High Country Living at Altitude

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Living and playing in the Rocky Mountains is amazing.  That's why so many people love to come up to the mountains!  But many people fail to prepare themselves for the lower oxygen levels that come with our mountain peaks, trails, and ski runs.

VailResorts_BRK6932_Jack_Affleck_HighRes.jpgHere in Summit County, residents and visitors alike deal with high elevation issues regularly.  The Summit Daily Newspaper did a great series on how living at altitude affects people.  Check out part of the series below!

"Life at nearly two miles high has its quirks. The air is thinner, meaning it can be harder to breathe. Dehydration sets in a lot quicker. Ultraviolet radiation is harsher because there’s less atmosphere protection between the sun and our skin." 

Picture this very common scenario:

"A visitor flies into Denver from sea level, rents a car and drives up to Summit County. Braving the traffic, potholes and white-knuckle turns along the Interstate 70 mountain corridor, they get to one of the more amazing sights in Colorado: a dazzling blue Lake Dillon framed by the majestic Gore Range with rolling, green pine forests all around.

They decide not to waste any time, and they go for a hike as soon as they get here. Not too long into the hike, they start feeling a little lightheaded, and a headache starts gnawing at their temples. Farther along, their breaths get shorter. Before they’re halfway up, everything in their body is telling them to stop. They’re nauseated, dizzy and their muscles are aching.

Suddenly, their trip to the Colorado Rocky Mountains becomes a medical emergency.

What they’re experiencing is called altitude sickness, and it’s caused by hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in body tissue. Understanding hypoxia is the key to unlocking many mysteries of human health at elevation, including why so many people who live at high elevation are able to thrive.

Hypoxia can be acute or chronic and occurs when body tissue receives less oxygen than normal. At high elevations, about 8,000 or more feet above sea level, hypoxia occurs because there is lower barometric pressure. Lower pressure means less air drawn into the body with each breath, which also means less oxygen in the lungs. The towns of Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco, and Silverthorne are all above 9,000 feet, making them hypoxic environments.

Charles Pitman, a spokesman for Summit County Rescue Group, said his team goes out on calls all the time to help people who didn’t prepare properly for high altitude.

“People come up to altitude, but they don’t acclimatize. They drive up to Summit County and want to do a very arduous climb the next day,” Pitman said. “It takes three, maybe four days to acclimatize. By not allowing themselves to do that, they not only get tired, but they’re dehydrated and don’t use the best judgment.”

Pitman said the two primary indicators of a person experiencing altitude sickness are headaches and an inability to speak. He said people experiencing dehydration and altitude sickness often see the summit of whatever mountain they’re hiking, ignore the symptoms and push forward to their goal, making more poor decisions along the way. He said the rescue group has a term for that behavior: summit-itis.

“We’ve seen many cases of extreme dehydration over the years,” Pitman said. “When we find them, it’s very difficult to run a line to get fluids because their veins have collapsed.”

Pitman’s best advice for people coming up to high elevations from lower elevations is to be educated and to listen to their bodies.

“Don’t push yourself,” Pitman said. “A lot of people are short on time and try to maximize the number of things they’ll do, and it can be very challenging for them. We see that quite frequently. People need to take at least a day or two to acclimatize.”

So how do some residents and second homeowners deal with the altitude?  Well, for some, it means recharging with an oxygen compressor or a tank, specifically at night.  People who use supplemental O2 sleep much better than those who do not.  For homeowners who don't want to mess with a tube in their nose, companies like Altitude Control Technologies offer home oxygenation for better sleep, more energy, and no altitude sickness!

Per ACT, adding oxygen to your bedroom can alleviate the symptoms of mountain sickness, provide restful sleep, and more energy throughout the day.  ACT's system provides the same oxygen levels found at lower altitudes, so you can feel as well in the mountains as you do at sea level!  Six to Eight hours of oxygen at night is enough to restore your body's oxygen saturation to normal levels.  

Check out their services at www.ACT-O2.com!

So keep in mind folks, whether you come up to Summit County to ski, hike, bike, or sightseeing, make sure to take the time to let your body adapt.  The high country is a wonderful place to live and play, but make sure you are ready to go!