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The first time we went skiing as a family, we chose a tiny mountain in the highest incorporated city in the United States; Leadville, Colorado. (read more)
At 10,152 feet above sea level, Leadville is a solid 10,102 feet higher than what we're used to at home. Of course I'd heard of elevation sickness/altitude sickness before we made the trip, but I figured it was something that was just blown out of proportion.
Air is air, right? How much could it possibly affect a healthy, active, then 38 year old who exercised every single day?
Turns out, a lot.
That first year, we didn't take any precautions. We drove in, went grocery shopping, laughed at how all the sealed bags were puffed up like balloons, and went to the house we'd rented.
A few hours later, all but my husband were in a bad way.
Both of the kids were puking, I felt like I'd run a marathon when I walked more than five feet; and forget the stairs, that was a whole other issue.
Elevation sickness was about to ruin our ski trip in a big way.
I went on line and looked things up again, just to make sure we weren't in any real danger. At 10,000 feet, we weren't likely to experience HAPE or HACE, so I wasn't worried about that stuff, but if you are very high and start experiencing things like a fever or coughing up frothy, bloody spit, you need to get down and get help, immediately.
So, while we weren't in imminent danger, we were mighty uncomfortable and I was all about doing whatever I could to fix it.
IF YOU'VE GOT IT ALREADY
If you've already got AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), and are looking for a way to make it better, let's start here. We'll get to the preventative measures in the next section.
1. Don't smoke - You need all the oxygen you can get, so don't muck it up with smoke of any kind. I'm looking at you, Colorado.
2. Lay off the alcohol - I know that's a tough one. You've come to ski and hike and have fun, and a few beers might be a part of that, but it's dehydrating and dehydration is your nemesis right now.
3. Drink water - Put down the beer, turn on the tap. Drink water, Gatorade, things that will replenish electrolytes.
4. Rest - Don't push yourself. You will acclimate, but it's going to take some time, so give yourself a day of hanging out at your new elevation. Even then, you might feel lingering effects, so listen to your body and slow down when you need to.
5. Treat the symptoms - For us this was mainly headache and nausea. I gave the kids Dramamine and children's Tylenol. I gave myself Excedrin and loads of water.
6. Carbs - eat them! I know this might not tie in to a healthy lifestyle, but carbs are your friends when you're going up high. You need the calories, so eat the bread, it'll make you feel better.
7. Don't keep going! - If you're having AMS at 8,000 feet and your final destination is 12,000 feet, you need to take it slow. If you push yourself, things are going to get worse. Climb slowly, spend the night if you can, then move on the next day.
8. Eat smaller meals - This was something that really helped us out. The first year, my oldest son got on the ski lift, hit the top of the mountain, and promptly threw up in the snow. He'd eaten a big lunch with the ski school and it was just too much. After that, we stuck to small meals, and everyone felt so much better.
Now, if you're not in the mountains right now and you want to try to prevent this stuff, let's talk altitude sickness prevention.
DO ALTITUDE SICKNESS PILLS WORK?
The short answer here is that for us, yes, absolutely.
Last year was the first year I decided to try a preventative measure. Yes, I realize a lot of people say it's snake oil and won't do anything, but unless we just somehow miraculously adapted better our second time around, I'm not in the snake oil camp.
We used Acli-Mate, and it really helped. We drank it three times a day, starting a couple of days before we left, and then each day we were at our destination.
No one got sick, no one threw up (my youngest got the flu, but that doesn't count), and we all had a much better time.
The powder was easily mixed with water, the kids thought it tasted good, and it was simple to add to whatever bottle of water you were currently carrying around with you.
This year we went with prevention again, switching from a powder to a pill. Now that both of my kids are older, getting them to take pills is not a hassle, so it was easier and cheaper to go this route.
I picked up some Altitude RX on Amazon. The bottle comes with 120 pills. You take two in the morning and two at night, starting 48 hours before you head for higher altitudes.
They're tasteless, if a bit on the large side, and didn't seem to have any side effects. I thought they were maybe giving me a slight headache the first couple of times I took them, but I fear elevation sickness more than a headache, so I stuck with it and the headaches went away.
Just so you know, though, you might get a headache.
With 120 pills in the bottle there were more than enough for all four of us, which wasn't the case with the powder packets. We might even have enough for next year!
In 2021 we tried something new, and since I felt like it helped better than either of the two options above, I thought I'd update this post. Ginko Biloba tincture was pretty effective, the price was right, and it was simple to carry with us. We took a couple of full droppers each day and I'm positive that this was my least elevation sick year so far.
WHAT IF IT DOESN'T WORK?
If you get up to 8,000-10,000 feet and you've taken preventative measures, but you still get elevation sickness...
Well, maybe it didn't work for you.
But, before you make that assumption, I would urge you to make the same trip without any prevention, just to see what that's like.
As a family who has done it both ways, I can tell you there is some mild discomfort even when we use powders or pills before hand, but that first year...that was something I could happily never repeat.
Think of it this way, it might cost you $30, but that's worth its weight in gold if it means you don't puke on the top of a mountain.
Happy (doing whatever you're doing at high elevations)!