The high-altitude slopes of Colorado, Utah, the Sierras and the Alps evoke dreams of big mountains, endless powder and spectacular vistas. A bout of altitude sickness turns these dreams into nightmares. Resorts higher than 8,000 feet pose this risk to lowlanders. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, confusion, breathing problems and insomnia. Although your doctor can prescribe altitude sickness prevention drugs, the natural approach -- through gradual acclimation -- is the healthiest.
Most ski resorts sit within a 45-minute to two-hour drive from an interesting, lower-altitude town or city. Before you head for higher ground, spend a day or so exploring places such as Denver, Boulder or Salt Lake City. With elevations ranging from 4,000 to 5,000 feet, these pedestrian-friendly towns give you a chance to remain active while acclimatizing to the elevation. If you feel a bit woozy when you get to the ski town, avoid the slopes on the first day and explore the local art galleries, boutiques and museums.
Take It Easy
The seductive charms of the summit might call out to you, but don't get high on your first day on the slopes. Some mountain peaks rise as high as 13,000 feet. That's a lot of thin air for a lowlander to handle. The chairlift to the beginner and intermediate slopes usually stop at mid-mountain or lower. Try a few runs on these hills, assess how you feel, then go higher if you think you're ready. Even better, take a ski lesson. The pacing of the class will keep you from overdoing it, and your instructor will notice the subtle signs of altitude sickness.
The reduced atmospheric pressure at high altitude, combined with the cold temperatures and dry air, causes your water molecules to escape your body through perspiration and respiration. Hydrate with 100 ounces of water throughout the day, but not before you pick up a trail map and chart the on-mountain restrooms. Nature will make frequent calls, so be prepared. Until you have fully acclimated, resist the lure of the apres-ski drinking parties. Alcohol contributes to dehydration and exacerbates the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The words "ski-in, ski-out lodging" are music to the skier's ears. Although there's something to be said for first tracks in the morning and the ability to stick your tongue out at the people crowding into the shuttles, on-mountain lodging has its issues. Sleeping at high altitudes might exacerbate the symptoms of altitude sickness, especially in resorts whose base areas sit at 9,000 feet. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest sleeping at a lower elevation.
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.