team - which includes native Montanan and expert climber Eric Meyer - as part of an experiment to determine whether the heat and moisture conserving mask will help mountaineers better brave cold temperatures during exertion and sleep.

Meyer, an anesthesiologist now living in Colorado, saw a small ad for the product last April, and ordered one.

An aficionado of high altitude wilderness medicine, he used the mask to climb some of Colorado's tallest peaks.

After a series of routine 14,000 foot climbs, he told Sullivan Jr. he wanted to take the ColdAvenger just a little bit higher - to be exact, another 14,000 feet beyond that up the side of K2's Abruzzi Spur.

For Meyer, love of climbing began 30 years ago. As a Miles City teen he grappled up rock faces like Granite Peak in the Absorokas-Beartooth mountain range.

In a few short weeks, this lifetime of climbing will converge with Meyer's lifelong dream of reaching the summit of one of the world's most daunting peaks, as the 44-year-old heads to the Himalayas.

A mighty leviathan, K2 sits in a fold bordered by Pakistan and China. At just over 28,000 feet, Meyer said the beast of a peak has been attempted a scant 200 times, and is regarded as the hardest to climb.

In all, just 15 Americans have ever reached its summit.

While K2 sits fewer than 800 feet below Everest, Meyers said the level of difficulty is much greater.

Meyer summited Everest in 2004 as part of an eight-member team, and has been to the Himalayas on four other expeditions.

The June expedition, lead by Mike Farris, will include Meyer, Tim Horvath, Swedish mountaineer Fredrik Strang and Nepali native Chhiring Dorje, among others.

"The main reason we put the team together is that it is a mountaineering challenge - one of the crown jewels of Himalayan climbing," said Meyer. But as the team climbs from camp to camp, Meyer will also monitor how the mask helps warm the air during higher respiratory rates during exertion.

High altitude air is cold and dry, according to Meyer. What a mask can do for a climber, he said, is more effectively and comfortably manage longstanding and long recognized physiological issues at extreme altitude.

"I think it will be beneficial both for climbing and for sleep," Meyer said.

Humidifying breath during sleep, it turns out, is just as important for climbers as keeping air warm and moist during actual periods of exertion at higher altitudes, Meyer said.

Conditions such as shortness of breath, and periodic breathing (a kind of sleep apnea), startle athletes at high altitude, and can create sleep deficits, he said.

"When you try to recover from that you tend to hyperventilate and that is disconcerting, and uncomfortable, and it trashes your ability to get good quality sleep," he said.

Meyer is hoping that Talus' ColdAvenger will aid his team of eight have a smoother journey - both out on the slopes, and in slumber.

Reporter Lori Grannis can be reached at 523-5251 or lori.grannis@lee.net.

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