Most skiers zoom off to the slopes with starry-eyed visions of the perfect vacation. But flatlanders can find themselves reeling with nausea on the first couple of days at high elevation ski resorts. And, oh, those Rocky Mountain “splitters” (headaches). The effects of altitude can be severe enough to land some people in the emergency room.
The good news is that you can prevent many of the ill effects of high altitude. The bad news is that you may need to rethink the beginning of your vacation.
“So many vacationers race off to ski, drink alcohol and sit in hot tubs. It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Sue Purvis, a Wilderness Medical Associates instructor and owner of Crested Butte Outdoors. Purvis has gone to Mt. Everest to teach sherpas how to help their clients acclimatize and served as medical staff for Colorado’s Elk Mountains Grand Traverse ski race.
“We race up to high elevation, and our bodies don’t like it,” Purvis said. “The body tries to compensate for the reduced oxygen by breathing twice as fast.”
At high elevation, the reduction in oxygen causes the capillaries in the body to dilate and leak fluid until acclimatized. In short, this causes a laundry list of possible symptoms: shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, lethargy, decreased appetite, nausea, fever and sleeplessness.
Ski resorts above 8,000 feet pose the highest risk to those who are not acclimated to the elevation. These are mostly the resorts in Colorado, Utah and the Sierras.
Loveland is one of North America’s highest elevation resorts, with lifts running higher than 12,000 feet. Photo Courtesy of Loveland Ski Area.
At 8,000 feet, oxygen is reduced by 25 percent from sea level. At Colorado’s Arapaho Basin and Loveland, the highest elevation ski areas in North America, oxygen is reduced even further. Their 13,000-foot summits have about 38 percent less oxygen than sea level.
So what does Purvis recommend if you feel ill? First, assume you have altitude sickness until proven otherwise and do not go any higher in elevation. This may mean staying in the condo rather than skiing on the first day of your vacation. You can also schedule a layover day in transit at a lower elevation city, such as Denver or Salt Lake City, to aid in acclimatization.
Those ‘brutal’ first days
“That first day is brutal,” Purvis said. “You’ve got to rest. Surrender to the fact that you might be feeling tired, short of breath, headachy. Rest and hydrate.”
Purvis also added that symptoms can hang around for one to four days. If the symptoms have not improved in 24 hours, then descend in elevation. If symptoms become acute, then descend immediately and head to the emergency room.
Often, dehydration compounds the ill effects of altitude. Elevation, dry air, cold weather and failing to drink enough fluids lead to dehydration, which can exacerbate altitude illness.
“One solution is to hydrate before you fly, enough to urinate every two to three hours while you are traveling,” Purvis said. “Avoid anything that sucks fluids from you—caffeine, alcohol, narcotics, hot tubs and overexertion.”
Careful with prescribed drugs
Some doctors prescribe drugs such as Diamox to prevent altitude sickness. But Purvis isn’t a fan of drugs because so many are diuretics that cause further dehydration.
Instead, Purvis recommends taking a rest day upon arrival at high-elevation resorts. Instead of racing up the lifts, hydrate and allow your body to acclimatize. She also proposes eating fruits and vegetables that carry more fluids into the body rather than digging into big steak dinners and salty fries.
“Take it easy. Go shopping, go to the spa, attend a yoga class,” Purvis said. “In all of my years of going to altitude, my medicine is hydration. The key is if you just stay hydrated and rest, minor symptoms should resolve themselves.”