Altitude Sickness in Colorado

Altitude Sickness in Colorado

SEABA Heliski Weeks, Haines Alaska

Altitude Sickness Colorado

Altitude sickness (Acute Mountain Sickness) is a common health concern for those heading to the Colorado ski areas, particularly those who usually reside at sea level. This is not surprising considering that Colorado has the highest average elevation of any of the states. Colorado also has over 50 fourteeners (mountains with peaks higher than 14,000 feet), and the majority of the Colorado ski resorts have a top elevation of greater than 9,843 feet (3,000 metres).

Breckenridge has the highest lifted elevation of the Colorado ski areas at an incredible 12,800 feet (3,900 metres), and if you’re not breathless enough, you can hike up to 12,998 feet (3,963 metres). Silverton Mountain really tests the body. From the top of the chairlift at 12,300 feet there’s hiking along a ridge up to 13,487 feet (4,111 metres)! Other Colorado ski resorts with high altitude include Arapahoe Basin, Telluride, Snowmass, Loveland, Keystone, and Copper Mountain.

Some of the Colorado ski towns are also at high altitude so insomnia may affect seaside dwellers for the first couple of nights. Leadville, the “2 mile high city”, doesn’t quite reach 2 miles at an elevation of 10,152 feet (3,094 m), whilst the towns of Breckenridge (9,602 feet), Silverton (9,305 feet), Snowmass Village (9,100 feet), and Crested Butte (8,908 feet) are also pretty high.

The elevation of some Colorado cat skiing operations is very high, but thankfully you generally don’t have to hike so you can save your energy for flying downhill. Cat skiing companies with elevations of 3,800 metres (12,500 feet) or above include Silverton Powdercats and Chicago Ridge.

Altitude Sickness Symptoms

Acute mountain sickness (AMS) can occur above 2,400 metres (8,000 feet), although in some people it can also present at lower elevations. Altitude sickness affects about 40% of people to some degree at a moderate altitude (about 10,000 feet). Symptoms may become evident about 6 hours after ascent, but sometimes as quickly as one hour. Headache is the most common altitude sickness symptom, which will occur in the presence of other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, increased heart rate, and insomnia. Exertion such as hiking, skiing or snowboarding aggravates the symptoms.

In more severe forms, altitude sickness symptoms include a wet cough (due to pulmonary oedema), unsteady gait (akin to drunken walking), lack of coordination, vomiting, and loss of consciousness (from brain swelling aka cerebral oedema). Severe forms of high altitude sickness are very serious, can be fatal, and require medical attention.

The onset and severity of altitude sickness symptoms are dependent on factors such as the altitude, the rate of ascent, physical activity, dehydration, alcohol consumed, and individual propensity to altitude sickness. Recent acclimatization to very low elevations is also a major factor with Acute Mountain Sickness.

Altitude Sickness Prevention

Prevention is the best cure. Ascend slowly if you can and acclimatize at a moderate elevation before proceeding to a higher altitude. Take it relatively easy for the first couple of days, increase non-alcoholic fluids, minimise or eliminate alcohol intake, and avoid moderate to high dose sleeping tablets.

Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a prescription medicine that can be taken a day or two prior to ascent to speed up the acclimatisation process. The little blue pill Viagra is also effective in preventing altitude sickness, so long as you can cope with the interesting side-effects! Aspirin can also assist with prevention of mild AMS.

Treatment of High Altitude Sickness

Treatment for mild altitude sickness includes rest and fluids, with symptoms likely to resolve within one to two days. Descent is a very effective treatment, and for moderate or severe illness, medical treatment should be sought. This may include oxygen.

Other Altitude Afflictions

High altitude also increases the predisposition to sun burn as well as snow blindness (sunburnt eyes), and the risk increases substantially due to the reflection of the sun off the snow. You may need to wear really high SPF sunscreen, polarised sunglasses and a cap (when you don’t have your helmet on!).

Nose bleeds are another potential problem related to the altitude. The use of a vaporizer may assist, and these are available at some of the top hotels.