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Slope sick

LINDSEY B. KOEHLER
special to the daily
Published: The Imperial Express SuperChair, which serves terrain shown here, will open Dec. 5. The high-speed quad is opening five weeks ahead of schedule.
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Editor’s note: This is part of a report on

living at high altitude in the October issue of 5280 Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

For the whole story, go to http://www.5280.com.

http://www.5280.com/issues/2009/0910/feature.php?pageID=1933

If your most vivid memory from your last getaway to a Colorado ski resort is downing Tylenol and curling up, fetal position-style, in your slope-side condo, you’re not alone. More than 20 percent of Colorado’s ski resort visitors find themselves feeling a bit nauseated – and it’s not from the cafeteria’s $8 bowl of chili. The culprit is, ironically, exactly what people come to Colorado for: the prized geography.

With an average base-village elevation of nearly 9,000 feet, Colorado’s resorts sell the legendary Rocky Mountain High. But while we all covet the spectacular terrain the altitude affords, the thin air takes its toll – and it’s a high price to pay.

Colorado’s high hills attract more than 25 million tourists annually. Of those, more than five million will feel altitude’s effects: nausea, fatigue, headache, weakness, dizziness – all of which lead the affected to reduce their activity level by a whopping 56 percent. Missing a meal, skipping a shopping trip, or passing up a day of skiing may not seem like a tragedy, but according to Telluride’s Institute for Altitude Medicine (IFAM), acute mountain sickness costs the Colorado ski biz upward of $200 million each year.

It’s a problem that disproportionately affects Colorado’s ski areas. Ever wonder why you don’t hear about sickly skiers in the high mountains of Switzerland or Italy? Can’t figure out why nearby Park City has tall peaks and fewer issues? The answer lies not in the elevation of the highest ski lift (which is the Imperial Express SuperChair at Breckenridge, by the way), but in the altitude of the base village.

Colorado’s resorts, unlike most European ones, have very high-altitude villages. “People don’t typically get altitude sickness in Europe,” says Dr. Peter Hackett, one of the world’s leading experts in altitude medicine and the founder of IFAM. “European base villages are tucked into lower-elevation valleys, which means people are sleeping at lower altitudes.” And it’s the sleeping altitude – the elevation where your body spends the most time acclimatizing – that often determines whether you will acquire acute mountain sickness. Anything higher than 8,000 feet could mean a very bad ski vacation; go even higher and your chances of illness increase exponentially.

Of course, Colorado’s ski resorts aren’t exactly clamoring to get the word out on AMS – after all, scaring off tourists never seems like a good business move. “I understand the ski industry not wanting a headline that says ‘Avoid Altitude Sickness,'” Dr. Hackett says, “but it’s irresponsible for ski areas to not talk about it.” Resorts like Breckenridge and Vail have information about AMS on their Web sites, while others provide information when asked.

“Climb high, sleep low” is a maxim used by experienced mountaineers, and it’s a good guideline for travelers – and even those from the comparably “low” altitude of Denver – who know they are susceptible to altitude sickness. Not every resort offers base-village accommodations – in which case it’s a good idea to shack up at a much lower altitude.


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