Don't let the heights bring you down when vacationing in Utah with this information and advice about experiencing the effects of life at altitude.
Our close proximity to amazing recreation across Utah means we have ample opportunity to get out and enjoy a blinding diversity of landscapes. With its rugged terrain and high elevation, a visit to Utah often catches an unsuspecting visitor by surprise, ruining a long-planned trip or fun activities. No matter the season, it’s best to prepare for your vacation to Utah, especially if you are traveling up from sea level or a lower elevation.
Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) can strike anyone at any time. Learn the symptoms, treatment and how best to avoid this vacation-ruining malady.
I caught up with Polly Dacus, B.S.N., R.N. and C.E.N., who is the Nurse Manager for the University of Utah Health Snowbird Medical Clinic to learn more about the effects of altitude on our visiting skiers and snowboarders. Polly is a long-time skier in Little Cottonwood Canyon and has served over 11 years in the medical clinics at both Snowbird and Alta, she knows well how quickly issues with altitude can demolish vacation plans whether you're biking, skiing, hiking or snowboarding.
ALTITUDE SICKNESS & ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS
As Polly reports, “Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can affect anyone, at any age, in any physical fitness shape regardless of previous experiences at high altitude. AMS usually only occurs at altitudes greater than 7,000-8,000 ft, however, it may occur at lower elevations in patients who have chronic lung disease or heart failure.”
Note that Salt Lake City sits at around 4,200 feet in elevation, the town of Park City resides around 7,000 feet. Brian Head Ski Resort contains Utah’s highest base elevation of 9,600 feet and the highest point at any resort in Utah is the 11,068-foot summit of Mount Baldy shared by Snowbird and Alta.
According to Polly, “Symptoms develop around 1-6 hours after arrival at elevation, but may be delayed for 1-2 days, and are especially common after the first or second night's sleep.” Symptoms can include the following:
If folks traveling from lower elevations or sea level head straight to their lodging at the base of a mountain, they may begin to feel symptoms in short order. Polly affirms that “Factors that increase the likelihood of symptoms developing include a rapid rate of ascent to elevation, sleeping at altitude, general dehydration or fatigue from traveling and alcohol intake.”
If symptoms are acute, you may well be visiting Polly or one of her helpful staff members to seek relief. According to Polly, “The only treatment for AMS is to descend lower than the altitude at which the symptoms started, usually around 8,000 ft. The best prevention is a gradual ascent with adequate time for acclimatization. Also staying very hydrated, drinking both water and electrolyte mix, and avoiding alcohol will help prevent AMS. Ibuprofen can be effective at treating headaches that develop.” Visitors to Utah should strive to prioritize hydration and rest while being alert to any symptoms your body begins to display. This is especially true if you're dead set on enjoying the hot tub after recreating! Spending time in a hot tub or sauna does accelerate dehydration, so if you choose to bake or soak, ensure you consume plenty of water in the process.
HOW TO MANAGE THE EFFECTS OF ALTITUDE IN UTAH
While not everyone experiences negative effects from visiting Utah’s highest places, the folks traveling from sea level are at the greatest risk. “If a patient lives at or near sea level, it is recommended for them to spend 1-2 nights at gradually increasing altitudes to best enjoy their vacation time in our mountains,” recommends Polly. With so many of our ski areas being located close to cities and towns, it’s easy for folks to spend a couple days in Salt Lake City or they may choose to book lodging at a lower elevation than their ski adventures.
Unfortunately, it’s not realistic to expect your body to adjust to a massive change in altitude in the course of a few days, or even a few weeks. Linda Vernon Scholl, PT, DPT with the University of Utah Orthopedic Center, states “The reality is that it takes a few weeks before your body becomes altitude acclimated. Think about the time mountaineers spend at Everest’s Base Camp. For the average person, you can’t expect to adjust to the altitude in the course of a vacation.” It’s not great news for visitors expecting to perform their best, but all hope is not lost!
The best thing you can do to prepare for your vacation to Utah aligns with simply taking care of yourself and prioritizing health and regular exercise. A consistent fitness program and strength training keeps your body strong and adapted to physical exertion. The stronger you are, the more efficiently you are able to use your muscles. Once at altitude in an environment where oxygen is less available, your muscles will already be accustomed to working in a taxing environment if you’ve committed to an exercise routine.
Upon arrival, Linda encourages with the following advice, “The main thing is to listen to your body. Go slow, start slow and observe how your body reacts. Can you climb stairs? Can you carry your gear without feeling winded? Go for a walk after dinner and gauge how you feel. If you have a smartwatch with an O2 meter, take note of your respiration rate. Pay attention to these small signs!”
Both Polly and Linda strongly recommend paying attention to your body and going slow and gentle the first day or so after your arrival. Polly regularly sees injuries in the Snowbird medical clinic from out-of-towners experiencing the effects of altitude or fatigue. While skiing or recreating, take frequent rests to accommodate your body and prioritize hydration. Consider skipping heavy après activities the first few nights and favor a solid night’s sleep and a healthy meal. The better you take care of yourself, the more enjoyable your visit to Utah will be.
This article was produced in partnership with University of Utah Health
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