With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, many Rocky Mountain ski resorts are getting ready to open. A few others already have their lifts running. Skiing and snowboarding are on the brain.
Last week, I posted something about fitness tips to get ready for ski season. But once you’re in shape, there are other considerations to prepare for. One of the biggest challenges we flatlanders face is dealing with altitude issues.
Here in Oklahoma City, most of us live somewhere between 1,000 feet and 1,300 feet above sea level. The air here won’t be much thinner than it would be at sea level. It’s thick and oxygen rich. The highest elevations people in Oklahoma live at are somewhere around 4,200 feet – thinner, but still pretty reasonable. Others live at elevations just over 400 feet.
Contrast that to what you’ll find at the base of most Rocky Mountain ski lifts. Most of them start somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 feet. The air is remarkably thinner up there. At the top of a lift, you might be as high as 12,000 feet.
Altitude at these heights does a number of things to you. Since there’s less oxygen, your heart and lungs work harder. To compensate for the lack of oxygen, your body will try to make more red blood cells, which in turn will thicken the blood stream, making your circulatory system work even harder.
Vigorous exercise at high altitude will make you burn calories at a much higher rate than normal. Since you’ll be breathing more and harder, you will lose a lot of moisture through exhaling. This dehydrating effect is compounded by the fact that the air in the Rockies is already pretty dry.
Thickening blood and dehydration can cause headaches. Worse, these conditions, plus the increased calorie burn at altitude, can bring about altitude sickness.
The only cure for altitude sickness is to go a lower elevation. But prevention could help stave off this condition. Some things I’ve learned:
Hydrate early and often. Drink plenty of water in the days leading up to your trip. Don’t wait till you get to the ski lift to pound down a bottle of water. Start pumping the water down a few days in advance and keep up your hydration pace throughout your stay. You should have water with you as you ski and ride, and drink often, even if you don’t feel thirsty. If you wait until you’re thirsty, it’s pretty much too late. Caffeinated drinks and alcohol will work against you, so if you’re drinking coffee or chugging back a beer or two, you’ll need even more water to compensate.
Eat well. Get in a good balance of carbohydrates and proteins. Bring snacks with you on the mountain and stop to munch every now and then. Keeping your energy level up will help fight the effects of altitude.
Pace yourself. Even if you’re in good shape, you’re not in mountain shape if you live down here on the plains. Your first day on the hill should be measured. As your body acclimates, then you can push yourself more.
Speaking of acclimatizing… You need to give your body time, particularly if you’re flying in to your destination. Spend at least a day getting used to the altitude by taking it easy, going for brisk walks and just allowing your body to adjust.
Learn to love the baby aspirin. This is a standard part of my first-aid kit on the mountain for this reason: Aspirin helps thin the blood, allowing for a more free flow of your bloodstream. Start popping low-dose baby aspirins a day or two before your trip and in the mornings during your stay.
There are probably other tips to help deal with altitude issues, so do a little research and act accordingly. Have fun on the slopes!