Besides the spectacular views of the Rocky Mountain West in the winter time, one aspect of traveling here to ski is high-altitude sickness. No one really knows exactly why some are affected while others aren’t, but experts do have a good handle on its causes and what you can do about it.
At sea level, your blood is approximately 97 percent saturated with oxygen. Blood transports oxygen to active muscles while skiing and, more important, to your brain. Even the slightest drop in oxygen levels of the brain can leave you with acute symptoms like a headache, vertigo and general lethargy – not a great way to feel on the first day of your vacation. If you’re traveling to high altitude resorts over 10,000 feet above sea level, the oxygen in your blood becomes “thinner,” dropping as low as 90 percent. To put this into perspective, climbers on Mt. Everest (at 29,000 feet above sea level) can experience oxygen saturation as low as 42 percent. To compensate for low oxygen availability, both your breathing and heart rate start increasing. Even visitors arriving at Denver International Airport (elevation 5,280) begin to experience breathlessness, rapid heart rates and headaches.
Approximately three days after you arrive at high altitude, your blood begins making more oxygen-carrying hemoglobin –- a natural method of blood doping. This is one reason why world class cyclists train at high altitude for sea level races. The down side is the watery plasma in your blood becomes thicker and more difficult to circulate throughout your body. This is one reason why people who live at high altitude recommend that visitors drink plenty of water –- at least as eight to 10 extra glasses a day.
More serious forms of altitude sickness such as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) can occasionally affect people who rush up to high altitude after living at sea level, but are very rare. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, an increase in resting heart rate, vomiting and mental confusion. The good news is it doesn’t last forever and there are plenty of things you can do to avoid high altitude sickness.
One of the easiest ways to avoid high altitude sickness is to take your time getting to the resort. If you have enough time and enjoy seeing the countryside, try driving some or all of the way. Experts recommend that you should rise no more than 1,000 feet a day above sea level. Another great way to gradually acclimate your body is to stay at a lower altitude destination (such as Denver or Salt Lake City) and take a day shopping and experiencing the sights. Drive or take a shuttle up to the resort on the following day.
As soon as you arrive at your destination, immediately begin hydrating yourself. A general rule of thumb is to look for clear looking urine. If yours is dark yellow, you need to drink more water. Eat more carbohydrates while on your ski vacation. Not only are they a great source of fuel, they contain higher amounts of water and are easy to digest. Some people also suggest taking Acetazolamide (Diamox) several days before you leave for vacation. And, most important, go easy on caffeinated beverages and alcoholic drinks. Both are diuretics and sap water out of your body.
For those who continue to experience mild breathlessness while at high altitude, ask the concierge at your hotel to have supplemental oxygen delivered to your room. Breathing in a little extra oxygen while you’re waiting for the family to get ready to go out for dinner will do wonders to accelerate your acclimation. They even make small canisters of oxygen you can take on the hill with you. Personal Oxygen Device (POD) makes a handy two liter bottle of 95 percent oxygen that fits right into your parka and is good for over 40 breaths of pure, clean oxygen.
There’s no reason to spend your first vacation day suffering in your room with altitude sickness. A little advanced preparation can help you arrive feeling fit and ready to hit the slopes!