Avoiding Altitude Woes: What To Bring On Your Next Ski Trip

skierThere are few things that bum out a ski trip more than altitude issues. Even if your symptoms are just in the form of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) – headache, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia or nausea – it’s often enough to make you wish you’d stayed at home.

I live in Colorado, and have resided in a couple of high-altitude ski towns in the past. Since our ski season just kicked off, for the purposes of this post I’m only focusing on AMS, rather than more serious forms of altitude sickness.

Predisposition to AMS is subjective. Age, physiology, genetics, and physical fitness may or may not play a role. If, however, you’ve got congestive heart failure, a nice alpine getaway may not be the best thing. Conversely, if you’re not in the habit of drinking lots of water at elevation, you’re going to feel like hell, regardless of how fit you are.

The higher the elevation, the harder your body has to work, because air pressure is lower (i.e. there’s less oxygen, which is also why it’s dehydrating). The body responds by producing more red blood cells to increase circulation. The short answer is, high elevations stress the body.

To ensure your next visit to the mountains is free of altitude-related woes, follow these tips:

  • Hydrate – with water, not soda or other sugary beverages – then hydrate some more. Amounts vary depending upon your gender, activity level and weight; 2.5 liters a day is considered a rough daily estimate necessary for good health at sea level. If you’re seriously shredding the pow, then a sports drink with electrolytes at day’s end is also a good idea.
  • If you have health concerns, acclimate slowly, if possible. Try to spend a night at a lower elevation before heading to your destination. Example: Fly into Denver (5,280 feet), before heading to Aspen (7,890 feet).
  • Go easy the first 48 hours, as you acclimatize.
  • Since you’re burning and expending more calories, be sure to eat small, regular meals or snacks when you’re out there tearing it up on the slopes.
  • Reduce (I know better than to say “avoid”) consumption of alcohol. At altitude, one drink has double the impact. This makes for a cheap date, but it can do a number on your head and body. Pace yourself, and drink a glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage. You’re welcome.
  • Take Diamox, ibuprofen, or aspirin, which will eliminate many of your symptoms such as headache, sluggishness, or dizziness. When I attended culinary school in Vail, one of our classrooms was located at 11,000 feet. Our first week of school, most of us were nodding off due to the altitude, and aspirin was far more effective than caffeine.
  • If you’re having trouble sleeping, you can try an OTC, or avail yourself of the local hot tub or a warm bath before bed (remember to hydrate afterward!). If you already have insomnia issues, be sure to bring your prescription or regular OTC with you.
  • Slather on the sunscreen. Not only is the sun far stronger at elevation, but its reflection off the snow can reduce your skin and eyes to cinders. Know what else a potent sunburn does? Speeds dehydration. As well as photoaging and skin cancer, but that’s a topic for another article.
  • Don’t get cocky. I live at 5360 feet, and sometimes, even I forget to follow my own advice – a certain crushing hangover in Vail two weeks ago comes to mind. Just because you live at altitude doesn’t mean you’re used to higher altitude. You’ll be better conditioned, yes. But you still need to hydrate regularly, and for the love of god, go easy on the bourbon rocks.

For more detailed information on altitude sickness, including extreme elevations, click here.

Wishing you a safe, happy snow season!

[Photo credits: skier, Flickr user laszlo-photo; tea, Flickr user Kitty Terwolbeck]

A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
telluride ghost towns
Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]