How To Stay Healthy On Spring Break

mezcalWhether you’re a beach-bound college student or a middle-aged couple headed to the Rockies for some end-of-season snow, spring break presents the same health risks every year. Fortunately, they’re all easily preventable by using common sense and following a few basic rules.

This year, here’s hoping your only souvenirs are great photos and even better memories.

Hangover helpers
You could just watch your alcohol consumption, or try drinking a glass of water in between drinks, but I hear you laughing. Try to maintain, especially if you’re in a foreign country, traveling alone or at altitude. If I wake up with a hangover that not even a truckload of Tylenol can cure (it’s also not good for your liver when taken in combination with booze), I swear by coconut water, which is loaded with electrolytes. Don’t forget to consume regular water, as well, and get something in your stomach that’s full of complex carbs and protein, not grease (sorry).

Adjust for altitude
Regardless of your physical condition, altitude sickness can strike anyone. Give yourself a couple of days to acclimate, hydrate frequently and take ibuprofen, aspirin or even Diamox if you’re really feeling bad. Watch your alcohol consumption! One drink has the effect of two (see above if you ignore this advice).

Prevent food- or waterborne illness
Far be it from me to tell anyone to avoid street food, unless they have a compromised immune system, or are very old or young. You can safely enjoy street eats in foreign countries, as long as you know what to look for. If a stall or vendor doesn’t have a line, or their sanitation practices are poor, give it a miss; the same rule applies to restaurants (just because gringos flock there doesn’t mean it’s safe). As for water, I avoid ice cubes in rural areas and from street vendors, and always check bottled water in developing nations to make sure the seal isn’t broken. Don’t forget to travel with Imodium, because nothing is ever foolproof.

Save your skin
Yes, you need to wear sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy, rainy or snowing, and you need to reapply it thoroughly every two hours. Wear a minimum SPF 30 broad spectrum product. Ask your dermatologist for referrals; not all brands are created equal.

Be self-aware
Being drunk n’ sloppy is never attractive, but it can also be downright dangerous. Know your limit, stick with you friends if you’re not traveling solo, and if you (ahem) get separated, maintain phone contact, let them know where you are and who you’re with, and when they can expect you back. We’ve all had a spring fling, but safety should always come first.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dbrekke]@

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]

Himalayan High: dangers of the trek

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared all kinds of thoughts on an Everest Base Camp trek, one of the best long distance hikes anywhere in the world. I’ve also shared my thoughts on the best ways to prepare for the trek and which gear items you should bring along with you to the Himalaya. In this, the final article in the Himalayan High series, I’ll share some thoughts on the potential dangers of the trek.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest danger that anyone trekking in the Himalaya will face is the altitude. It is the great equalizer when it comes to determining success or failure on a high mountain trek, and even the most physically gifted and prepared hikers can be laid low by the thin air. Common symptoms that are brought on by altitude include headaches, dizzy spells, nausea, shortness of breath, and a loss of appetite. More serious signs of AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness, include lethargy, sometimes to an extreme level, an inability to sleep, and vomiting.

Most of the members of my trekking group experienced at least one of those symptoms to some degree or another. Nearly everyone reported headaches and nausea of varying degrees, with a few experiencing serious issues. Of our 12 person group, two were unable to complete the trek to Base Camp. One of those suffered considerable nausea and was lacking in strength, so he elected to go down of his own accord. The other, had a full on case of AMS, and was lethargic to the point of not being able to stay awake. She was slurring her words considerably and was physically ill to the point where she couldn’t keep any food down. It became so serious that she had to be carried down the mountain by our porters, and would eventually recover at a lower altitude.
As for myself, for the most part I suffered few problems from the altitude. I would often start the day with a slight headache and feeling a bit hung over, but once we hit the trail, I would soon shake off the sluggishness altogether. Unfortunately, I did suffer one side effect that has troubled me in the past – the inability to sleep well at altitude. I’d go to bed each night exhausted from the long day on the trail, and almost without fail, I’d wake up in an hour or two later, and be wide awake for most of the rest of the night. It was rather frustrating, especially over a 12 day hike.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about altitude. It is nearly impossible to prepare for unless you already live in the mountains, and as I said, it effects everyone differently. The best advice I can give is to make sure you’re proceeding up the trail at a slow, measured pace, and take the acclimatization process very seriously. Also, ask your doctor for a prescription of Diamox before you go. It is a drug that is very popular with mountaineers and helps ward off many of the effects of altitude sickness.

One ailment that was difficult to avoid is the dreaded Khumbu Cough. It is a dry, sometimes painful, hack that practically everyone hiking in the region contracts. The cough is a result of the extremely dry air and cold temperatures, causing an irritation of the bronchi in the lungs and seems to be exasperated by high levels of exertion. Everyone in my group, without exception, suffered the Khumbu Cough to some degree, including myself. But in an odd twist, my cough wasn’t so bad while I was actually in Nepal, but managed to somehow get worse after I came home. Avoiding the cough is not easy, but wearing a mask or covering your mouth and nose with a Buff, can help limit the damage.

The next most common problem that most travelers in the region experience is gastrointestinal issues, most often brought on by the food or water. Trekkers will generally eat each evening in the teahouses that they are staying at, and while the food doesn’t taste half bad, it has the potential to be problematic for exhausted hikers who are already dealing with all kinds of other conditions. The fact that all food items, and pretty much everything else for that matter, has to be carried up the mountain by porters, gives it ample opportunity to spoil, especially items that easily perishable such as meats and cheeses.

Like many places in the world, the water can be a challenge to deal with as well. You can fill your water bottles for free in most teahouses, but you’ll want to treat it with water purification tablets or use a filter of some kind before drinking it. If you don’t, you’re likely to suffer terrible GI issues, which isn’t a fun thing to experience when you’re out on a trail for hours at a time.

Fortunately, I was once again spared any GI issues, but other members of the group were not so lucky. Some suffered from travelers diarrhea, and were frequently looking for a private rock to serve as shelter while they heeded the frequent calls of nature. Others had outright food poisoning, getting sick from the food in general. My advice is to stick to basic foods and avoid anything exotic. You’ll also want to avoid meats and cheeses when ever possible, especially as you go higher.

As on any hike, you do run the risk of physical injury while trekking the Khumbu. There are plenty of places on the trail where you can slip and fall, damaging more than just your pride. Twisted ankles and knees are a real possibility, especially considering that some portions of the trail are make-shift stairs carved out of rock. After climbing up those stairs for a couple of hours, your tired legs are more likely to cause a stumble, and while there were a few such incidences in my group, no one was seriously injured.

One other common concern for travelers heading to Nepal is a potential chance encounter with the Maoist Rebels that are known to inhabit the countryside and remain active there, despite the fact that they won control of the government a few years back in democratic elections. In the past, those rebels were known to shake down trekkers for money and occasionally kidnap them as well. But those days are behind us, and visitors can now roam the countryside with out too much fear. They were seldom an issue on the road to Everest to begin with, and on my trek there was little sign of them outside of a few propaganda posters.

Like any trip to remote region of the world, there are always inherent dangers. But the amazing scenery, friendly people, and wonderful culture make this journey one that is well worth taking. Despite suffering issues from altitude, exhaustion, and an extremely nasty cough, I still enjoyed every minute of my adventure in the Himalaya, and suspect that any adventurous traveler would feel the same.