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Coping with High altitudes on Your Next Ski Vacation

Bob Goligoski

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 medical clinic.

“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 dehydration.

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 people.

“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 concentrations.”

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 that day.

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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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. (More about the writer.)


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Last Revised: Friday, May 15, 2015 06:38:58 AM
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