Fact: The air at 13,000’ (the top of Arapahoe Basin) has the same percentage of oxygen as the air in Manhattan.
However, as you go up in elevation, atmospheric pressure decreases, delivering less oxygen per breath to our red blood cells. It’s the increase in our red blood cells over time that helps us adjust to this decreased density of oxygen, also known as acclimatization.
Each winter, millions of skiers plan their vacations to high altitude ski areas nationwide, and a large number of them are visiting from near sea-level elevations. Humans are not designed for rapid travel from 0 to 10,000+ feet without adverse effects, and many have had their trips outright ruined by Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). But fear not, Lowlanders, there is a solution! Awareness, planning, and prevention will keep you on the slopes and breathing easy this year.
Know Before you Go. Most folks begin to feel the effects of altitude above 7000’. If you’re planning a trip to Mt. Baker Ski Area, you need not worry. Comparatively, Aspen Highlands has a base elevation of 8000’ and tops out at 11600’. Do your research and plan accordingly.
Walk don’t Run to the Mountains. High altitude climbers pace themselves by ascending to higher ground slowly. Plan your trip this way by staying at an intermediate elevation en route. For instance, a night or two at 5200’ in Denver before driving to 9,700’ at Copper will let your body begin to adjust.
Sleep Low. If possible, book your accommodations at the lowest convenient altitude. Your body gets the chance to rest, recover, and acclimatize when you descend.
Hydrate. You will dehydrate faster at high altitude due to increased respirations. Common symptoms of AMS include headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, and nausea. These symptoms are exacerbated by dehydration. Drink at least four liters of water per day and consume alcohol in moderation.
Rest! We’re always psyched to get out and hit the slopes hard for our week off. Try to pace yourself by starting slow and taking a rest day when needed. If you are experiencing symptoms of AMS, take a day to drive down valley and soak in the hot springs.
Remember, if symptoms persist or worsen, get down to lower elevation and/or go see the doc. A relatively harmless case of AMS can turn into to a more severe condition if left untreated… But I’m sure it won’t because you’re following my advice to a T!
Have any questions or additional tips for skiing at altitude? Share in the comments below!
Eat and drink well. I have seen correlations between poor acclimatization and poor diet in people who are new to climbing and skiing at altitude. I usually suggest that folks cut down on caffeine and sugary foods before heading to altitude – both of which inhibit hydration.
Thanks for the tips. Could you cite the source for the oxygen levels in Manhattan?
Oxygen percentages by volume are the same everywhere on the planet. They are: 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.039% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. However, at higher altitudes, the total amount of air decreases meaning there is less oxygen, but also less nitrogen, less argon, and less carbon dioxide. The percentage of each gas still remains the same though. Wikipedia or any Earth Science text book backs this information up.