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

There 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]

Can Ibuprofen Fend Off Altitude Sickness?

The results of a new study could deliver good news for adventure travelers. According to an article published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, the over-the-counter medication ibuprofen could be an effective agent in staving off the effects of altitude sickness such as nausea, headaches and fatigue.

The study was conducted in California’s White Mountains and featured 86 men and women who spent two days hiking at altitudes as high as 3381 meters (12,570 feet). Half the group was randomly selected to take four doses of 600 mg of ibuprofen over the course of the study while the other half – the control group – was given a placebo. At the end of the hike, 43 percent of the participants who took the drug reported that they experienced some symptoms of altitude sickness as compared to 69 percent of those who didn’t use the medication.

While the sample size for this study is small, the methodology behind it is strong. For instance, most of the hikers that participated live at or near sea level and all of them spent the night at 1249 meters (4100 feet) before starting their trek. They took their first dose of ibuprofen about six hours before they started hiking and then drove up to 3566 meters (11,700 feet), where they took a second dose as they hit the trail. The participants then proceeded to the highest point of the hike, took a third dose and spent the night at that altitude. The following morning, before proceeding down, they took their fourth and final dose. The results speak for themselves – a 26 percent drop in the likelihood of suffering the effects of altitude sickness.

Many adventure travelers love to visit high altitude destinations such as the Andes, Alps and Himalaya. For those who routinely suffer from acute mountain sickness while traveling, this news could be a potential godsend that allows them to visit places they may not have considered before. Obviously, further research will need to be conducted but the results so far are very promising. Perhaps packing a bottle of ibuprofen, also known as Advil and Motrin, on your next adventure could be the difference between a miserable trip and a great one.

Argentine Doctors Study the Effects of Altitude While on the Mountain

Two Argentine doctors have conducted a unique medical study to examine the effects of altitude on the human body by taking their test subjects to a unique laboratory, the 6739 meter (22,109 feet) tall volcano named Mount Llullaillaco located in the Atacama Desert along the border of Argentina and Chile.

Dr. Leandro Seoane and Dr. Rolando Nervi took a team of climbers to Llullaillaco on January 18th of this year and began their ascent of the mountain, conducting various tests at predetermined spots along the route to the summit. Over the next nine days, they took blood pressure, heart and respitory readings, as well as blood oxygen saturation measurements. They also examined the climbers vision, took blood tests, and assessed the team for Acute Mountain Sickness. The baseline tests were conducted at Tolar Grande town, a village located at 3500 meters on the mountain, and then again at Base Camp (4900 meters), Camp 1 (5500 meters), Camp 2 (6000 meters), and then one final time at 6400 meters.

The results showed the body’s remarkable ability to adapt to the changing conditions on the mountain as climbers acclimatized and adapted to the lower levels of oxygen as they moved higher on the mountain. As they became accustomed to the environment, the lack of oxygen became less of an issue, and the climbers worked more efficiently at higher alittudes.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is also known as altitude sickness, and it can effect just about anyone that climbs above 2400 meters (7875 feet). The exact causes are as of yet unknown, which is why tests like this one are so important. We do know that it does relate to exposure to low air pressure at altitude. Symptoms include loss of appetite, light-headedness, insomnia, headaches and more. In its most extreme forms it can result in pulmonary edema that can, at high altitudes, result in death. Generally the only way to treat the condition is to move back down the mountain to lower altitudes and richer oxygen levels.

Mount Llullaillaco is the fourth tallest volcano in the world, and a challenging climb, but it doesn’t compare to the larger peaks such as Everest. A similar study to the ones performed by the Argentines has been conducted on the worlds tallest mountain over the past couple of years, recording similar results at even higher altitudes. That research study is known as the Caudwell Xtreme Everest project.

AMS continues to be a great concern for all climbers at altitude, and even for travelers who visit remote locations that also happen to be thousands of feet above sea level. But with continued studies like these two, we can hope to understand the causes and develop more effective treatments.