Some skiers pay a steep price for a week of powder, even if they get good rates on flights, accommodations and lift tickets. That's because even the most savvy traveler can't negotiate altitude out of the deal.
Everyone reacts differently to a change in elevation, but it is not unusual for the human body to do a physiological snow-plow during the first few days of a ski trip.
"You will probably feel the worst about 48 hours after arriving," said Barry Mink, an internist at the Aspen (Colo.) Clinic. "Headaches, nausea, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, stomach gas, dry mouth and nose are all possible symptoms. We see the whole range every winter."
The main difficulties of what's called acute mountain sickness begin at 5,280 feet -- or one mile high, the point where oxygen density starts to drop in geometric proportions. In fact, the change from 5,000 feet to 7,500 feet is deemed harder than going from sea level to 5,000 feet, and the same holds for each 2,500-foot increase after that.
"You will feel it for a few days even climbing stairs or walking up a small hill from the lodge to a restaurant," said Jack Daniels, an exercise researcher who teaches at Arizona State University in Tempe and still deflecting the inevitable jokes about his whiskey-making abilities.
"Your heart will beat faster at rest. It's not necessarily risky; your body is simply adjusting to less oxygen in the air," he said.
One proviso: Sudden coughing and chest discomfort, similar to a bronchial condition could signal fluid buildup in the lungs. You should seek immediate medical attention.
Scientists estimate oxygen density is 40 percent less in Aspen (7,930 feet) than at sea level. Consequently, when we breathe at such altitudes, our blood won't carry as much oxygen to individual cells.
Daniels said this makes the typical skier feel "about 15 percent worse" for the first two to five days -- it varies per individual for intensity and duration.
From base to summit
"You need to respect the change between the base and peak of the mountain," said Daniels, who has worked with many world-class athletes on altitude adjustment. "I'm not saying don't ski the first two or three days, but to ease into it. Go for the tougher runs later in the week when your body is less affected at the summit."
Mink offered some basic guidelines for the first 48 hours of a trip: Eat lightly, don't drink alcohol, get to bed early, nap when drowsy and consume about 50 to 80 ounces of water. His advice is especially directed at the opening 24 hours.
"Lots of people come here and feel great the first morning on the slopes because the altitude hasn't fully affected them yet," he explained. "They hit the slopes, go right to the top, then have beer or wine at lunch and ski some more before overdoing it at dinner. The next day everything catches up with them.
"Give your body a chance to acclimatize. It will pay dividends. You will have more energy for the remainder of the trip."
Mink said the optimal time to rest in a weeklong trip is day two or three, rather than skiing like mad for four or five days before taking a slow day.
There is good news for anyone staying beyond a week: You'll get stronger. By the seventh day, the body compensates for the oxygen shortage in the blood by taking more air into the lungs.
Daniels said there are other ways to protect against altitude sickness, provided you have about four to eight weeks before departing for the snow.
"Getting into good aerobic shape is quite helpful," he said. "Get on a treadmill, cross-country ski trainer or exercise bike to improve your cardiovascular conditioning. It also helps to do some weight training; you will be more able to handle the quick turns and stops of skiing, drawing less energy from the body."
Enough iron in the diet is perhaps even more critical, said Daniels. But consult your physician or nutritionist before adding an iron supplement; too much iron in the blood can be detrimental.
Pub Date: 11/17/96