How to deal with High Altitude in Colorado
The information contained on this page is merely a summary of what I have learned. I am not a medical doctor. Consult your physician to receive reliable information before traveling to high elevations.
High Altitude in terms of human physiology is defined as an altitude exceeding 8,000 feet of elevation. (As compared to high altitude for cooking being defined as above 3,000 feet of elevation.) Colorado's highest point is 14,433 feet at the summit of Mount Elbert. Relatively few people ever visit the summit of Mt. Elbert, however many of the popular tourist towns lie above the 8,000 foot mark. Most people who travel from a low altitude to a high altitude will experience some symptoms relating to the high altitude. Few people will suffer from anything other than minor symptoms, though.
What is commonly refered to as Altitude sickness is broken down into three categories.
- Accute Mountain Sickness (AMS)- Mild to moderate symptoms, posing no long term health risk.
- High Altitude Pulmonary Edemia (HAPE)- Fluid collecting in the lungs due to inadequate acclimation. Potentially deadly.
- High Altitude Cerebral Edemia (HACE)- Fluid collecting in the brain due to inadequate acclimation. Very deadly.
HAPE and HACE are extremely rare below 12,000 feet elevation and so I will simply be focusing on AMS.
What is AMS?
In simple terms AMS is the result of your body not getting enough oxygen for an extended period of time. Symptoms usually take between a half hour and two hours to set in. Physical activity increases the speed symptoms will appear.
Mild symptoms include:
Severe symtoms can be:
- Reduced congnative abilities
These lists are not exhaustive of all symptoms but are the most common ones.
- Loss of muscle control
- Memory loss
How can I prevent AMS?
Unfortunately in todays society most people turn to some sort of medication first. Diamox is an effective medication used to help a person acclimatize faster. This medication must be started a week before going to high altitude to acheive its full effectiveness. The problem with this sort of acclimation is that it is artificial and once the drug runs you true acclimation must occur.
The easiest and most effective step towards preventing the effects of AMS is to drink large amounts of water. I recommend at least a minimum of a liter every 4 hours of inactivity and a liter every 2 hours of physical activity. You will need to urinate more often, and this is the goal since it will give your body more opportunity to expel the excess lactic acid in your system.
Slowing your pace will also help prevent AMS. Since there is less oxygen, you must reduce your need for it. Don't try to keep up with everyone else. Find a pace that works for you and the faster hikers should slow their pace to accomidate you.
What do I do if I experience AMS?
If you do succomb to AMS, treat symptoms appropriately. Treat a headache with asprin. Asprin will open blood vessels and encourage more blood flow which may help the cause as well as the symptom. For nausea take a couple of Tums. Be sure to rest when you're tired, even if you feel as if you haven't done enough to need a rest.
Keep an eye on other people you are with. As AMS sets in cognative abilities drop, that means that they may not have the presence of mind to notice they are getting AMS. A study was done where a group of people who were not acclimated to high altitude were given a set of tests similar to SATs at sea level and then at 14,000 feet. Their scores at 14,000 feet were 30% lower than at sea level and the time to complete the tests increased 25%.
If any of the sever symptoms appear in anyone, that person must descend immediately and with another person.