With warmer weather and rain putting a damper on early-season skiing in the Mid-Atlantic, you might find yourself browsing airline web sites in search of cheap fares out west, hoping to score some snowy turns that only high-altitude resorts can provide. If your plans do take you to higher elevations, it can take awhile for your sea level-calibrated lungs to adapt to the thinner air, and you might experience some effects of altitude sickness. We capture some tips below to help you adapt to the higher altitudes.
Although you’re unlikely to be carrying your skis to the top of the 29,032-foot tall Mount Everest, many Western ski areas still have elevations that are high enough to impact your body. For example, many Colorado ski areas have base areas set above 10,000 feet above sea level, including Loveland, Monarch Mountain, and Arapahoe Basin.
And that’s just the altitude at the bottom. When you ride the lift to the top of Breckenridge, you’ll be at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. At Telluride you’ll be at 13,150 feet. At New Mexico’s Taos, you’ll be at nearly 12,500 feet.
Those high elevations are why those ski areas have snow while Mid-Atlantic areas are left wishing the recent rain was snow. But those altitudes can also cause altitude sickness, which is more accurately known as acute mountain sickness (AMS).
Altitude sickness is commonly experienced above 8,000 feet, but can happen at lower elevations in some individuals. At higher elevations, there is less available oxygen in the air, which can strain the body.
People experience altitude sickness in different ways, but common symptoms can include a headache, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and light-headedness, fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and a rapid heartbeat.
Symptoms usually start with a headache and sometimes end there. After arriving at a high-altitude resort, you might find that walking up a short flight of stairs winds you.
These symptoms can vary in intensity and can become quite severe in some individuals. In extreme cases, one could experience High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). HAPE is a condition where fluid can accumulate in the lungs, making it difficult to breath. HACE can result in brain swelling. Although few skiers are likely to experience these forms of altitude sickness, particularly while skiing below 13,000 feet, they can quickly become life threatening. That’s why it’s important to catch early symptoms of high altitude sickness and take appropriate measures (such as resting or moving to a lower elevation) before they advance further.
So if you have a high-altitude ski trip planned, what steps can you take to minimize the chances of experiencing high altitude sickness symptoms?
The human body has an amazing ability to acclimate to different surroundings, including higher elevations. But this process takes time. If you’re flying into a city like Denver, consider spending a night in town before immediately heading up to the mountains. Denver — known as the “mile high city” — is, appropriately, about a mile high in elevation, putting it several thousand feet below the base elevations of mountain ski areas. By taking a day or two to make your way up to the ski area, you’ve already given your body a head start on adjusting to a higher altitude.
Similarly, take it easy at first, avoiding strenuous activity for the first 24 hours at high altitude. So maybe stick to the greens on the first day as you adapt, saving the thigh-burning turns for later in the trip.
The next best thing you can do is to stay hydrated. It’s very easy to become dehydrated while skiing; the air at western resorts is dryer, and you can burn a lot of calories skiing in the sun, becoming dehydrated before you realize it. So drink plenty of fluids before you get thirsty and throughout the day to help keep those headaches at bay.
While it might hamper your apres ski festivities, it’s also advised to avoid alcohol and caffeine to minimize the chance of developing altitude sickness symptoms.
Finally, eating a diet rich in carbohydrates while on a ski trip can help, as carbohydrates require less oxygen for metabolism compared to fats or proteins.
If you do start to experience symptoms — particularly those that advance beyond a mild headache — the best antidote is to descend to a lower altitude, and to seek medical attention.
Following your western trip, you might find that you feel like Superman for a few days after returning to the low altitudes of the Mid-Atlantic, as your lungs and body will have adjusted to the thinner air of the “tall” mountains. But your body will quickly re-adapt to our closer-to-sea level elevations, so those superpowers won’t last long.
As always, if you have concerns about how your body will adapt to higher elevations — or if you carry any risk factors that might make you more susceptible to altitude sickness — it’s always best to chat with your doctor. They may be able to prescribe preventive medication like acetazolamide (Diamox) to help facilitate acclimatization for patients who have a history of problems.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.