- Coping with High altitudes on Your Next Ski Vacation
Ski Santa Fe in New Mexico has this
long mogul run that angles down just under the top of the resort’s
12,000-foot summit. I had just started into the run a couple years ago and
suddenly felt dizzy, light-headed, nauseous, weak as a kitten and unable
to make one more turn.
If I’d been thinking clearly, I’d have
concluded immediately that the high altitude., dehydration and too much
wine the night before had just caught up with me. But I thought maybe that
I had the flu as I slowly made it to the bottom. One hour of rest and four
glasses of water later, I felt fine.
Skiers and snowboarders battle thin
air, dehydration, blinding sun and windburn daily. Those who know how to
cope with the elements usually breeze through the day while those who
aren’t quiet sure what is happening to their bodies – or how to recover –
have a miserable time.
During her four years at the Kirkwood
ski resort in Northern California, Dr. Nita Sandhu Schwartz has treated
hundreds of skiers for conditions attributed to high mountain exposure.
Dr. Schwartz, a board-certified emergency physician, is the owner and
medical director of Mountaintop Medical Associates which run’s Kirkwood’s
“By far,” she said, “the most common
problem in battling the elements is dehydration. People just don’t realize
how much liquid you need to drink at high altitudes. So because of their
lack of liquids, they typically suffer fatigue, headaches and nausea.”
And those are the lucky ones. From
time to time, the ski patrollers at Kirkwood find guests wandering around
in the woods totally confused about where they are or what they are doing.
Extreme dehydration, coupled with cold temperatures and alcohol, can do
that to you, explained Dr. Schwartz.
She recommends that skiers and
snowboarders drink at least eight, 8-ounce glasses of liquid a day. Other
sports medicine doctors suggest drinking up to 100 ounces of water a day
and possibly investing in one of those portable winter hydration packs
that are becoming increasingly popular. Drinking too much alcohol, coffee
or tea is not advised as they are diuretics and can further contribute to
An undetermined number of flatlanders
who come to the peaks are prone to altitude sickness and have headaches,
nausea or sleep disturbances. Because of Kirkwood’s relative high
elevation – a 7,800 foot base and 9,800-foot summit -- skiers and riders
at the resort may experience this phenomenon more often than do those who
visit lower-elevation resorts.
The higher you travel, the less oxygen
there is to breathe. Symptoms arise at different elevation for different
“About 6,500 feet,” said Dr. Schwartz,
“is the base level where you first see symptoms if you are prone to
altitude sickness. You can experience mild forms of sickness at 6,500 feet
but you really do not get into any problems until about 10,000 feet. If
you can, ascend slowly and perhaps stay at a lower elevation the night
before you ski so your body can adjust to the lower oxygen
A spokesman for the Stanford Travel
Medicine Service in Palo Alto said that good health, a youthful age or
mountain experience are not safeguards against altitude sickness. The
service has diagnosed altitude sickness in 16-year-old boys who visited
Lake Tahoe and notes that about three years ago, famed mountain-climber
Sir Edmund Hillary visited Lake Tahoe and suffered through a serious bout
of altitude sickness.
He noted that most people have no
problems with altitude sickness at the 6,000-foot level in the mountains.
But at 8,000 feet, about 20 percent of the population will have symptoms.
The percentage goes up the higher you go.
Dr. Schwartz said the second-most
common (mountain exposure) problem she sees in the Kirkwood clinic is UV
keratitis. The disorder amounts to a sunburn of the eyes.
“We see this a lot in the spring,” she
said, “because the spring sun is very intense and also reflects off the
snow. Some people do not wear sun glasses and they get a burn to the eyes
that is very painful.”
Some dermatologists recommend that
winter sports enthusiasts use a sun screen with a rating of at least SPF
35. This is based on the fact that every 1,000 feet you ascend is equal to
at least a five percent increase in UV intensity. And they note that with
ozone depletion likely to continue, skiers and snowboarders will have an
even higher risk for sunburn and skin cancer in the future.
Another threat to the skin is
windburn. You see a number of people come off the mountain at the end of
the day with glowing red faces despite applying sun screen several times
Dr. Darrell Rigel, a clinical
professor of dermatology at the New York University Medical Center, said
that these people most likely have windburn, which is the result of tiny
micro particles in the air creating friction against the skin and causing
irritation. Add cold air and high speeds, and skiers and snowboarders are
prime targets for this natural sandblasting.
He explained that while windburn,
which often leaves the skin red and feeling warm for hours, hasn’t been
shown to be cancerous, prolonged exposure to windburn can make the skin
dry and leathery. And then facial wrinkles and lines become more
pronounced. To avoid windburn, look for sun screens that have a
moisturizer or carry a small bottle of skin moisturizer and apply it about
every two hours.
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