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Avoid Altitude Sickness

High altitude is a powerful thing. It’s what gives the Colorado Rockies and Utah’s Wasatch mountains the light, dry powder that engulfs you as you lay in turns, shooting up and over your head, perhaps momentarily blindingyou or obstructing your airway, and then lingering in the air for several magical moments once you’re gone. It’s a breed of snow that lower elevations and warmer climates simply never see. Some call it “champagne,” others “blower”—whatever you call it; it’s rare and wonderful.


However, when you’re not acclimated to these elevations, the trade off to good snow is extreme fatigue and shortness of breath, headaches, bad sleep, gas, intense thirst, the one-beer drunk, and of course the one-beer hangover. Ah, good times!

Let me explain what’s happening to you.

As you gain in altitude, the barometric pressure drops along with a corresponding drop in oxygen pressure. At 12,000 feet (around the height of the top of Breckenridge, Colorado), there’re roughly 40-percent fewer oxygen molecules per breath, and before you’re acclimatized, your body experiences real oxygen deprivation: Your once supple expanse of sponge-like lung constricts into a tiny straw-like thing, causing you to struggle relentlessly for every small gulp of thin mountain air you can suck in. When hiking, each step up the bootpack is a monstrous feat of energy exertion. A subtle taste of iron floats into your mouth, as if your lungs really are bleeding (actually, lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from capillaries and build-up in both the lungs and the brain). You feel light-headed and loopy, and every now and then a mysterious altitude headache pierces your peaceful skull.

But don’t despair. There ARE a few things you can do:

Drink water! Dehydration is the crux of altitude acclimatization, so get used to chugging water. Start three days before your trip so your body’s already dialed in, and don’t stop until you get back home.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol. This one ain’t brain surgery—alcohol and caffeine dehydrate you. Also, they exacerbate other altitude problems like insomnia and headaches. Alcohol affects you more both on the front and back end—you get tipsy on smaller amounts of booze AND have a worse hangover in the morning. Consider yourself warned.

Take ’er easy. Possibly easier said than done, but the first day of your trip, just lay low and calibrate. Maybe do a half day of riding—or even acclimate at a midway point like Denver for the day. An all-day hike fresh off the plane could very possibly send you into a world of hurt.

Eat light meals. High altitude causes constipation and gas. Sounds nice, huh? Eating healthfully and moderately is gonna make things go way WAY smoother for you.

Pack ibuprofen and melatonin. Insomnia makes me want to cry like a baby—I hate it! For this reason, I never travel to altitude without melatonin, valerian root, Tylenol PM, or some such other sleep aid. Also, bring those pain relievers and at the first sign of a headache, pop a couple to keep things in check.

Seek medical attention if you feel extremely uncomfortable or are in undue amounts of pain. Real altitude sickness is a serious thing and is nothing to mess with!


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