Do you remember the world before COVID-19? Do you recall when we could freely travel far distances in search of those premier, sacred, lesser-traveled places to recreate? Those days will return eventually, but in the meantime, we can use this unprecedented free time to plan future trips for when we’re all able to travel safely again.
One oft-overlooked consideration when planning excursions is the elevation of the trip’s destination. Think about planning an expedition that requires traveling from a coastal city at sea level into Denver or Seattle and then driving into the high country. Or, consider the formidable goal of skiing down a “fourteener” – a mountain surpassing 14,000ft in elevation. In either situation, it is not unlikely that we end up just a little more out-of-breath than we’d expect, or worse…
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can affect anyone. It may be true that regular exercise and good overall health help reduce the effects of AMS, however going for a morning run at sea level, or even at 6,000ft, is not the same as climbing up alpine peaks. AMS is typically quite mild below 8,000ft, but existing medical conditions and personal health complications may increase the likelihood of being seriously affected by AMS. It is ill-advised to assume that because one is young and healthy and resides in a high-altitude mountain town that AMS and other altitude-related illnesses should be of no concern. To reiterate, AMS can affect anyone.
Fortunately, there are ways to prepare and make smart decisions to help avoid altitude sicknesses such as AMS.
First, it helps to know why a change in elevation can lead to drastic differences in the way we feel, regardless of how in-shape we are. To explain it simply, there is less oxygen available at higher elevations. Oxygen particles are farther apart due to decreased air pressure, therefore, our bodies need to work harder to stay oxygenated.
When you are at altitude, you need to be alert to signs of AMS, and have some simple plans to avoid or mitigate it. Pay attention to early warning signs of altitude illnesses like feeling light-headed, nauseous, or unable to kick a gnarly headache. Make sure to drink plenty of water and, if you start to struggle beyond normal, consider down climbing to reduce elevation. Working at a higher elevation requires more energy and uses more fluids, so be sure to bring extra water and snacks! Take frequent breaks while traveling in the high country and designate some time for recovery; it can take days or even weeks for our bodies to compensate and adjust to a new, high-altitude environment.
In the end, you need to be careful and take small steps when exerting yourself at high elevations, especially if you are over 55 years of age and/or with existing health conditions. The only way to curb symptoms associated with AMS is by moving to a lower elevation. Sometimes symptoms can be reduced simply by turning around on a fourteener and traveling back to the 9,000ft mountain town for an impromptu lunch and a post-hike refreshment. However, for many of us, that might not be enough. Many of us end up needing to return to an altitude below 8,000ft, or even lower, to fully recover.
Supplemental oxygen can help provide relief of mild symptoms and can even help in the worst of situations. In fact, it could make the difference between getting stuck on a mountain and getting to a vehicle, to a home, or, perhaps, to a nearby medical facility. Providers of supplemental oxygen, like NSP’s partner Boost Oxygen, distribute non-medical oxygen for recreational consumption.
Supplemental oxygen will not cure AMS or other altitude-related illnesses, but it could assist in getting to a safer place and may provide momentary symptomatic relief. Don’t forget to study the altitude change on all future adventures and perhaps consider adding a canister or two of supplemental oxygen to the gear list. It could prove useful!
Boost Oxygen is not a substitute for individuals who have been prescribed Medical Oxygen (over 99% concentration) for health reasons. It is solely intended for recreational use.