Altitude Sickness

Symptoms and Description

One of the least-discussed, - mentioned, or - whispered problems with skiing the great high-altitude resorts in the towering mountains is. . . the altitude blahs. Otherwise known as mountain or altitude sickness (MS), in one way or another this affects almost all skiers from lowland areas who vacation at altitudes above 7,000 feet. Generally, it sets in one or two days after we unpack our ski bags. For the most part, it’s no more serious than tiring more easily and breathing somewhat more heavily than usual for the first few days after we arrive.

However, altitude sickness can also be a more serious problem. Symptoms may include any, or all, of the following: unexplained headaches not relieved by medication; a lack of appetite; sleeplessness; diarrhea; nausea; and, in some vague way resembling a hangover, not feeling especially well. Skiers may attribute their symptoms to a sudden cold, a touch of the flu, or “something 1 ate.”

In acute cases, skiers may vomit; fainting is not uncommon. On the slopes, affected skiers may lose their sense of balance, falling frequently. There can also be changes in normal behavior patterns. A few victims will become sullen or inexplicably irritable. Extreme shortness of breath at this stage is common.

The Mountaineers, a distinguished outdoor organization in Seattle, warns: “Most people wouldn’t think twice about occasional headaches, loss of appetite, or drowsiness. But at high altitudes they are not to be ignored. They are early symptoms of altitude sickness, a potentially deadly imbalance that can affect hikers, skiers, mountain climbers, and anyone traveling above 7,000 feet.”

Serious altitude sickness is rare at elevations below 8,000 to 10,000 feet. But if acute problems develop at any elevation, the skier should be taken promptly to a local doctor familiar with altitude illness, or to the ski area first-aid station. If no medical help is available, The Mountaineers recommends immediate evacuation to lower altitudes.

Mountain sickness is not caused by the height of the summit where you get off the lift. This might be 9,000 or 12,000 feet. You’re only at that elevation briefly. It’s the base elevation - where you spend your time when you hang up your skis - that’s significant.

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